‘What If…?’ first look review: Marvel’s ‘Sliding Doors’ moments

Alternate reality storytelling is the key to this collection of reimagined superhero romps

“Time. Space. Reality: it’s more than a linear path. It’s a prism of endless possibility. Where a single choice can branch out into infinite realities…” There’s a touch of The Twilight Zone to the opening narration of Marvel Studios’ first foray into animation – a series of standalone episodes that imagines what might be different if some tiny detail of the MCU happened in a different way. What if Peggy Carter took the super serum instead of Steve Rogers? What if T’Challa got picked up by alien pirates instead of Peter Quill? What if a zombie virus infected The Avengers?

Given its roots in comic books and graphic novels, it’s not surprising at all that the MCU works brilliantly as an animation – playing here like a grown-up Saturday morning cartoon with a blockbuster budget. Designed with slick, cell-shaded visuals that hint at classic American illustration styles, the action is as violent, aggressive and sharply drawn as the best of Marvel’s live-action films and TV shows.

With the multiverse now impossibly tangled by so many other alternate/parallel/reversed realities, the new spun-off worlds of What If…? never feel any less authentic than whatever’s being shown at the cinema (and, in some cases, they end up feeling fresher and more inventive than the films themselves).

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A mysterious figure stalks the comsos. CREDIT: Marvel Studios

It helps, of course, that almost every actor is on board to record their lines, including the late Chadwick Boseman (in his last recorded performance), Hayley Atwell, Samuel L Jackson, Jeremy Renner, Sebastian Stan, Stanley Tucci, Dominic Cooper, Bradley Whitford, Toby Jones, Michael Douglas, Mark Ruffalo and Tom Hiddleston in the first three episodes. There are a few omissions (Lake Bell stands in perfectly for Scarlett Johansson), but the Hollywood production values add real weight to the writing – always managing to find a more interesting perspective on characters that don’t often find the same depth on screen.

The first episode, for example, focuses on Peggy Carter (Atwell), now bulked up into a Union Jack-wearing super soldier after a slight twist to a key moment of Captain America: The First Avenger alters her fate forever. Leading the charge against Hydra while skinny little Steve Rogers backs her up in a mech suit, Peggy becomes the face of the Avengers, giving her character (and her love story with Steve) a strength and a complexity that was lost in the movies. Watching her crack Nazi skulls to a pitch-perfect Benny Goodman jazz montage and hearing Atwell’s knowing performance as she takes on The Third Reich and American sexism at the same time, it’s hard not to think she would have made better First Avenger all along.

Another smart swap is T’Challa (Boseman) as the new Starlord – scooped up by the Ravagers by mistake when Yondu (Michael Rooker) delegates the job to the wrong goons. With The Guardians Of The Galaxy now led by a man who values honour and justice instead of just cool mixtapes, the space pirate gang now stands as a genuine force for good in the universe, even counting a not-quite-so-genocidal Thanos (Josh Brolin) in their ranks.

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Nick Fury and Hawkeye make an appearance in ‘What If?’ CREDIT: Marvel Studios

Other episodes save the “what if?” moment for the finale (including one murder mystery story set around Nick Fury’s busiest week), but the twists are always strictly confined to one change, one moment or one small tweak that rests on a single point of departure. For fans, What If…? feels like a special kind of gift. Full of in-jokes and Easter eggs that reference the ripple effect across the rest of the MCU, each episode is basically built around the kind of late-night geeky conversations that every Marvel fan probably has on the way home from the cinema. What if Tony Stark never became Iron Man? What if Spider-Man became a zombie? Well, now we know…

What If…? streams on Disney+ from August 11

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