What if the public grows bored of Marvel? It’s a question that must be rattling around the mind of many a fretful Disney executive. For more than a decade, the hit comic-book universe has been the goose that won’t stop laying golden eggs. But after two dozen or so films and a handful of streaming series, it’s looking increasingly likely that Marvel’s winning formula could lose its shine. As part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU)’s ongoing “Phase Four”, the studio is diversifying its portfolio of titles, bringing in new lead characters (The Eternals; Ms Marvel; She-Hulk), new genres (WandaVision’s sitcom dreamscape; Shang-Chi’s martial arts action) and celebrated, idiosyncratic filmmakers (Chloe Zhao; Sam Raimi). Are these creatively legitimate attempts to experiment within the boundaries of Disney’s restrictive studio system? Or just more homogenous gruel from the world’s premiere slop factory? It’s fair to say opinions vary.
What If…? is a prime example of this sort of nominally experimental franchise fare. An animated series released weekly on Disney Plus, What If…? takes pre-existing characters and scenarios from the MCU and tweaks them for a run of standalone stories. Of the three episodes provided for review, the first is set during the events of Captain America: The First Avenger, and follows Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) as she takes the superserum originally intended for Steve Rogers, becoming Captain Carter in the process. The second episode ponders what would have happened if, instead of Peter Quill, it had been T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) who was abducted into space as a child, becoming the freewheeling space adventurer known as Star-Lord. The third (and, by a shade, best) episode takes a look at an alternative universe in which the members of the core Avengers line-up were murdered before the events of Avengers Assemble.
What If…? is competently made. Like the majority of Marvel Studios’ product, though, it refuses to take any real risks. The action is loud when it needs to be loud, fast when it needs to be fast. But the dialogue is dreary and witless; the animation – 3D graphics styled to look 2D – all too stiff and inexpressive. Though it’s loosely adapted from a Marvel premise dating back to the 1970s, the series can’t help but bring to mind The Simpsons’ “Treehouse of Horror” episodes – or, more closely, Futurama’s duller “Anthology of Interest” instalments.
Perhaps the biggest problem has to do with the storytelling. All three of the early episodes have plenty of plot, but no narrative. Characterisation relies completely on a pre-existing knowledge of, and affection for, the people on-screen (some of whom are voiced by their live-action actors, others arbitrarily not). If you’re not neck-deep in MCU lore, this will likely come across as gripless gibberish.
What If…? is sold as a broadening of the horizon: a multiverse of possibilities finally given licence to explode outwards. But in reality, this is more insular than ever. Each episode may begin with What If…?, but they end, resoundingly, with nothing more than “So what?”