Skip to main content

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.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

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.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

… 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.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

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.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

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.

Editors' Recommendations

Rick Marshall
A veteran journalist with more than two decades of experience covering local and national news, arts and entertainment, and…
Clerks III review, or how Kevin Smith made me cry
Brian O'Halloran and Jeff Alexander stand behind a counter in Clerks III.

At no point in the lead-up to seeing Clerks III did I expect filmmaker Kevin Smith's latest movie to take me on an emotional journey that would leave me wistfully pondering the last 27 years of my life. And yet, halfway through the film, there I was, wiping tears from my eyes between all the dick jokes and celebrity cameos.

The conclusion of a trilogy that began with 1994's Clerks and resides within the larger, loosely connected View Askewniverse, Clerks III feels like Smith's most personal, profound project so far. Not only does it manage to recapture much of what made Clerks resonate with a generation of film audiences more than two decades earlier, but it does so with a surprisingly heartfelt assessment of the myriad experiences -- both funny and tragic -- that can make those years fly by.

Read more
See How They Run review: a charming but slight whodunit
Sam Rockwell and Saoirse Ronan lean in to inspect something together in See How They Run.

The opening narration of See How They Run, which comes courtesy of Adrien Brody’s ill-fated Leo Köpernick, doesn’t just tell you what kind of movie it is. Brody’s sardonic voice-over also makes it clear that See How They Run knows exactly what kind of a story it’s telling, and so do its characters. As Köpernick is killed by an unknown assailant in See How They Run’s prologue, Brody’s voice even dryly remarks: “I should have seen this coming. It’s always the most unlikable character that gets killed first.”

In a less charming film, See How They Run’s streak of self-aware comedy would wear thin quickly. However, the new film from director Tom George is able to, for the most part, strike the right balance between tongue-in-cheek humor, mystery, and genuine sweetness. The film is a lean, not-particularly-mean whodunit, one that lacks the acidic strain of humor present in some of cinema’s other great murder mysteries, including 2019’s Knives Out, but which still boasts the kind of playful spirit that is at the heart of so many of its notable genre predecessors.

Read more
The Fabelmans review: an origin story of Steven Spielberg
Paul Dano and Michelle Williams watch The Greatest Show on Earth.

Steven Spielberg has spent his entire career channeling the heartache of his childhood into movies. He’s never really hesitated to admit as much, confessing publicly to the autobiographical elements woven through sensitive sensations like Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Catch Me If You Can, and especially his now 40-year-old E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, an all-ages, all-time smash that welcomed the world into the melancholy of his broken home via the friendship between a sad, lonely kid and a new friend from the stars. By now, all of that baggage is inextricable from the mythology of Hollywood’s most beloved hitmaker: It’s conventional wisdom that Spielberg’s talent for replicating the awe and terror of childhood comes from the way that his own has continued to weigh, more than half a century later, on his heart and mind.

With his new coming-of-age drama The Fabelmans, Spielberg drops all but the barest pretense of artificial distance between his work and those experiences. Co-written with Tony Kushner, the great playwright who’s scripted some of the director’s recent forays into the American past (including last year’s luminous West Side Story), the film tells the very lightly fictionalized tale of an idealistic kid from a Jewish family, growing up in the American Southwest, falling in love with the cinema as his parents fall out of love with each other. Every scene of the film feels plucked from the nickelodeon of Spielberg’s memories. It’s the big-screen memoir as a twinkly-tragic spectacle of therapeutic exorcism.

Read more