WarningMight contain spoilers.

A great show with a few missteps. The animation is generally excellent, but doesn’t quite succeed at melding the 3D approach with 2D æsthetics. Human expressions look particularly bad. The character designs resemble the live action characters but with enough differences to look unsettling. The quality of the voices varies significantly (perhaps because of having had to record some dialogue over Zoom). For instance, Karen Gillan and Josh Brolin sound unchanged as Nebula and Thanos respectively, and Lake Bell does a very good Natasha (that I prefer to Scarlett Johansson’s), while Josh Keaton is adequate as Steve Rogers. I’m not sure why Brie Larson is missing; the replacement voice is jarring and the performance feels far removed from the Captain Marvel we know. It’s disheartening to hear that Dave Bautista wasn’t even asked to voice Drax (presumably because of his vociferous loyalty to James Gunn at an inconvenient time for Disney):

Guardians of the Galaxy star Dave Bautista will not voice Drax in Marvel Studios' upcoming animated series What If...? When asked why he won't provide the voice of the Guardians of the Galaxy character, Bautista revealed that it wasn't his decision.

The action is amazing, from Peggy scaling the wall to Captain Marvel’s fight with Thor to the absolutely stellar battle against Ultron in the finale, not to mention the stunning dimensional breaks of that same episode. Like Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse , this is another demonstration of why animation is the medium for superheroes. As much as I’ve loved many live-action superhero movies over the years, a well-executed animated story outclasses them all.

I enjoyed Captain Carter’s story, which deftly mirrors Captain America’s down to the ending while incorporating an interesting new role for Steve.[1] In fact, I’d have been quite happy if this had been the real story of the somewhat uninteresting Captain America: The First Avenger as long as Steve still received the serum eventually. Peggy is a marvelous yet brutal fighter; it doesn’t jar in the same way The Falcon and the Winter Soldier did, but it certainly can’t be missed.

I don’t think I like the splashes of Wakandan musical motifs here and there. Of course it invokes those memories and associations, and of course I have a warm reaction, but the pieces feel truncated and out of place.

The nadir of the season is ‘What If... Doctor Strange Lost His Heart Instead of His Hands?’. Animation is the perfect medium for his stories, yet the episode tells an uninspired, offputting tale with a Christine who exists merely to die again and again.[2] O’Bengh is an interesting character whom we naturally see almost nothing of. The same goes for Wong, who remains a treasure. Even Benedict Cumberbatch sounds unlike himself despite the unmistakable bass tones, to the point that I thought it might be a very skilled mimic, and Jeffrey Wright’s performance is lacklustre here. That said, Uatu silently watching from the background of various shots lends a cosmic note to the proceedings. The Dr. Armani, It’s “Strange” exchange was a nice reference to Doctor Strange .

I have to admit the fifth episode is well done despite the zombies and despite how some characters look and sound like they could almost have stepped right out of the live-action films—T’Challa, Hulk, Vision, Kurt, Okoye, Happy—while others, such as Spider-Man, Ant-Man, Bruce Banner, and Bucky, are significantly changed. (Sebastian Stan’s performance leaves something to be desired throughout the season.) It’s nice that Hope gets a few minutes in the limelight, and Wanda is a force to be reckoned with as an animated zombie.

‘What If... The World Lost Its Mightiest Heroes?’ is a hard one to watch. Not poorly executed, just a dark, bleak, and unpleasant story told with enough skill. It drives home how cavalier S.H.I.E.L.D. really is to see that Barton dying doesn’t affect Natasha for more than a few seconds. I did enjoy watching Michael Douglas’s animated self being smacked about, seeing Coulson outside of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. , and the quietly funny moments like the revelation of his password.

With the bad out of the way, it’s hard to choose a favourite from the remaining five episodes, each of which could merit its own entry.

‘What If... T'Challa Became a Star-Lord?’

Indulgent, slightly pandering, yet absolutely perfect. It’s hard not to cry at how, as director Bryan Andrews put it, The galaxy doesn’t change T’Challa; T’Challa changes the galaxy. Every moment of his image and his voice overflows with the sheer goodness that Chadwick Boseman radiated. It’s hard to believe this episode wasn’t written as a send-off for him. King T’Chaka’s message about searching all the stars for him and finding him in this plane or the next is heartrending.

Korath practically squealing with joy when he meets Star-Lord is delightful; the character is a source of endless joy here. Howard the Duck is a welcome interlude. The near-complete absence of Peter Quill is an unmitigated blessing. The conversation where Kraglin points out they got a guy with two hearholes, two seeholes, and one eathole is a thing of beauty. The repeated joke of Thanos being told his plan sounds like genocide and responding, no, it’s random, and efficient is done just right every time.

One thing I’ll say is that this episode is a testament to how unique James Gunn’s style is and how skilled a filmmaker he is: with someone else at the helm, it’s entirely a T’Challa story, not a Guardians of the Galaxy story. I missed Rocket and Groot (but didn’t care about Gamora). There is also a lot of darkness hiding in plain sight, considering that The Collector appears to have gained possession of Hela’s crown, Cap’s shield, and Mjollnir.

‘What If... Killmonger Rescued Tony Stark?’

I hate that T’Challa dies. The stand-in for Jeff Bridges is sub-par. Tony Stark and Pepper Potts both look nearly unrecognizable. The Wakandan music is butchered to fit the confines of the episode. The incomplete ending comes out of nowhere. But…

That’s all irrelevant. This is a terrific episode. I never would have thought it possible, but it makes Michael B. Jordan’s Killmonger even better: he is truly terrifying when he’s able to execute his plan, which I suppose makes him the perfect antagonist for the ever-competent T’Challa. Jordan’s performance is flawless. There are some clever nods to canon, like Only you can avenge Tony Stark. Mick Wingert’s Robert Downey Jr. impression is quite good, too.

The battle in Wakanda stands head and shoulders above its counterpart in Avengers: Infinity War despite lacking all our favourite heroes and having lower stakes. The action hero avatar of the Queen Mother is yet another advantage of the medium. I would gladly have watched two hours of this story.

Killmonger’s stilted delivery of Wakanda Forever is an exceedingly clever touch. His confrontation with T’Challa in the Astral Plane is well done, and meanwhile, his relationship with Rhodey is a study in contrasts.

‘What If... Thor Were an Only Child?’

Without question the most fun and enjoyable episode, stuffed with cameos (right down to Jeff Goldblum). Surtur might be my favourite. It’s beautiful too, with spectacular scenery and fights.

Everyone is so much happier when Loki isn’t forced to be part of Asgard, instead being allowed to be delightfully campy and well-adjusted. It highlights how poorly Thor and Loki’s family suit each other in the prime universe. The so-called ‘study session’ at the end and the chorus of Hello Mother Frigga had me in splits.

I can’t say I think much of S.H.I.E.L.D. and (the bland, soulless, substitute) Captain Marvel in this episode. It’s incomprehensible that a nuclear assault on Thor was ever an option, let alone executed. And then… Ultron shows up… with the Infinity Stones… in Vision’s body? (I forgot while watching that Vision was meant to be Ultron’s body to begin with so this is merely an Ultron who accomplished that goal.)

‘What If... Ultron Won?’

A stellar first part. This is the first time we see Captain Marvel at full strength lose to anyone, but it’s also the most useful Hawkeye has ever been in the MCU. Once again, the visuals and action are amazing—the slow-motion image of Hawkeye sacrificing himself to destroy the drones is a standout. Speaking of which, the drones are rather unintelligent, considering they come from a nearly omniscient and omnipotent A.I. (who apparently can’t tell two people are still alive since he forgets to use the Space Stone to communicate over distance).

Having a multiversal Ultron force The Watcher to break his oath of non-involvement is clever. Uatu’s What the hell? is hilarious. Their battle itself is extremely well done, capitalizing on the visual style.

Ultron slicing Thanos in half as soon as he enters through the portal is hilariously satisfying. It’s strange to hear his voice (in a manner of speaking) come from Vision’s body, though.

‘What If... The Watcher Broke His Oath?’

And a fantastic finish to boot, packed to the gills with humour that skillfully leavens the solemnity of the story. The visuals are beautiful: the simple light and shadow of the fire playing on faces, the incredible fight sequences, the buildings being blown away, the exponentially increased Kirby Krackle, and more. Batroc is much more effective in animation. It’s nice to see all the heroes brought together,[3] though there’s no reason for Killmonger to be part of it except to fight Zola over the Stones. I’m glad they acknowledge that putting Arnim Zola’s brain inside an omnipotent android might be unwise.

I’m not sure whether it’s better or worse that Ross Marquand makes less of an attempt to imitate James Spader in this one; Lake Bell’s Natasha, on the other hand, is nearly indistinguishable from the original, leading me to think it was actually Scarlett Johansson in one universe but not the other. Chadwick Boseman, sadly, doesn’t like himself.

The Doctor Strange episode might have been my least favourite, but at least it lays the foundation for this climax, courtesy of your friendly neighbourhood Strange-Supreme becoming the fulcrum of the team (I giggled at Ultron’s flat, Wait… what? when Strange swallows a blast), although that prelude could have been a quick, two-minute sequence instead. The zombie version of Wanda facing off against Ultron is rousing and stirring (for a few seconds). Peggy and Natasha bouncing Ultron off their shields puts the entire ‘girl power’ sequence from Avengers: Endgame to shame.

Seeing Natasha move to another universe makes me wonder whether different versions of her use different passwords and access codes, and whether she’ll have trouble living her life as a result.

  1. Iron Giant/Man Steve Rogers!
  2. I can’t say I’m surprised Rachel McAdams didn’t come back for this, whether or not they asked her.
  3. Poor Tony Stark. If he isn’t being killed for the hundredth time, he’s being left out.