Sunday, May 26, 2024

What If…? Episode 3 Fumbles a compelling murder mystery

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The third episode of What If…? Introduces a new kind of narrative style, and while it may not be utilized to its fullest potential this week, it puts an interesting twist on the way that the series tells stories. The art and animation of the show continue to become more refined in every new episode, and this week’s addition to the multiverse featured still drawings that hold more detail than the cell-shaded animation while still staying true to the aesthetic.

To expand on another aspect, this week’s episode does not simply tell the audience when the change that caused this timeline happened and instead takes viewers along to solve a relatively intriguing mystery. 

The Avengers illustrated in a more detailed version of What If ...?'s art style
The Avengers illustrated in a more detailed version of What If …?’s art style

What If The Avengers Never Existed?

What If…The World Lost Its Mightiest Heroes? follows a similar trajectory that the Avengers prelude comic Fury’s Big Week laid out. That comic followed Nick Fury as he tried to handle the events of Iron Man 2, Thor, and The Incredible Hulk all in the same week, while also trying to keep tabs on a S.H.I.E.L.D team as they searched for a frozen Captain America. What If…? puts a twist on this story; as the first two days of that chaotic week play out, Tony Stark, Thor Odinson, and Clint Barton are murdered. 

Instead of being temporarily cured of his palladium poisoning, Tony dies when Natasha injects him with what everyone assumed was an antidote. When trying to retrieve Mjolnir, Thor is shot through the heart by one of Hawkeye’s arrows before he even has the chance to lift it, and Clint mysteriously dies himself just hours later while in custody for the murder of Thor, though he claims he was not the one who fired.

Natasha in S.H.I.E.L.D custody for the murder of Tony Stark in S01E03 of What If ...?
Natasha in S.H.I.E.L.D custody for the murder of Tony Stark in S01E03 of What If …?

Following Tony’s death, Natasha and Fury both know that she’s been framed, and she escapes S.H.I.E.L.D custody to head to Culver University and find none other than Betty Ross. After Betty takes a look at the injector that killed Tony and finds only that what killed him was not a bioweapon of some kind, she informs Natasha that she can no longer help her.

Natasha is informed by Fury that Clint is dead, and warned that because he and Tony were connected by the Avengers Initiative, it is highly likely that she and Bruce Banner are the killer’s next targets. In what turns out to be unfortunate circumstances, Bruce is hiding in Betty’s lab, and while General Ross has an entire battalion pointed at him, he is shot, triggering the Hulk’s emergence. 

Natasha and Bruce look on as General Ross arrives with military backup
Natasha and Bruce look on as General Ross arrives with military backup

It is a widely known fact that while Bruce Banner is not bulletproof, the Hulk very much is, so one would expect that prior to transforming, nothing would be able to stop them. While the Hulk is able to start dismantling Ross’ forces immediately, he suddenly starts expanding at a rapid rate until he explodes with seemingly no cause.

Betty keeps repeating “He can’t die,” something that not only refers to her own feelings for Bruce but also to the literal fact that it is next to impossible to kill the Hulk. Natasha makes it out alive, but is only able to investigate for a few more hours before she is taken out while digging around in the S.H.I.E.L.D database for clues. 

At the same time that General Ross readied his attack for the Hulk, Loki — accompanied by Sif and the Warriors Three (and what seemed to be the entire Asgardian military) — launched an attack on the S.H.I.E.L.D facility in New Mexico, demanding justice for Thor’s death. Fury convinces him to give him time to find the killer, and while Natasha’s death puts a hitch in his plans (to the point where he almost calls in…reinforcements), her final voicemail to him leaves him enough information to figure out who managed to take out 5 of the planets most skilled and powerful individuals in under three days.

Natasha checks her surroundings while looking through S.H.I.E.L.D's database
Natasha checks her surroundings while looking through S.H.I.E.L.D’s database

Lots of Deaths in Lots of Families

As dramatic reveals go, who killed the people who could have become the Avengers is one of the better ones in the MCU. There are clues that start to point audiences in the right direction when Natasha is looking into the S.H.I.E.L.D files; a crossed-out portrait of Janet Van Dyne along with the implication that someone used a dead person’s S.H.I.E.L.D login point to someone in the Pym-Van Dyne family, and that is further implied by Natasha being attacked by a seemingly invisible force that tosses her around like a ragdoll before dragging her away to die. 

When the killer is revealed to be Hank Pym as Yellowjacket, it isn’t a complete surprise, but anyone who has seen the Ant-Man films and understands the concept of What If…? could have easily thought it was another member of the family enacting some sort of revenge on S.H.I.E.L.D, and it still would have fit into this episode with minimal tweaking.

An unhinged and rough-looking Hank Pym as Yellowjacket in What If ...? S01E03
An unhinged and rough-looking Hank Pym as Yellowjacket in What If …? S01E03

We find out that Hope Van Dyne followed in her mother’s footsteps and joined S.H.I.E.L.D, later dying in the field the same way her late mother did. With both his wife and daughter gone, Hank presumably had no one to stay good for and used his powers to shrink himself down and take out the chosen members of the Avengers Initiative one by one.

Yellowjacket seemingly did major internal damage to Tony and Clint, using the antidote syringe to get into Tony’s system and using the fact that he could turn microscopic to sneak into Clint’s cell and take him out unnoticed. He also punched Clint in the finger while he had an arrow aimed at Thor, causing him to lose it and murder the God of Thunder.

Thor is hit by Hawkeye's arrow while he attempts to recover Mjolnir.
Thor is hit by Hawkeye’s arrow while he attempts to recover Mjolnir.

The bullet that kick-started the Hulk’s emergence was actually Yellowjacket entering Bruce Banner’s bloodstream and using one of his enlarging disks to astronomically expand his heart, subsequently causing the Hulk to explode and die. As for Natasha, there is no specific explanation as to how she died past the fact that Yellowjacket threw her around before dragging her away to finish her off.

Loki and Nick Fury in What If ...? S01E03
Loki and Nick Fury in What If …? S01E03

What If Loki Got What He Always Wanted?

After teaming up with Fury to defeat Pym, Loki decides that it’s the perfect time to take over Midgard for himself. In less than a day, he manages to take over the entire planet and gives a speech at the United Nations that is reminiscent of the speech about human subjugation he gives in Germany during Avengers. It’s unclear how exactly he does this. While he does have the weight of all of Asgard behind him, he doesn’t have the Tesseract or his Scepter as he does in Avengers, and it seems unlikely that he would be able to take over the whole planet in less than 24 hours with time to spare for a press conference. 

Loki's speech is broadcast in Times Square
Loki’s speech is broadcast in Times Square

With the majority of the potential Avengers dead, Fury turns his hope towards the only future he can see: Steve Rodgers and Carol Danvers. The episode ends with Fury and Carol standing over Captain America’s frozen shield with the implication that they will be the ones to take down Loki’s regime, at least try.

Nick Fury wipes away ice to reveal Captain America's shield
Nick Fury wipes away ice to reveal Captain America’s shield

Less is More

Unfortunately, this episode of What If…? does not seem like it will come out as one of the strongest in the season. To give it credit where it’s due, the use of the basic premise of What If…? to enhance the mystery was a nice touch, and it added a lot of depth to the episode that would not have been there had this been its own solo story. The concept of What If…? encourages the audience to think past what they might think is obvious and that makes this episode a tad more interesting. 

The problem stems from the involvement of Loki and how the episode leaves things off. While it makes sense that Loki would come to Earth to avenge Thor, his ending up as the planet’s dictator at the end is sloppy and rushed, and it feels like it was just tagged on the end because it was the path that he would have eventually gone down anyway.

Carol Danvers in  What If ...? S01E03
Carol Danvers in What If …? S01E03

Episode two implied that there was still an imminent danger with Ego in their timeline, and leaving the door open for Loki to attempt to take over instead of it just being handed to him by the writers would have been a more interesting ending. Not only would it have made sense timewise, but it would also have allowed for a more interesting story about Captain Marvel and Captain America potentially taking him down that could be seen in a future season of the show.

Hope Van Dyne's gravestone in  What If ...? S01E03
Hope Van Dyne’s gravestone in What If …? S01E03

What if Marvel (or Comics in General) Saw Women as More Than Bodies?

Another shortfall lies with Natasha. The MCU has generally had a problem developing her character, and while What If…? scratches a little bit deeper below the surface than usual in its limited time, it’s soured in this episode by her death. Admittedly, her death in this episode is better written than her death in Avengers: Endgame, but she’s the only one whose death is not at least halfway explained.

We know exactly what happened to Thor and the Hulk, we have pretty good ideas of what happened to Clint and Tony, but Natasha gets nothing. Was she killed the same way Tony and Clint were or was there some other way that Yellowjacket killed her? There’s no true answer, and it’s unfortunate that even after she’s been killed off twice, Natasha still can’t get her due.

Janet Van Dyne is noted as deceased in her S.H.E.I.L.D file
Janet Van Dyne is noted as deceased in her S.H.E.I.L.D file

Along with the slight letdown that was Natasha’s treatment, the episode also has a “fridging” and “disposable woman” problem. Hank Pym’s motivation is rooted in the deaths of both his wife and daughter, and these are women who have no other purpose in the episode but to motivate him to go on a killing spree. To make matters worse, Janet and Hope do not appear in this episode and are therefore only a part of the story as plot devices, never as their own people.

Yes, the Yellowjacket persona is one that Pym has historically donned after major traumatic events cause him to mentally snap, but upping the dead woman count in his life from one to two is an unfortunate choice that drags the episode down once you realize that fridging is involved. Fridging itself has been a problem across all comics and their branches of media for decades, and at this point, the practice needs to be put to bed for good.

Nick Fury in  What If ...? S01E03
Nick Fury in What If …? S01E03

Where does What If…? go from here?

While What If…? is all about alternate versions of a story coming to life, this episode didn’t take enough advantage of the large amount of creative freedom that it is afforded. Anyone who has seen Ant-Man knows that Hank Pym resents S.H.E.I.L.D for the death of his wife, but seeing his anger be expanded upon when there are other characters that could have taken the spotlight drags the story down. It would have been much more interesting to see Hope as the villain, or even a version of Janet that somehow escaped the loneliness of the Quantum realm and decided to enact revenge for her lost time.

When looking at the first three episodes of the series, this episode stands in a solid second place behind episode two, but the execution of what could be a very enticing murder mystery overshadows the story the more time one has to think about it. The majority of the episode was enjoyable, and the callbacks to the Phase One movies were nice bits of nostalgia that didn’t feel too forced (most of the time). There is a lot of potential in the way that this story was told, and with a tighter execution What If…? could easily do another episode with a similar premise and greatly improve upon the incredibly strong bones episode three will leave behind.

Images Courtesy of Marvel Studios

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