What If...?, Episodes 7-9
What if an animated series made a villain far more memorable than the live-action version?
TV REVIEW /// What If...?, Episode 7, "What If... Thor Were an Only Child?"
Episode summary: Thor, who never learned to be a good hero, throws an out-of-control intergalactic party on Earth. (IMDb)
Marvel Studios have never been shy about including Easter eggs in everything they've made but this episode of What If...? might just top them all, with a huge number of characters leaving some with only a line or two, if they get any at all. And considering that this is basically a flat-out comedy episode, it feels a little more appropriate than some things that have been included in past MCU adventures.
The star of the show is obviously Thor, with Chris Hemsworth clearly having a lot of fun playing this more immature version of the character. His enthusiasm for the dialogue is as infectious as Thor's partying nature, making a perfect match that rivals even the big-screen outings for both. Then again, a lot of the cast seem to be having a great time with such a light and frothy episode.
Natalie Portman returns as Jane Foster and she sounds like she had a great time with the role too, making this possibly MCU Jane's best showing so far. The chemistry she has with Hemsworth's 'Party Thor' is fantastic and if this is an indicator of how things might go between them in the upcoming Thor: Love and Thunder, then that's going to be a brilliant, brilliant movie.
Kat Dennings returns as Darcy too, in what is also possibly her best outing - some of the writing for Darcy hasn't been as consistent as I'd like when her character has previously appeared, but all the material works this time around. Which is the case for the entire cast really, including Jeff Goldblum returning as the Grandmaster and Clancy Brown as Surtur hitting on the Statue of Liberty(!).
Then there's the fight between Captain Marvel (played by Alexandra Daniels) and Thor that has yet again brought out the misogynists due to the former being called in by an over-reacting SHIELD, led by Cobie Smulders' Maria Hill thanks to a Korg-inflicted injury leaving Samuel L Jackson's Nick Fury out of action - yes they really did get as many people back for this episode as they could!
The fight technically ends in a draw - primarily thanks to Carol holding back to avoid mass destruction if she really cut loose - but the reaction to their battle has been really interesting to watch. The Carol-haters hating for no reason provided via this episode (confirming they're stupid beyond belief and should be ignored) while most enjoyed the back-and-forth between the two heroes, if not outright cheering on the captain thanks to Thor being a bit of a dick.
Personally, I thought the fight was great and really enjoyed how animation allowed both heroes to cut loose in a way that possibly might not work in live-action - primarily Thor knocking Captain Marvel from Paris to Stonehenge in the UK, with her then returning the favour by smacking him clear across the Atlantic to the States and their brawl in a desert.
The biggest problem with this episode though, is that it feels a little disposable thanks to how shallow it all is. Very little of consequence happens and, while diverging heavily from the events of the live-action MCU, the characters don't feel far enough removed from what we've seen of them in the movies to make what happens feel like a truly interesting experience.
Even the Thor/Captain Marvel brawl suffers from the fact that the pair are incredibly durable, with neither suffering any ill effects - like the episode as a whole, it was very enjoyable - and a visual standout - but it never felt important. Maybe it would've been better if they'd had to ultimately team up to deal with a bigger issue than Frigga (Josette Eales) coming to Earth to scold her son for partying...
"What If... Thor Were an Only Child?" is the funniest episode of the show so far, effectively imagining the first Thor movie with the same tone as Thor: Ragnarok. Chris Hemsworth's performance is brilliant too, putting in an effort to rival Chadwick Boseman and Benedict Cumberbatch's outings - although it's a shame that his excellence feels a little wasted on a something that feels a little 'throwaway'.
[7/10 - Good]
TV REVIEW /// What If...?, Episode 8, "What If... Ultron Won?"
Episode summary: Natasha Romanoff and Clint Barton seek to destroy killer-robot Ultron following a cataclysmic event. (IMDb)
It's strange to think about how the weaker entries in the MCU are being constantly improved in retrospect - the brief Asgard-set scene in Avengers: Endgame and Loki's reaction to Frigga's death in his own show adding greater meaning to Thor: The Dark World for example. Then there's Avengers: Age of Ultron, which at the bare minimum brought Wanda Maximoff into the MCU as a villain-turned-hero-turned-villain(?).
From the fallout of that movie also came Baron Helmut Zemo, antagonist of Captain America: Civil War and featuring prominently in The Falcon and the Winter Soldier. The first of those two brought in the Sokovia Accords - which WandaVision confirmed are still a thing post-Endgame - and broke the Avengers apart, allowing Thanos to win in Infinity War and wipe out half of all life in the universe.
It also brought in Vision, who would go on to fall in love with Wanda, only to die at the hands of the Mad Titan and be 'resurrected' in WandaVision. However, watch Age of Ultron and you'll see that his body was originally intended as Ultron's final form, which is what this episode explores - the Avengers failed to stop his plan and he triggers a nuclear winter, leaving Black Widow (Lake Bell) and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) as apparently the last two humans alive on the planet.
They're searching for some way to stop him, but it proves ultimately futile (at least, in this episode) after Thanos arrives to claim the Mind Stone and is immediately killed, allowing 'Vision Ultron' to claim all six Infinity Stones and wipe out all life in the universe. It's when he notices the Watcher narrating his victory that things really ratchet up and What If...? skyrockets the stakes higher than anything in the MCU so far.
The action that follows after 'Infinite Ultron' discovers how to confront the Watcher is jaw-droppingly, mind-blowingly gorgeous and provides a spectacle that we're never going to see in live-action on Disney+ because the budget for the VFX alone would be far too high to make sense. Smashing through realities and even punches changing reality around the pair is the level we're playing at here.
Back on Ultron's original Earth, the last two Avengers find what they were looking for, but things don't go well thanks to Ultron not actually being in that universe when they need him to be. Lake Bell continues to excel (unintentional rhyme there) and Renner really does get across just how tired Clint is of having to live the life they do - we also get a variation on the characters' Vormir scene from Endgame, which winds up providing one of the best shots of the series so far.
This episode also reveals that the season isn't as much of an anthology as expected and everything is connected, with the Watcher having to hide with a character from a previous episode, away from Ultron, who is now intent on ending all life across the Multiverse. I know some where disappointed by that reveal, enjoying one-and-done stories from Marvel Studios for once, but I loved it.
The entire episode is great, only falling short of perfection due the running time really. It's an issue most of the episodes have had, with only the Star-Lord T'Challa and Doctor Strange Supreme episodes feeling like complete, full stories. The usual incredible action more than makes up for it though, and I can't wait for the day the live-action stuff finally goes where this show apparently thrives.
"What If... Ultron Won?" really takes the series to an epic scope as the Multiverse really comes into play for the first time, even if Loki touches the fringes of it. The character of Ultron is also reimagined here as such a threatening enemy that this version will instantly be the incarnation anyone who watches this will think of, instead of the one from Age of Ultron - pretty impressive for a thirty-minute cartoon.
[9/10 - Great]
TV REVIEW /// What If...?, Episode 9, "What If... The Watcher Broke His Oath?"
Episode summary: The Watcher gathers heroes from across the multiverse for one final battle against "Ultra-Vision". (IMDb)
To say this finale episode of What If...? is light on plot would be an understatement - The Watcher gathers a group of heroes, dubs them the 'Guardians of the Multiverse' and tasks them with defeating Infinite Ultron and saving all existence in the process. That is it, the entire story for this episode - although there's something to be said for keeping things simple to not confuse audiences as everything ties together.
As you'd expect, things don't go quite as smoothly as planned, and there are a couple of twists - one I saw coming and one that I didn't - to keep things interesting, even after Ultron has been... dealt with. But more than anything, it's just fun to see all of these characters team up, much like any live-action Marvel Studios outing, even if we haven't spent all that much time with them.
Yes, it does detract a bit retroactively from the earlier episodes' anthology feel, and even undoes some of the harsher outcomes seen before, but those 'happier' endings still feel deserved, not so much because of the plot but rather what it means to the characters. Creating characters that audiences can connect with is something that the MCU has always excelled at and seems to be under-appreciated by most of its critics.
The cast for this episode is also pretty fantastic, with the series' best performers - Chadwick Boseman, Benedict Cumberbatch and Chris Hemsworth - all on the same team, although the episode's standouts for me were Hayley Atwell as Captain Carter and Lake Bell as multiple Black Widows. It helps that Carter and Widow are both written brilliantly here, but the actresses are what really sell the performance.
That's not to discredit the animators here, with what was - for me - the episode with the best subtle animation of the season. What If...? has been an excellent display of combat choreography in animation, but there are some small changes in expression that are more than a thousand lines of dialogue with the weight they carry and it's something I hope becomes even more prominent in season 2.
It says something that the episode's biggest issue is that the variant Gamora (Cynthia McWilliams) feels a little out of place, both because she neither plays a major role nor has the requisite backstory to make the audience interested in her thanks to COVID-19 issues during production forcing her episode to be pushed into season 2.
As far as performances go, it would be a grave mistake to say nothing about the Watcher himself, Jeffrey Wright, who has been so good across this season that I'm hoping he gets to play the character when he (hopefully) crosses into live-action - it would honestly be very strange to hear anyone else in the role with Wright doing so well. Hell, it'd be weird to ever hear someone else narrate future seasons of What If...?, so I'm hoping Marvel and Disney don't do anything to piss him off and make him walk away!
"What If... The Watcher Broke His Oath?" is a satisfying conclusion to this first season, neatly bringing back elements from every episode so far (and one from season 2 thanks to the pandemic), even if some are featured more prominently than others. It's fairly light on plot, but the spectacular visuals and action are more than enough to make up for it, with a surprisingly upbeat ending - for the most part.