Early (Iron) Man

What If...? Episode 1 fixes a huge missed Iron Man opportunity

Before there was Tony, there was Howard.

One of the best parts of What If...? is that it brings back the halcyon days of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, all the way back in Phase 1.

When Captain America: The First Avenger premiered in theaters, the MCU was still a wild experiment at risk of failing, and nothing like the juggernaut it is today. Given this, the narratives in these first few Marvel movies are more conventional than the literally reality-shaking stories told in the latest MCU entries.

However, What If...? offers the best of both worlds in how it infuses the MCU’s early stages with a newfound willingness to take risks and leap headfirst into the multiverse.

Episode 1 of What If...? follows an alternate universe where Peggy Carter receives the Super Soldier Serum in place of Steve Rogers. This transforms Peggy into Captain Carter, but that’s not the end of Steve Rogers’ part in this story. Once he recovers from a stray gunshot, Steve is enlisted by Howard Stark to pilot a superpowered suit known as the Hydra Stomper, a proto-Iron Man suit that looks more like the Iron Giant.

Hydra Stomper’s rudimentary armor.Marvel Studios

Without the serum, Steve fights on the frontlines, assisting Captain Carter in air missions and becoming a tank-like resource for the U.S. in its war against Red Skull. This may seem like a plot convenience, orchestrated to show more of the irresistible dynamic between these timeless lovers, but there are greater implications to Steve’s alternate role.

Howard Stark having an Iron Man predecessor ready to go before Tony was born sets the stage for the eventual role Tony plays in the greater MCU. Yes, Tony Stark was a genius billionaire playboy philanthropist, but the apple clearly doesn’t fall far from the tree. Howard and Tony’s relationship was an underlying theme of Iron Man’s journey toward Endgame, but this one part of What If...? establishes just how similar father and son really are.

Hydra Stomper and Captain Carter make for a dynamic duo.Marvel Studios

Since What If...? only twisted on the previously established Marvel history by showing Peggy’s decision to stay in the room while Steve received the serum, canonically speaking, Howard already had the idea for the Hydra Stomper in one form or another. This means the seeds for Iron Man were planted even decades before Tony Stark installed his arc reactor.

Tony Stark’s legacy will be looming over the MCU for a long time to come, but What If...? suggests his heroism is also part of his father’s legacy. And with Ironheart in development, that legacy will be carried on in spirit, even if not by a Stark.

What If...? is now streaming on Disney+.