Sunday, May 26, 2024

What If…?: The Good, The Bad, and What We Want Next

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In the wake of What If…?’s season finale dropping last Wednesday, there’s a lot to look forward to knowing that the show has already been picked up for a second season. That doesn’t mean that the show was perfect. What If…?’s first season had a lot of amazing elements, but there were still parts of it that fell short. Those issues aren’t anything that ruins the series overall, but a change in those areas would only help to make What If…? even better.

The Good

If there is one thing in What If…? that was not only consistently good, but constantly improving, it was the art. When it came specifically to the characters, the cel-shaded animation wasn’t an immediate hit with fans, but there is no denying that the art direction for every other visual aspect of the show was amazing. 

Much like The Mandalorian, the credits of each episode of What If…? featured concept art that was used to develop each episode, and more often than not, the finished project was almost identical to the original concept. Some of the best parts of What If…? come in the form of the show’s wide shots (see below), and even if an episode’s writing was falling short, there was always a guarantee that the visuals would make up for at least a part of that. 

As predicted back at the beginning of the season, the distinct animation style of What If…? would make the show immediately recognizable, but the level of detail and skill that went into the show’s cinematography is something that can’t be found anywhere else.

Another thing that enhanced What If…? were the visual and dialogue parallels and callbacks to the main MCU universe that took place throughout the show. Not only was it cool to see moments take place with characters swapped out, but it also grounded the stories as something that are still a part of the MCU, even if they won’t come to fruition in the live-action universe.

It was also nice to see these references expanded past the straightforward shot recreations like the ones seen in the show’s first episode. Captain Carter’s suit in the finale is a clear visual reference to Captain America’s suit in Captain America: The Winter Soldier and the one-liners that Bucky gave about his arm almost getting ripped off and it being “the end of the line” for Zombie Captain America were successful in winking and nudging the audience without being too heavy-handed or annoying.

Natasha Romanoff in What If…? S01E09

Perhaps the best part of What If…? was the writer’s treatment of Natasha Romanoff throughout the series. As any fan of hers knows, Natasha’s treatment in the MCU can only be described as lacking at best, but What If…? is a complete 180 from that.

With her first appearance in episode three of the series, Natasha was given a storyline where she actually had agency. Yes, she still died in the end, but throughout the entire episode, she holds her own physically and intellectually, escaping from S.H.I.E.L.D custody and figuring out who was murdering the Avengers before she was taken out.

When she appears in What If…?’s eighth episode, we were finally able to see a somewhat fleshed-out version of her friendship with Clint Barton, something that never really got its due in the live-action films. It’s unfortunate that the rest of humanity had to die for that to happen, but it was nice to see nonetheless.

Despite the fact that Clint is clearly suicidal in the wake of Ultron’s destruction, Natasha’s attitude is far from matching his, and she is again spearheading their operation to try and shut Ultron down for good. The episode also allows for her personality to shine through in a way it was only previously allowed to in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and it’s clear that pairing Natasha up with someone that she’s close to only enhances her character.

The Bad

For all the great parts of the show, it wouldn’t be fun to write about What If…? without digging into the parts of the show that missed the mark. It would be ridiculous to expect a show to be perfect in its first season, but that doesn’t mean that all of the flaws in the series can just be waved off with a “they’ll fix that next season.”

Starting with a mildly annoying (and easily fixable) issue, What If…? season one had a problem balancing tone from episode to episode. Out of the nine episodes released this season, only three held a lighter tone, with the rest settling in the range of reasonably dark to depressing.

Strange Supreme absorbs Doctor Strange in What If…? S01E04

It didn’t help that the first two episodes of the season were the only “happy” episodes of the season until episode seven, leaving audiences in a four-episode pit of their favorite heroes being killed off in one way or another. While the original Avengers being gone allowed for the show to focus on characters that don’t get the same attention in the live-action movies, it was still depressing knowing that fan-favorite characters had to die for us to see that.

Originally, the missing episode featuring Gamora and Tony Stark on Sakar was supposed to air as the fourth installment in the series and was intended to be a lighter episode that would be followed by the dark episode featuring Doctor Strange Supreme. Still, that leaves the majority of the back half of the season with the sad stuff, and it would be nice to see a better balance in the next season.

Gamora and Tony in What If…? S01E09

On to a more critical issue, What If…? has a general problem with how it treats its female characters. The main exceptions to this issue are Natasha and Peggy — who both get a lot of character development in the series — but the rest of the women featured in the series don’t always have their luck. 

When the person revealed to be the murderer of the (then potential) Avengers in episode three is Hank Pym, it is also revealed that Janet and Hope Van Dyne (his wife and daughter, respectively) are the catalyst for his killing spree. Unfortunately for them, neither woman has any lines in the episode due to their being dead and said deaths only happened to motivate Hank’s rage.

Similarly, in episode four, Christine Palmer’s death is a fixed point in Strange Supreme’s universe, and she serves no other purpose in the episode than to motivate Strange’s descent into madness and eventual destruction of their universe. Christine has no agency at any point in the episode, and ends up dying on-screen upwards of 10 times before the universe collapses in on itself.

Zombie Captain America eating Sharon in What If…? S01E05

Probably worst of all is the fate of Sharon Carter in episode five, where she dies at the hands of Zombie Captain America. Her death was originally supposed to be far more gruesome, with Matthew Chauncey allegedly justifying Sharon’s lips being bit off and spit out with the claim that “No one likes [Sharon]…[Captain America] belongs with Peggy”.

These multiple fridging incidents and the treatment of Sharon don’t pair well with the fact that there isn’t a single episode where a female character is the primary protagonist. This isn’t to discount the appearances of Natasha, Jane Foster, Hope Van Dyne, and Carol Danvers among the other female characters in the series, but Peggy Carter’s episode is the only one in the season that puts the main focus on a woman, and the women of the MCU certainly have more to offer. 

Our Condensed Amazon Wishlist

What If…?’s shortfallings won’t drag it to its grave, at least in its first season. The second season of the series has the chance to make up for its issues, and there are a few specific things that we hope that the show will incorporate moving forward.

While we already know that Gamora’s episode will be moved to season two, it would be great to see more episodes following other female characters like Captain Marvel, Valkyrie, or even Monica Rambeau. Not only would it add some much-needed diversity to the lineup, but it would allow for those characters to get more time in the much-deserved spotlight.

Riding off of that, it would be great to see more from the characters outside of the original Avengers roster get some attention too. Obviously, we got a team up in the form of the Guardians of the Multiverse, but it would be cool to see an alternate Avengers team in play for the entirety of an episode. 

Show me the universe where Steve is the President. How much does he even know about politics anymore.

Lastly, it would be great for season two to have more episodes with lighter tones like we got to see in episode seven. What If…? being able to go darker than the rest of the MCU is amazing, but there’s always room for a break in all of the gloom everyone has to face.

In the end, What If…? season two is already something to look forward to. The prospect of new episodes featuring new heroes is enough to keep us excited for next season, and if the show can improve where it needs to, there’s no doubt that next season will be as good as we hope it will be.

Images Courtesy of Marvel Studios

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