Marvel's What If...? is a misfire.
Marvel’s What If…? continues the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s decision to lean into the multiverse and showcase a number of fun hypothetical ideas in episodic fashion. Based on the comics of the same name, each episode has The Watcher (Jeffrey Wright) play the role of narrator as we dive into an amusing and thought-provoking alternate world that takes a familiar beat from the overarching Marvel story and twists it with a new direction. As a premise, this is all in good fun and will even end up playing a necessary role in some of the upcoming movies in the franchise.
However, there is more going against Marvel’s What If…? than there is supporting it as a weekly piece of television. First and foremost, there is the animation style. This feels like a make-or-break deal and frankly, it’s broken. The entire approach to character design and animation dredges up unwanted memories of MTV’s Spider-Man: The New Animated Series and Tron: Uprising. The cel-shading CG animation mixed with the gooey, lump-of-clay facial designs just doesn’t work. With the historic animation studio Disney at its back, it’s shocking to see an animated product look as janky as this. It isn’t poorly made as far as animation technical standards go, but its core philosophy of design is just wrong. But, that’s admittedly an element of taste. The style might be completely negligible to many viewers.
What is quantifiably a miss for Marvel’s What If…? is its writing. While these are being viewed as fun larks in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, they also want to have the same kind of emotional weight and hear that has become synonymous with the franchise. Sadly, the setups for these episodes don’t allow for the kind of necessary time to earn those moments. So much of the show is banking on fans bringing all of that to the table so the episode can speed by at a lightning pace.
And hoo boy, does an episode of Marvel’s What If..? feel as if it’s on fast-forward. It might have been a better idea to make certain yarns two-part episodes because things feel so hyper that it’s hard to get a grasp on anything beyond pure plot. The premiere episode could have easily been broken into two parts in order for us to better grasp this new dynamic that was built between Peggy Carter and Steve Rogers. Instead, the episode demands that you have all of that character homework done and leans on familiar beats that have just been repurposed from different perspectives.
That is probably the biggest letdown from Marvel’s What If..?. It is a series that is predicated on giving us wild and divergent stories in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but the end results can’t help but feel like more of the same just with a different coat of paint. In all honesty, this could be a significant indicator of how this multiverse period of the Marvel Cinematic Universe will go. The nutty possibilities are limitless but Marvel knows that their formula works and is pretty skittish about actually jumping ship from that in a big way. We saw that happen with WandaVision where the series started out truly unique and odd before slowly morphing into the kind of expected beats and styles that are hallmarks of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Marvel’s What If…? offers a true blank slate for creators to bring something outlandish and excitingly weird to the Marvel franchise, but from what we’ve seen so far, it’s nothing more than the illusion of wackiness. For a series that is predicated on delivering bonkers ideas into the Marvel status quo, it still feels like the Marvel status quo. Add to that a clunky and off-putting animation style that evokes a bad riff on something like the video game XIII, and it just doesn’t offer much to really connect with. Though it is fun to hear some of the live-action actors reprise their roles, it never feels as affecting as it should.
Perhaps Marvel’s What If…? will be more accessible to non-discerning younger viewers, but for adults, there is not much here to recommend. It will be far more interesting to see how this kind of premise works in the hands of a tried-and-true cinematic nutball like Sam Raimi in Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness. Here’s hoping that actually gets to do something wild with this concept.