Sunday, April 21, 2024

What If…? Episode 1 Makes Its Mark on the Marvel Timeline

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What If…? is Marvel’s latest addition to their Disney+ roster, and also enters the game as the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s first major animated project. While previous projects like Avengers Assemble and the animated Guardians of the Galaxy followed the lead of the MCU in regards to what characters the shows would follow, they were never intended to actually connect to the larger live-action movie-verse in the way that What If…? intends to.

These differences aside, What If…? is very clearly looking to make a unique mark following the past two decades of Marvel’s animated projects, and it is incredibly likely that it will be able to do so. The distinct animation style makes it recognizable at a glance and the premise, taking inspiration from Marvel’s long-running use of the What If title, opens the door for a new level of creative freedom that isn’t commonly present in Marvel’s live-action or animated properties.

What If Offical Trailer
Captain Carter’s What If…? Debut

What If…?’s first episode is aptly titled What If…Captain Carter Were The First Avenger?, following an alternate version of history where Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) became the super-soldier mascot of World War II instead of Steve Rogers. The beginning of the episode is narrated by Uatu, The Watcher (Jeffery Wright), and he makes sure to note the exact moment that causes a shift in the timeline before allowing the story to play out on its own.

Not only does that narration reinforce the idea that it really is a simple choice that can turn reality down a different path, but it can remind audiences of what happened in the original timeline in the first place. Captain America: The First Avenger came out just over a decade ago and it was a smart move to assume that not everyone remembers the exact details of what went down in every scene of the movie. 

peggy as captain carter
Captain Carter featured in What If…? promotional material

The episode then follows an alternate version of the MCU’s World War II history, and it’s nice to see that there was actually an effort to change the major events in the timeline that audiences are familiar with. Peggy manages to capture Arnim Zola and the Tesseract far earlier in the story than Steve Rogers did, and instead of Bucky falling off the train to his fate as the Winter Soldier, Peggy grabs him and pulls him to safety, and he jokes about how she “almost ripped [his] arm off.”

Steve still plays a part in the story despite his lack of enhancements, fighting alongside Peggy and the Howling Commandos in the Hydra Stomper, Howard Stark’s Tesseract powered proto-Iron Man Suit. 

Captain Carter and the Howling Commandos
Captain Carter and the Howling Commandos

Another nice touch with the writing was that the further along into the new timeline the story went, the more differently the events of the story played out. There is, of course, the iconic shot of Steve — replaced in this episode by Peggy — breaking through a large set of doors surrounded by the Howling Commandos.

However, the events that lead up to it happening are completely different than those in the original timeline. We get to see a version of the Red Skull’s plan come to fruition (before it ultimately fails) and one is left to wonder who is left to guard Vormir and the Soul Stone if he never makes it there.

In regards to the end of the story, it shares a single discernible similarity to the end of The First Avenger, and that is that Peggy disappears between the end of the final battle and her new timeline’s 2011. While Steve’s nearly 70 year-long stint as a popsicle kept him out of the loop, Peggy is transported somewhere else in space and time by the Tesseract, only to be brought back to Earth when Nick Fury and Clint Barton re-open the Tesseract portal that the Red Skull had planned to use for world domination. 

Captain Carter fighting an alien with giant tentacles
What If…?’s Imperfections

Despite What If…? managing to carve out a distinct narrative formula in its first episode, there are still a few elements that keep it from being a perfect start to the series. There are times where the dialogue is a bit quippy and clunky, but at the end of the day the show is a cartoon, so it makes sense that it allows itself a little bit of camp.

The implication that so much was different in this version of the timeline, but Fury and Hawkeye were still working on Project P.E.G.A.S.U.S in regards to the Tesseract is something that the show asks audiences to suspend more of their disbelief than usual. However, this can be rationalized with The Watcher telling the audience that time, space, and reality are “a prism of endless possibility.”

It’s understandable that Marvel wouldn’t want the What If…? team digging too deep into comic lore to create a reality with characters that no one knows anything about in favor of the ones we all know and love. 

There is also the matter of Tommy Lee Jones’s Colonel Phillips being replaced with a much more irritating Colonel Flynn (voiced by Bradley Whitford). The Watcher marks Peggy’s choice to stay on the lab floor instead of going to the booth to watch Steve’s transformation as the event that split the timelines, but Colonel Flynn wasn’t present in the original timeline until season one of Agent Carter, which would imply that there was already a substantial change made by someone else’s choice earlier on.

While he has no lines, Colonel Phillips is clearly pictured in at least two shots before the lab is bombed, and it would’ve been a slightly tighter story if the explosion managed to kill Phillips and Flynn was brought in as a replacement as a factor of the timeline changing.

colonel flynn in what if
Left: Colonel Flynn in episode one of What iI; Right: Bradley Whitford as Colonel Flynn in Agent Carter

There is also the matter of Flynn’s overbearing sexist nature, something that is seemingly only there because the main character of the story is a woman instead of a man. A few snide comments from him would’ve made sense considering his characterization in Agent Carter, but by the time of the lab explosion, Peggy would have proved a million times over that she was a capable fighter and strategist, so Flynn’s reservations about her being a woman and a super-soldier should have been moot.

It’s easier to see him being upset that the United States put funding into a human asset that isn’t even an American citizen. At this point, people don’t need a one-note sexist character to give Peggy a hard time about being a woman to prove that she’s good at what she does. She has a movie and two seasons of her own show behind her to prove it, and What If…? should’ve trusted that that was enough.

The Sacred Timeline Splitting Apart in the Loki Season Finale
What’s Next for What If…??

To look at the big picture moving forward, it’s clear that What If…? is a direct follow-up to the events that transpired in the season finale of Loki. Equally clear is that it is another step on the way to a fully-fledged multiverse that seems to be in the cards for the MCU.

While the visuals haven’t matched up between the shows directly, the promotional material for What If…? often features splitting timelines that look almost exactly like what was left of the Sacred Timeline after the death of He Who Remains. It seems safe to assume that if the TVA was intact, the Peggy Carter that What If…?’s first episode focuses on would have no doubt been pruned in order to keep everything in check.

Based on the trailer for the series, it’s safe to say that some of the characters introduced in What If…? will run into each other, but the mystery is whether or not those meetings will require a cross-dimensional jump. Either way, episode one has set up a very interesting journey, and one can only look forward to the next story What If…? looks to tell.

Images via Marvel Studios

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