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Marvel’s What If? review: How to break the MCU in all the right ways

The Marvel Cinematic Universe is an evolving saga defined as much by the stories it tells as the rules that ensure those stories unfold within the saga’s established timeline. Given how successful the MCU has proven to be, it’s both surprising and refreshing to see some of Marvel’s latest projects toying with those well-established rules to give fans a taste of both what’s in store for the future and what the MCU might look like now if past events had transpired a little differently.

After the recently-concluded Disney+ series Loki kicked open the door to a multiverse of potential Marvel adventures in the next phase of the MCU, Marvel’s new animated anthology series What If? turns its focus to the past with stories exploring how the MCU would be shaped by tweaking key moments in its past. Digital Trends received an early look at the first three episodes of What If? in order to provide a review of the series and a preview of what’s to come.

Although there are a few cosmetic problems with the first few episodes of What If?, the series’ ambition and willingness to depict some pretty big changes in the MCU status quo make it an entertaining and unexpectedly unique lens through which to view Marvel’s saga.

Peggy Carter leading a military unit in a scene from Marvel's What If? series.

Looking backward…

Created by screenwriter and producer A.C. Bradley and inspired by the comic book series of the same name, What If? devotes each episode to a particular moment in the MCU timeline and explores how easily it could have unfolded differently, as well as the ripple effect that small difference would have had on everything that came later.

For example, the first episode of the series reveals how easily SHIELD agent Peggy Carter (who previously headlined Marvel’s live-action Agent Carter series) could have ended up with the super-soldier serum that turned Steve Rogers into Captain America. However, even with all of the superhuman abilities the serum bestowed on her, Peggy finds herself waging a battle against Hydra as well as the misogyny of a WWII-era military structure that can’t imagine sending a woman to war. Peggy isn’t the only MCU character to experience a new story arc, either, as Steve Rogers, Howard Stark (Tony’s father), and other characters head in a new direction thanks to the emergence of “Captain Carter” instead of the Captain America we know.

The second episode of the series then explores what would have happened if, instead of inheriting the mantle of Black Panther, Wakandan prince T’Challa ended up becoming the cosmic adventurer known as Star-Lord instead of Peter Quill. What might initially seem like an inconsequential replacement ends up having massive implications on subsequent MCU events, as T’Challa’s perspective on life and experiences on Earth result in a much different version of Star-Lord — along with a much different Guardians of the Galaxy roster around him.

T'Challa as Star-Lord in a scene from Marvel's What If? series.

… to look ahead

While the stand-alone, alternate-timeline stories presented in What If? offer plenty of surface-level entertainment that mixes up Marvel’s roster and then pours it out in new, intriguing combinations, what the stories reveal about some of the big-picture elements of the MCU and its characters’ strengths and weaknesses might be the most fascinating aspect of the show.

Watching Peggy Carter’s struggle to receive the same opportunities Steve Rogers was given in the MCU casts that era of Marvel’s timeline and some of the characters that shaped it in a different light, for example, even as the episode finds a way to reiterate how much of a hero Steve is even without superhuman abilities. Similarly, seeing T’Challa bring the same level of thoughtful leadership and quiet power to a cosmic hero like Star-Lord as he brought to Black Panther makes it easy to wonder if the MCU might have been better off with some of these scenarios transpiring instead of the events we’re more familiar with.

Depending on the episode, What If? feels like a series willing to admit that things could have gone better at some points in Marvel’s timeline, even as it’s showing how much worse they could’ve gone at the same time.

A scene from Marvel's What If? series on Disney+ streaming service.

Visuals meet voice

Marvel pulls off an impressive feat by having nearly all of the MCU’s live-action actors reprise their roles as voice actors in What If? And although the casting certainly adds a layer of familiarity with the characters and how they sound, it becomes clear at various points that not every on-camera actor’s talents make a smooth transition to the voice-acting realm.

Several key characters in What If? voiced by MCU actors sadly tend to sound a bit awkward in their line delivery, and their verbal interactions with their surrounding cast never quite sync up in a natural way. Along the same lines, some of the visual elements in What If? get a bit choppy, and the series’ simpler, less active animation style does it a disservice at times.

None of these issues are dealbreakers, however — far from it, in fact.

Uatu, The Watcher in a scene from Marvel's What If? series.

The scenarios presented in What If? and the questions the show poses about the MCU ultimately make it a unique, fascinating series that pushes its audience to think more critically about many of the elements we take for granted in Marvel’s live-action universe. “What if?” is the starting point, but to its credit, the series doesn’t shy away from asking “Why?”

And it’s that last question that offers yet another, unexpectedly rewarding way to enjoy the MCU.

Season 1 of Marvel What If? premieres August 11 on the Disney+ streaming service.

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