Marvel’s What If…? promised something really exciting for the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Along with Loki, this series set forth the idea of the multiverse and told viewers it would be an expansive exploration of all the kinds of fun possibilities we could get with these characters on different worlds. And in some ways, it did give fans that. There is no denying that the show delivered on a number of multiversal possibilities, but with the entire experiment laid bare, it also proved that the Marvel formula is an extremely limiting one when it comes to boundless imagination.
What If…? ultimately revealed itself to be yet another overarching story as the series eventually led to the formation of the Guardians of the Multiverse, a collection of heroes from previous episodes that are tasked with stopping an Infinity Stone empowered Ultron from yet another episode. Yes, this grand adventure into alternate worlds just ending up being another The Avengers-style team-up and not a very good one. The series has had an overall pacing problem when it comes to stories feeling like they are on hyperdrive, and the show’s finale was no different. Few (if any) moments are allowed to breathe and the whole experience has the feeling of someone setting an episode on 1.5x speed in order to get through to the conclusion.
That is such a bummer with a concept like What If…?. The idea that we could get stranger stories was appealing, but the real appeal was that these odd deviations could be given some serious time to explore their unique ideas. Instead, the series just sped by towards a poor imitation of what we have seen many times before in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. In many ways, the show ended up revealing the key flaws in the entire Marvel experiment. No matter how weird a concept or hypothetical scenario might be, it couldn’t be bizarre enough to not feel like the usual Marvel Cinematic Universe fare. Quippy jokes, grounded but rarely imaginative action, and plot-over-character stories dominated so much of this first season.
That does not mean that What If…? Season 1 didn’t have a few highlights. Probably the best episode was “What If… Doctor Strange Lost His Heart Instead of His Hands?” as it explored one really specific idea and character, spending time really absorbing the premise and its ramifications. It also ended up telling a complete story which many of the episodes didn’t. Of course, the zombie episode will likely end up as a fan favorite, though it was a very boring distillation of the original comic’s idea. The T’Challa episode is a heartwarming one due to the tragic loss of Chadwick Boseman, but removed from that real-world influence, it was a fluffy distraction at best. Most of the other episodes just fizzled out and ended up leaving little to no impression.
However, it’s likely that Marvel will see some good returns on What If…? because it acts as a huge treat for the Marvel Cinematic Universe die-hards who are happy with anything they get. It feels like it has very little to say on a larger thematic level, except for one instance in the finale that feels incredibly corporate. The Watcher (Jeffrey Wright) says that the stories of these characters are everything to him. This admission feels like it wants to be about the importance of storytelling and characters, but the hollowness of the show’s thematics makes his declaration equally hollow. It comes across as a way to advocate for how much fans should just love these characters no matter what story (or what quality of production) they are a part of. The Watcher ends up being a Disney shill in a truly twisted sort of way.
Add to all this the unappealing character designs (but good animation production) and a series that feels like it will have very little overall impact on the larger Marvel Cinematic Universe, What If…? feels like one of the most disposable of the recent Marvel productions. It is assuredly the most disappointing as the blank canvas of the multiverse led to rote plotting and weak experimentation. Here’s hoping that Sam Raimi can find a lot more fun and creativity when he gets to play with the same concept in Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, and maybe we’ll see some innovation in Spider-Man: No Way Home as well. But as far as What If…? is concerned, the question has produced a thoroughly uninterested shrug moving forward.