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Marvel's What If...? [Season 1] (2021)

There’s a long history of adapting Marvel comics into animation, going back many years before their hugely successful live-action adaptations. From various Spider-Man series, and the Marvel Action Hour to the fondly remembered 90's X-Men series, they had many animated series.  Although part of the same company, Marvel Television and Marvel Studios (producers of the movies)  were two separate divisions until relatively recently. In a restructuring, the TV arm was absorbed into Marvel Studios under the leadership of MCU supremo Kevin Feige. The Studio is now regularly producing TV series for Disney Plus alongside their movies. Marvel’s What If...? Is the fourth Disney Plus series to be produced by Marvel Studios- and their first animated production.

As a Marvel Studios release that means that even though this is animated, it is still part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe canon. Or perhaps that should be 'multiverse?'. Following the final episode of the excellent Loki series, What If…? Is structured as an anthology series that takes place in a different alternate reality each episode. Our guide is The Watcher a.k.a. Uatu (voiced by Jeffrey Wright)  a cosmic being who can see all realities but “do not, cannot, will not interfere”, as introduced in the fantastic Twilight Zone or Outer Limits style intro. "Journet to face the unknown and ponder the question.... What if...?"

The series is based on a long-running line of comics of the same name. Each issue is a one-shot that explores how events could have gone differently in the Marvel Universe. In the TV incarnation, it does the same for the events of MCU, such as What If ...Captain Carter Were The First Avenger? Or What If... T’Challa Became A Star-Lord? Or the brilliantly self-explanatory What If... Zombies?
The series is written by A.C. Bradley and Matthew Chauncey and directed by Bryan Andrews (Primal, Samurai Jack). The animation was produced by Canada based studio Squeeze. The first season consists of nine episodes (reduced from a planned 10 due to COVID) and began streaming weekly via Disney Plus from August 11, 2021.

When the project was first announced some fans were excited about its potential. If any series had a reason to be 2D animated, surely this was it? Although there are some rumours that this was originally the plan, ultimately though it became apparent that they had decided to go in another direction. The animation is produced in 3D CG, but with what used to be referred to as ‘cel shading’ to produce a 2D-esque effect. It’s in the same ball-park as Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse but going for a more realistic, less stylised look, while still retaining some of a hand-drawn feel. Unlike in Sony's movie, however, the results are mixed.

It becomes quickly apparent in the first episode (the Captain Carter one) exactly why CG was considered the best choice, as it’s used in some sequences to recreate shots or whole sequences from the live-action Captain America: The First Avenger film- albeit it with a twist. At various points during the series, it references shots seen in past movies in this way, sometimes copying them wholesale. It's very impressively done.

For the frequent action, it works brilliantly. Director Bryan Andrews draws on his experience helping to craft 2D action sequences in series like Primal for some blistering set-pieces. Using CG allows for dynamic camera work just as you would use in live-action. The action is fast and thrilling throughout, and is a definite strength of the show.

The action combines MCU style action with something drawn more directly from the original source material, with the use of in-vision effects, action lines and other comic-book stylisation. Arguably, some of the action here rivals any of that seen in the live-action Marvel movies and TV series. They’re definitely easier to follow than some of them, without the excessive use of shaky-cam, or worries about a star being injured.

Outside of the action though, things don’t always look quite so good. Occasionally the ‘uncanny valley’ will strike, sometimes in less flashy more everyday moments and interactions. However, it's worth noting this is a very personal thing and your mileage may vary. It might not bother you at all, or it might be a deal-breaker. 


The designs are also a bit of a mixed bag. The characters are (naturally) modelled on the actor who originally played them and some are much more effective than others. Starting off strong, Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) looks great and is recognisable straight away. Several other characters also look spot-on including Tony Stark, Nick Fury, T’Challa, Loki, Vision and Doctor Strange. Others could be better. It seems to particularly struggle to distinguish some of its female characters (outside Carter, Black Widow and Captain Marvel), with the likes of Jane Foster, Darcy and Strange’s love interest Christine hard to tell apart and not really recognisable from their live-action actors.

These little technical niggles are frustrating as it often looks so good. It’s still one of the best looking CG animated TV series to date, but it’s this close to being something really special. When it looks good it looks really good. Still images (or lower-resolution trailers) don't do justice to how good it can look when in motion.

Strong visuals are one thing, but what about the series underneath? This too is sometimes more successful than others. I’ve heard people (wrongly) assert that merely because the series is animated, it’s therefore aimed at kids. This is not the case, as, with all Marvel's output, it’s instead aimed at a general audience of MCU fans of all ages. It varies between episodes, but it's been rated 12 in the UK.

It’s clear that they weren’t aiming for kids in just how much the series takes advantage of the premise to take things to some really dark places. The good guys often don’t win, and many of your favourite characters meet sticky ends- repeatedly. Tony Stark/Iron Man becomes like the Kenny from South Park of the What If...? world, almost becoming like a running joke.

However, the scripts do somehow feel younger-skewed in their writing, even when the content definitely isn’t. This can likely be explained by head writer Bradley’s background in kids’ animated series, scripting series like Trollhunters and 3 Below. The dialogue is probably closer in tone to that of typical comic-book writing than their movie inspiration. It imitates the style of the movies but doesn’t quite get there- most of the quips and one-liners miss the mark.

The storytelling beneath is rock-solid though and its explorations of these alternate realities turn up lots of genuine surprises, and plenty of stuff they would probably never be able to pull off in live-action.
The episodes worked better for me when they embraced the premise and let the episodes go crazy and have fun. Episodes that push the darkness too much (like the Doctor Strange episode and the Avengers episode) don’t work so well and seem primarily designed to see beloved characters suffer or die (or often, both).  The episodes that are more playful and fun like the T’Challa episode, the Party Thor episode and The Peggy Carter episode are much more enjoyable.

However, the Zombies episode is a curiosity because it’s technically one of the darkest episodes (with one of the biggest body counts) but is also one of the most fun. Moments that should be big dramatic beats are often played for laughs. Its spin of events of Infinity War are particularly amusing.  Zombies with superpowers really does put a novel spin on the old cliches.

The series does suffer a little from its short running time. Each episode has to fit an awful lot of story into (less than) thirty minutes and it can’t help but feel rushed. In hindsight, it might have worked better to have longer episodes, even if that means fewer of them in a season.

Marvel managed to assemble an impressive voice cast, getting the majority of their actors to reprise their voice roles- Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson and Robert Downey Jr being the most notable absences. It’s impressive how many they got back to return for just one or two lines- cameos from the likes of Geoff Goldblum, Taika Waititi, Rachel House and Josh Brolin were really pleasant surprises. Some of the A-listers adapt to voice acting better than others. 

Stand out voice performers include Hayley Atwell, Samuel L Jackson, Tom Hiddlestone, Benedict Cumberbatch, Karen Gillen and Michael B Jordan. Chris Hemsworth gets to exercise his natural comedic skills. Others range in quality from just fine to a bit on the flat side. As the major MCU newcomer, Jeffery Wright does a great job as The Watcher. The voice actors shipped in to replace the missing stars- including Lake Bell, Josh Keaton, Ross Marquand and Mike Wingert, do admirable jobs too, so the original stars aren't missed too much.

The most talked-about performance was inevitably going to be Chadwick Boseman. The series sadly found itself containing what would be the late actors’ final performances as T’Challa. The episode which focuses on T’Challa feels like a fitting tribute to Boseman, and the fact that it’s one of the most joyful and lighthearted episodes seems like a bonus.

In the ultra-connected world of the MCU, an anthology series is quite a novelty. Stories told in that universe have to consider their place in the continuity. Bradley and her co-writers were freed from this restriction… for a while at least. The marketing for the series telegraphed heavily the fact that the different realities are maybe not so separate from each other as first appeared, and that eventually, an overall plot arc does come into play.

I won’t spoil how or why that happens, but it comes pretty late in the day. In the show itself, it seems to come out from nowhere. It’s honestly a little disappointing on some level that Marvel won’t allow any stories to just be their own thing- one-off stories do have a certain appeal. However, when it does happen, it’s very entertaining and results in some of the best action in the whole series, so the disappointment doesn’t last too long.

This series was made with hardcore Marvel fans in mind. It definitely is NOT a recommended entry point for total MCU newbies. It's full of  Easter Eggs, references and inside jokes that only the most dedicated Marvel fans will spot. More casual fans will probably enjoy the series anyway on some level, but it's the megafans who will get the most out of it. 

There's more where this came from, as not only has Marvel already confirmed a second season for 2022, but they are also planning multiple other animated projects. It may not be perfect, but as an opening salvo for the MCU's animation offerings, this is impressive stuff indeed.



IN A NUTSHELL:  Often visually spectacular with some incredible action, Marvel's exploration of the Multiverse is exhilarating. Stan Lee would be proud.