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What If…? review: Marvel Cinematic Universe leans into limitless storytelling potential

The Disney Plus show throws us into animated anthology adventures that'll fill MCU fans with joy.

Sean Keane Former Senior Writer
Sean knows far too much about Marvel, DC and Star Wars, and poured this knowledge into recaps and explainers on CNET. He also worked on breaking news, with a passion for tech, video game and culture.
Expertise Culture, Video Games, Breaking News
Sean Keane
3 min read
Captain Carter in Marvel's What If...?

Captain Carter and the Howling Commandos make a spectacular escape in Marvel's What If...?

Marvel Studios

After 24 movies and several beloved TV shows, the Marvel Cinematic Universe is taking a step closer to its comic book roots by making the jump to animation. What If…?, which kicked off on Disney Plus Wednesday, is an epically fun Twilight Zone-style anthology series that dives into divergent timelines where familiar MCU events played out differently.

The show's inspired by and named after a '70s comic series that pondered such weird possibilities as Spider-Man joining the Fantastic Four, Captain America being elected president and Wolverine killing the Hulk. The MCU Disney Plus series captures this spirit, jumping to various points from the movies and tweaking events to create exciting new realities as the cosmic Watcher (Jeffrey Wright from Westworld) offers omniscient narration.  

The first three episodes tell a trio of standalone tales, with the opener bringing us back to the moment when Steve Rogers became Captain America in World War II. In the new reality, British agent Peggy Carter is empowered by the Super Soldier Serum instead of Steve and smashes Hydra goons as Captain Carter. 

It's a killer opening episode, with returning actor Hayley Atwell making her Union Jack-emblazoned hero as admirable as her US counterpart in a 30-minute 1940s adventure. Despite his lack of chiseled abs, Steve isn't left out -- his heroism remains intact and he gets to riff on another Marvel icon.

The gorgeous cel-shaded animation, striking color palette and spectacular action make the episode a visual treat, and it balances fresh plot elements with nods to events from Captain America: The First Avenger nicely. Watching Peggy overcome sexism from Bradley Whitford's condescending colonel is particularly satisfying.

T'Challa and Yondu in Marvel's What If...?

T'Challa and Yondu have a fun dynamic in the show's second episode.

Marvel Studios

The second installment of the nine-episode season dives into some real-life emotional territory, since it stars the late Chadwick Boseman as T'Challa. Instead of becoming Black Panther and taking the Wakandan throne, this version of the character ended up going to space and becoming spacefaring rogue Star-Lord (a mantle held by Peter Quill in the mainline MCU).

It's a clever examination of the impact someone as charismatic as T'Challa has, no matter what their circumstances. The altered character dynamics are a delight to behold, setting up plenty of fun battles in the climactic action sequence. The animation in one crowd scene is a little disappointing though -- bar patrons stand completely still behind the main characters, momentarily taking you out of the otherwise beautifully rendered world. 

Nick Fury and Hawkeye in Marvel's What If...?

Nick Fury and Hawkeye have to deal with a dangerous situation in episode 3.

Marvel Studios

Episode 3 jumps back to the early days of the MCU, when Samuel L. Jackson's Nick Fury was gathering heroes for the Avengers. A mysterious killer is targeting his candidates, forcing Fury and Black Widow to do a little detective work while trying to protect the survivors.

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It's certainly fun to return to some settings and characters we haven't seen in years, but the concept's scope and ensemble cast means this episode isn't quite as emotionally engaging as the others -- it feels more like a Phase 1 greatest hits.

The voice acting is consistently excellent in all three episodes, with familiar live-action stars like Atwell, Boseman and Jackson lending their vocal talents along with convincing soundalikes for characters like Iron Man and Black Widow. 

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Given its anthology format, it's likely What If…? will continue in this vein; solid episodes that'll feel more or less compelling depending on your attachment to the characters and cleverness of the twist. Fans shouldn't dismiss these adventures as non-canon either -- Loki's season finale opened up the multiverse, so this show will almost certainly act as a springboard for new versions of characters to make their way into the mainline MCU.  

What If…? is the MCU at its most unashamedly comic book-y, with beautiful animation, sharp writing and a sense of infinite possibility. 'Nuff said.

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