Sunday, April 21, 2024

What If…? Episode 5 Takes a Bite Out of Marvel

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This week’s What If…? is the first episode of the season to pull major inspiration from source material unrelated to the MCU, and proves that it should have been doing so from the jump. Where previous episodes simply referenced other source material, What If…Zombies!? takes its main themes from the various Marvel Zombies runs released over the last two decades. With an idea so original to the MCU specifically, the episode had the creative freedom to put an interesting combination of characters together in an incredibly suspenseful situation.

Tony Stark as a zombie in What If...? S01E05
Tony Stark as a zombie in What If…? S01E05

What If The MCU Faced a Zombie Apocalypse?

Episode 5 of What If…? takes place after Bruce Banner crash lands in the Sanctum Sanctorum during Avengers: Infinity War, but instead of Wong and Doctor Strange being there to greet him, the building is empty except for the Cloak of Levitation. When he goes outside, Ebony Maw and Cull Obsidian arrive only to be attacked and immediately defeated by Wong, Doctor Strange, and Iron Man. 

Where it took the group a decent amount of time to defeat the two in Infinity War, they are defeated in less than 30 seconds in What If..?. This is because of the group’s power and skill being uninhibited due to a zombie virus, which allows them to go full out on the children of Thanos and take them down. The zombie versions of these characters retain their skills and powers; Tony Stark is able to control the Iron Man suit, Doctor Strange and Wong are able to use their magic, and even Ebony Maw is able to use his telekinetic powers once he is zombified. 

Banner is saved from (un)death by Hope Van Dyne and Peter Parker, two of the last remaining survivors in New York. Hope explains that as a result of the attempt to save her mother from the Quantum Realm, a quantum virus was brought back via Janet that turned everyone infected into flesh-eating monsters. The Avengers (made up of Captain America, Black Widow, Hawkeye, Iron Man, and Black Panther) flew to San Francisco to try and help but were immediately attacked and turned by the zombie horde there.

A tiny Hank Pym taking a tiny bite out of Captain America
A tiny zombie Hank Pym taking a tiny bite out of Captain America

A Mission Twofold

Banner returns with Hope and Peter to their base of operations where Okoye, Bucky Barnes, Sharon Carter, Happy Hogan, and Kurt (Scott Lang’s hacker friend) are waiting for them with the mission to try and find two things: T’Challa, and a cure. The group has to travel to Camp Lehigh, the first home of S.H.I.E.L.D, without attracting the attention of the literal millions of flesh-eating humans on the way. 

While patrolling Grand Central, Happy is captured and turned by a zombified Hawkeye, but zombie Falcon is unsuccessful in trying to bite Bucky and Okoye and the rest of the group is able to escape on a train as planned. Unfortunately for Sharon, she is attacked and turned by zombie Captain America before he is defeated by Bucky.

Zombie Sharon is killed by Hope, with her shrinking and flying into Sharon’s mouth before expanding again, but in a bout of bad luck for Hope, she emerges from Sharon’s um…innards with an open wound, dooming her to life as the walking dead.

Before succumbing to the virus, Hope gigantifies herself to deliver the remainder of the group to Camp Lehigh, where they find that Vision has learned how to repel the zombies with the Mind Stone. In regards to a cure, Vision has managed to cure Scott Lang and has his head preserved à la Futurama. While there are no resources in the United States that could broadcast the cure’s signal, Wakanda not only has the resources but has managed to resist the mass infection of the world due to the country’s barrier.

Scott Lang's head and Vision in What If...? S01E05
Scott Lang’s head and Vision in What If…? S01E05

A Star-Crossed Betrayal

With the cure found, Bucky decides to try and find a way out of Camp Lehigh so that the group can get Vision to Wakanda, but instead, he finds Vision’s massive secret: a zombified Wanda, and along with her, a very much alive T’Challa. T’Challa reveals that Vision saved him when the Avengers were attacked on the West Coast but is only keeping him alive to keep zombie Wanda placated. 

Unfortunately, Wanda seeing her food source waking away triggered her to break out of the cell Vision put her in to try and feed on the group. She successfully gets Kurt and Okoye before Vision collapses his bunker on top of her, then instructing the remaining humans to escape on a quadjet to Wakanda. As a form of atonement for what he did to keep Wanda alive, Vision tears the Mind Stone out of his head and dies, leaving the Stone free for Wakandan scientists to use to find a cure. 

A Little Hope for Humanity

Bucky decides to sacrifice himself and stays back to try and distract Wanda so that everyone else can leave, and he only has mild success with that before she uses her magic to throw him into the waiting crowd of zombies. Realizing that T’Challa, Peter, and Scott (carried by the Cloak of Levitation) still need some extra time to safely take off, Bruce makes the decision to stay behind as the Hulk to continue to keep Wanda distracted and the zombie hoard at bay. 

Despite their escape almost being foiled by a zombie Hope in her giant form, Peter, T’Challa, and Scott manage to escape and make it to Wakanda with the Mind Stone. The episode seems like it will end on a hopeful note, but instead reminds the audience of exactly when this story is taking place. The last thing the audience sees is a zombified Thanos who has managed to collect the other 5 Infinity Stones, and there is no doubt that he is after the Mind Stone as well as the last safe community of humans. 

From left to right: Peter Parker, Scott Lang and the Cloak of Levitation, and T'Challa in What If...? S01E05
From left to right: Peter Parker, Scott Lang and the Cloak of Levitation, and T’Challa in What If…? S01E05

Finding the Balance that What If…? has Needed

This episode of What If…? is undoubtedly the most original of the five that have been released, and in turn is one of the strongest. The writers are able to create an air of suspense that should always be present in media about horrifying situations, but still keeps it lighthearted when it needs to be, proving that What If…? is a flexible show inside and out of its singular episodes.

The rag-tag group of characters that make up the initial group of survivors Bruce finds in New York is very fun to see, especially during Peter’s “So You Wanna Survive the Zombie Apocalypse” bit. While Happy and Kurt’s deaths were played off for laughs (something that makes sense due to their status as comic relief characters), the deaths of Sharon, Hope, Okoye, Bucky, and even Vision are all varying ranges of tragic, which keeps stabilizes the comedic and dramatic balance further. 

The person who suffers the most mentally is Peter, who had very clearly gained another parental figure in Hope after Aunt May was killed by zombies. He explains to her as she’s dying that he manages to keep it all together because he’s had so much practice with tragedy, and this is where he finally (finally!!) mentions the deaths of his parents and Uncle Ben for the first time in the MCU. 

Much like how he holds onto his guilt in the main MCU timeline, Peter feels like it’s his fault everything has gone downhill because he didn’t join the Avengers when Tony asked him to, but he’s not the only one with the entire situation weighing on them. Hope feels immense guilt over her attempt to save her mother being the cause of the virus spreading outside of the Quantum Realm, and it is this guilt that keeps Hope motivated enough to deliver the group to Camp Lehigh before succumbing to the virus.

Zombie Janet Van Dyne in the Quantum Realm
Zombie Janet Van Dyne in the Quantum Realm

What If Marvel Zombies Made More Sense?

In comparison to the original Marvel Zombies run and the more recent Marvel Zombies: Resurrection comics, the origin of the zombie virus that infects the world makes a lot more sense. A virus that was initially contracted in the Quantum Realm makes a lot more sense than the paradoxical origin that the original story gave audiences, and with the newer Marvel Zombies story never giving a solid origin of the virus, fans of the comics can watch this without racking their brains trying to figure out how the virus came to exist.

Another nice part of this episode of What If…? are the references, not only to parts of Infinity War but to parts of Marvel Zombies as well. In regards to the MCU, zombie Wong is seen munching on Cull Obsidian’s severed arm right before his head is cut off via magical portal, the same way he cut off Cull Obsidian’s hand in Infinity War.

Looking at the comics, Scott Lang’s severed head is no doubt a reference to Janet Van Dyne’s severed head in Marvel Zombies. T’Challa being kept alive to be fed to Wanda is also obviously a reference to Hank Pym doing the same thing to T’Challa to keep himself fed while he searched for a cure in the comics.

Uatu the Watcher in What If...? S01E05
Uatu the Watcher in What If…? S01E05

Another Win for What If…?

As has been the case with every episode of What If…?, the art and animation in the show continue to improve every week. The design of the zombies’ decomposing flesh looked great, and it’s great that the animation team was allowed to do some pretty gruesome zombie deaths that didn’t seem like massive overkill.

The voice acting in the episode was another improvement, specifically in regards to Sebastian Stan as Bucky Barnes. He hadn’t quite hit his stride in episode one of What If…?, but his performance as Bucky felt a lot more natural in this episode, and it would be great to see him return to the series again in the future.

Much like the end of episode two of What If…?, this episode ends on a cliffhanger that would be very interesting to revisit in the next season of the show. Regardless of whether Wakanda is able to cure the Earth of the zombie virus before Thanos makes it there to take the Mind Stone, he’s on earth with the large majority of the Infinity Stones and is looking to snap away half of the universe. This episode is the most creative of the show so far and leaves the door open for it to lead to something even more creative in the future, and we can only hope that the next season of What If…? takes that opportunity.

Images Courtesy of Marvel Studios

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