What If...?, Episodes 4-6
Magic, monsters and manipulation.
TV REVIEW /// What If...?, Episode 4, "What If... Doctor Strange Lost His Heart Instead of His Hands?"
Episode summary: A grief-stricken Doctor Strange uses the Eye of Agamotto in a dangerous effort to change the past. (IMDb)
"What If... Doctor Strange Lost His Heart Instead of His Hands?" was a genuine surprise to watch, with my expectations of a run-of-the-mill 'hero goes bad' story turning out to be a tragic tale of lost love and overwhelming grief leading to disastrous consequences. This is a perfect display of how the road to hell is paved with good intentions.
And I mean that - even once the episode reaches it's dark, apocalyptic ending and Strange loses everything, you still feel sympathy for him because, despite the outcome, he was only trying to save the life of his love, Christine. Of course, he goes way too far and commits some unspeakable acts along the way, but it's a little different to the normal 'villains' who seek power, fame or wealth.
It should also be noted that, despite killing her over and over again thanks to Strange's use of the Time Stone, this episode really elevates Rachel McAdams' Christine to a level of importance and relevance that the Doctor Strange movie failed to do - if anything, it's made me look forward to the next movie in the hopes that she's given this much attention in that story too.
"What If... Doctor Strange Lost His Heart Instead of His Hands?" also nudges the MCU version of the character (even if it is an alternate version) closer to the comic book character by showing Strange as the cause of his own problems by trying to do something he really shouldn't. After the Spider-Man: No Way Home trailer, people were asking if Strange would really be so reckless with his use of magic - his own movie, the comics and now What If...? all scream a resounding "yes!"
The real star of the show here is, as you would expect, Benedict Cumberbatch, who shows off just how talented a voice actor he is. He does have some prior experience after all, voicing Smaug in The Hobbit movies and Dormammu in Doctor Strange, but it's the subtlety of his work here that shines, providing entirely distinct, yet consistent voices for two versions of the good doctor.
That skill is further displayed by the range Cumberbatch shows, going from an anguished scream to soft, regretful sobbing and both fitting the emotional heart of the moments while remaining true to the character. Chadwick Boseman shone brightly as the swash-buckling Star-Lord T'Challa, but Cumberbatch just edges him out here, although the more somber nature of the story really helps.
And that story, not constrained by the established continuity of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, is what makes this episode in particular stand out. The previous episode was fairly dark, but still lighter in tone than this by a large margin, ending on a note of hope that this episode absolutely does not share. This is a bleak, sad and depressing episode that is unlike anything else in the MCU so far and something I'd very much like to see more of - on the big screen too.
"What If... Doctor Strange Lost His Heart Instead of His Hands?" sets the standard for the kind of story-telling this show should be doing, showing how even small changes can have drastic, tragic consequences. Everything about this episode is fantastic, with even the non-action animation feeling of a higher standard than the other episodes so far, and Benedict Cumberbatch narrowly edges out Chadwick Boseman for best performance too.
[10/10 - Incredible]
TV REVIEW /// What If...?, Episode 5, "What If... Zombies?!"
Episode summary: When The Avengers are infected by a zombie plague, surviving heroes search for a cure. (IMDb)
Wow, among some 'hardcore fans', "What If... Zombies?!" has had quite a bit of criticism which I can't quite understand - maybe they were fans of the Marvel Zombies stories from the comics? Yes, the events of this episode are rushed to get through the plot, but this certainly isn't a poor episode by any means, with more than a few standout moments to make it enjoyable to watch.
The first is seeing the zombie designs of the heroes, with some great looks and - thanks to being animated - some pretty inventive and eye-catching ways of disposing of them too. There's decapitations and dismemberments galore here, meaning it's highly unlikely that we'll ever see a similar story play out in live-action, so enjoy this while it lasts if you want to see some of the heroes brutally killed off.
There's also a pretty original reason for the zombies existing too, that could only work in the MCU thanks to what's already come before, with the disaster unfolding weeks before the events of Avengers: Infinity War and the episode taking place during the time of that movie. There's also an ending that spells even greater trouble ahead - a common feature of What If...? stories - that I really liked, although some may think it's a little too abrupt.
One thing this episode does similarly to the 'murder mystery' episode is to highlight the 'Ant-Fam', which does stand out a little compared to how little focus it feels they've had in the MCU so far. I get that Nathaniel Richards, a.k.a. Kang the Conqueror, is expected to show up in Quantumania, so maybe Marvel Studios are setting up that group of characters as being important in protecting the MCU timeline?
Either way, Hope (Evangeline Lilly) is one of the central characters and continues to be one of the most competent heroes around until she meets an unfortunate fate that gives us a great moment with Spider-Man (Hudson Thames) and a moment of poignancy as she accepts her fate. In fact, Hope's relationship with Spidey is so good - despite it's brevity - that I'd really like to see it in live-action too.
Overall, "What If... Zombies?!" is a pretty fun episode, but nothing special - it's an enjoyable way to spend half an hour seeing the MCU as we almost certainly never will in live-action, with some interesting interactions and moments of genuine emotion among the chaotic scramble to get through the story in the time available. I'd definitely be interested in seeing a part 2 thanks to who's missing and should still be out there (the Guardians of the Galaxy, Thor, Captain Marvel), but the ending of this episode might make that a little redundant.
"What If... Zombies?!" is a fun and not entirely insubstantial adventure, that brings together a group of characters you'd never expect to see together and almost certainly won't in live-action. The zombie designs are terrific, with the episode being able to push further with violence in animated form than would be possible for the MCU in live-action and get away with a PG rating, but it does feel a little rushed.
[6/10 - Decent]
TV REVIEW /// What If...?, Episode 6, "What If... Killmonger Rescued Tony Stark?"
Episode summary: Killmonger rescues Tony Stark when his Humvee is attacked in Afghanistan and manipulates his influence for his designs of conquering Wakanda. (IMDb)
I think I've made it pretty clear so far that I have no problem with What If...?'s tendency for abrupt endings, but "What If... Killmonger Rescued Tony Stark?" is the first episode of the show that has an ending that just fizzles out completely. It's not helped by the fact that the entire episode feels like part one of a two part story where we're never going to get the second part.
This particular story just feels incomplete and makes the deaths of major characters that occur come across as minor bumps in the road for Killmonger (played again by Michael B. Jordan), rather than the shocking moments they really should be - just to be clear, they are surprising when they happen, but are completely undone by the ending being such a wet fart of a climax that you won't care who died.
There's just nothing particularly exciting or interesting about this episode, other than mild curiosity of seeing Killmonger taking a less aggressive approach towards completing his goals, which remain the same as in Black Panther. The consistency of What If...? hasn't been great so far, but all the other episodes have had moments or sequences that would make me happy to re-watch them - this is the first episode that I'd happily skip on a re-watch.
Being honest, Jordan doesn't put in a great performance, which doesn't help considering that Tony Stark isn't voiced by Robert Downey Jr either and meaning the titular characters undermine the entire episode from the start. The animation quality is also probably the worst of the season so far, and even the smart use of various motifs from Black Panther's score can't help turn things around.
"What If... Killmonger Rescued Tony Stark?" is a pretty uninteresting episode that doesn't really do a great deal to shock or surprise either, despite some big names being killed off. The reason those deaths don't have any impact is because they don't feel meaningful or lead to any kind of major 'moment' like other episodes have, instead making this episode feel like a set-up for a second part that will actually lead to something.