For all its inventiveness across the past decade, Marvel Studios has always been bound by rules – often dictated by its rich and storied comic book history. They are the blueprints, adapted with only minor tweaks: Captain America has to be frozen in ice, Thor is the chosen one worthy enough to wield Mjolnir, and Nick Fury is always pulling the strings from the shadows. And so on. Marvel, at times, is in danger of being rote, paint-by-numbers, and feeling slightly too predictable for those in-the-know.
But what if… Marvel really let loose with its storytelling? That’s the premise of What If…?, the first animated series from Marvel Studios. It’s one that, from the jump, revels in breaking free of the framework laid down by the mainline MCU. Instead of following the beaten path, it diverges from key story beats in the movies to form a fresh and intriguing take on the pop culture juggernaut in a series of 30-minute episodes.
The first of these revolves around questioning how things would have played out if Peggy Carter, not Steve Rogers, took the Super Soldier Serum and became Captain Carter.
Framed by Jeffrey Wright’s gravitas-filled narration as storyteller/overseer Uatu the Watcher, Hayley Atwell’s British agent deviates from canon to take Steve Rogers’ place and is used as the US military’s blunt tool to turn the tide in World War 2. Along the way, Carter butts heads with certain villains, sexual politics, and more than one big surprise that will have dyed-in-the-wool comic book fans being unable to comprehend just how much Marvel has dug out from its vaults.
The most striking and immediate reaction, though, is unlikely going to be that of the exciting new story laid out before you. Instead, there’s going to be a few minutes’ grace period where your eyes will need to adjust to the art style. It’s certainly not bad, but will be an acquired taste.
While some (specifically, the main characters) look gorgeous in the cel-shaded style, minor characters tend to fade into the background or – worse – look like relics from a bygone era of licensed PS2 games. Those instances are rare but distracting enough to really shake you from being truly immersed in the playful universe of possibilities that writer A.C. Bradley and her team have succeeded in creating.
It must be said, however, that the actual animation is wonderfully kinetic and often goes above and beyond what could have been achieved in live action. Set-pieces sparkle and action sequences – including retreads of Captain America: The First Avenger – feel suitably weighty in the hands of the creative team.
It’s a lazy assertion to assume that animation arrives fully formed in a vacuum with the ability to do almost anything. Credit, then, is due to the storyboarders, animators, and director Bryan Andrews, each of whom act as a confident guiding hand to help bring this project to life. It’s a cliché, sure, but it rings true here: What If…? feels like the wide-eyed wonders of a comic book come to life on Disney Plus.
That energy is also carried by a stellar anchoring performance by Hayley Atwell. Not every MCU mainstay reprises their role (with Chris Evans being among the most notable absences) and not every returning name is often best suited for voice work.
The heaving roster of Marvel actors deliver lines in ways that range from being able to elevate the already captivating script to often feeling tired and one-note. Atwell, though, is exceptional – and it’s a little wonder why she’s been rumored to return as Captain Carter in a live-action project (Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness) as well as in future seasons of the show. A one-and-done appearance would be one of the MCU’s great missed opportunities.
Those ellipses in What If…?, rather than a punctuated full stop, also echo one of the show’s greatest strengths: leaving fans wanting more.
Each story is self-contained, complete, and crammed with fan service and cool Easter eggs, yet now has the potential to be plucked out from the multiverse. These are all backdoor pilots, ready to be explored in greater depth down the line in animation or, whisper it, even as a fully-fledged show or movie.
What… If? feels like the opening salvo of 2008’s Iron Man again – in a good way. The possibilities for the show – its crossover appeal, its infinite roster of ideas just waiting to be mined – are endless and will generate some serious (and seriously passionate) discussion among a fervent fanbase.
If Captain Carter’s debut now is indicative of the wider season, we can comfortably settle in for a series that will grant the spotlight on those less fortunate, while also sprinkling in some shocks, surprises, and performances that rank up there with the MCU’s greatest hits.
Despite its ponderous title, What If is definitive – and another surefire hit for the house that Kevin Feige built.
What If…? Is streaming weekly on Disney Plus from August 11. For more, check out our guide on how to watch the Marvel movies in order.