Marvel’s new animated series What If …? operates on a tantalizing premise: What if major events in the MCU timeline had occurred differently? What if, for instance, Steve Rogers never became Captain America? What if T’Challa, instead of becoming the Black Panther, took on Peter Quill’s role as Star-Lord? On paper, it’s a fun way of exploring the multiverses outlined by Loki and even Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. In practice, though, the show is a half-filled—or is it half-empty—cup.
The two episodes neatly encapsulate both sides of the coin. The first, “What If … Captain Carter Were the First Avenger?” posits a world in which Peggy Carter, Steve Rogers’ love interest, received the super-soldier serum instead of him. The resulting romp is fun—watching Peggy knock squads of Nazis on their asses will bring a tear to the eye of anyone who, like me, misses Agent Carter—but also feels curiously hollow. One of the issues plaguing the Marvel Cinematic Universe has been its dearth of female superheroes—only Captain Marvel and Black Widow have actually centered on female characters—and watching Peggy take Captain America’s place only highlights how few women have actually held the spotlight. The temporary nature of Peggy’s captaincy only makes it all more bittersweet.
Fans have also pointed out that, even as What If…? takes a minuscule step forward in presenting the female version of a major superhero in a hypothetical reality, putting a white woman in Steve Rogers’ shoes still feels strangely regressive given that, in the primary timeline, Captain America is now a Black man. This isn’t to say that Cap ought to be one or the other—rather, it’s an indication that the MCU would have benefited from being more inclusive to begin with, rather than forcing any hero not typically seen as a white man to jockey for one or two lead slots.
“What If … T’Challa Became a Star-Lord?” does a better job of making the series’ premise spark, as its more outlandish premise makes it feel more like a one-off comic than a throwaway episode. The second episode feels the kind of swing you should be taking when you can do anything with these beloved characters—with basically zero consequences. For instance, this episode turns Thanos into a sort of curmudgeonly good guy, as he’s been talked out of his Infinity War plans by T’Challa. It’s also a more interesting exploration of T’Challa’s character. As Charles Pulliam-Moore of io9 notes, in the comics, and to a certain extent the MCU, an inherent conflict in the character of T’Challa has been his responsibility as the leader of the nation of Wakanda versus his drive to explore the rest of the world. That manifests in a different way, here, as T’Challa is only now reckoning with his heritage and past.
This T’Challa is allowed to be a little looser and more carefree, and the episode also acts as a bittersweet farewell to the character; unless Marvel decides to do what Disney did with Carrie Fisher and Peter Cushing in The Rise of Skywalker and Rogue One, this is the last time we’ll see (well, hear) Chadwick Boseman as the Black Panther. The episode also seems to have larger ramifications for at least this version of the MCU, as we see the villain Ego, formerly foiled by the Chris Pratt version of Star-Lord, confront his now very normal, very powerless son. In addition, T’Challa returning to Wakanda as an adult, accompanied by the Ravagers, means that the secretive country is not only opening up to the rest of Earth, but the rest of the galaxy.
The question now is whether or not the series will keep trying to tell interesting stories, or whether it will capitulate to the same demands Marvel’s other Disney series have, swerving in a more boring direction to better fit into the larger MCU plan. A quick look at what’s in store suggests that things could go either way—the trailers for the series see some of the characters’ paths converging (Captain Carter, for instance, meets Doctor Strange), but there are also some very weird things in store, including zombie versions of Captain America and Iron Man, and a talking head in a jar.
Then, of course, there’s the question of whether or not What If …?, despite its speculative nature, will ever become fully a part of the mainline MCU. The idea of multiple universes is now a part of the central storyline; there’s the titular setting for the upcoming Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, and the next Spider-Man movie will reportedly introduce at least one character from the Andrew Garfield and Tobey Maguire iterations of the hero’s hijinks. So there’s at least a chance we’ll see some of these alternate universes play out in live action. The only thing is, will they actually add anything to the MCU, or is that ever-potent question, “what if,” ultimately a hollow one?