What If...? Episode 1 reveals the show’s biggest flaw. And how to fix it.
Rehashing the plots of your old movies isn’t going to cut it, Marvel.
Marvel fans have yet to reach an overall consensus on What If’s first installment, but the general opinion right now seems to be that “What If… Captain Carter Were The First Avenger?” was great in some ways and lackluster in others.
Visually, What If…? is one of the more beautiful animated shows to premiere in recent memory. Narratively, the series’ premiere episode disappoints.
Why? For all its strengths, What If…? Episode 1 suffers from being far too similar to 2011’s Captain America: The First Avenger, the film its central premise is ostensibly riffing away from. Based on what we know about the rest of this season, Marvel is set to take some bigger swings, but hopefully, upcoming episodes like Marvel Zombies are the norm, not the exception to the rule.
A Familiar Adventure — The first episode of What If…? revolves around a pretty straightforward hypothetical: What if Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) was injected with the Super Soldier Serum instead of Steve Rogers (Chris Evans)? The episode doesn’t waste much time before sending viewers headfirst into that alternate timeline, turning Peggy into “Captain Carter” within its first 10 minutes.
From there, Peggy takes back the Tesseract from HYDRA, saves Bucky (Sebastian Stan) and his fellow soldiers from imprisonment, forms the Howling Commandos, has a few romantic moments with Steve, sacrifices herself in order to save the world, and is retrieved from an alternate dimension by Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and S.H.I.E.L.D. around 70 years later without having aged a day. All in a brisk 30 minutes.
In other words, the answer to what would happen if Peggy became a Super Soldier in the 1940s is that things would have, for the most part, turned out exactly how they did when Steve became Captain America. (With one big exception being Bucky’s “death” during World War II.)
Frankly, that’s a failure of imagination on the part of What If...?’s writers.
Different Timeline, Same Story — One of the biggest complaints levied against What If…?’s first episode is that the pacing of it is too fast and all over the place, but I don’t actually think it’s that simple.
The problem with the episode isn’t so much the pacing of its story but the fact that it makes it clear early on just how closely “What If… Captain Carter Were The First Avenger?” is following The First Avenger’s structure. The episode’s pace becomes more predictable once you realize it’s hitting all the same beats as the first Captain America movie — which it does. Knowing every major event that’s going to happen within that limited runtime makes it difficult to be engrossed in actually watching the episode.
That’s a shame, given that the best moments of What If…? Episode 1 come when it invents its own beats and sequences. When Peggy emerges as Captain Carter for the first time and single-handedly takes down a HYDRA convoy to retrieve the Tesseract, it’s without a doubt the episode’s most impressive sequence. Not only is the set-piece beautifully animated, but it’s also its own thing and not just a spin on what we already saw in The First Avenger.
In order for future episodes of What If…? to succeed where its first has fallen short, those installments will need to focus more on telling their own stories and not just slightly adjusting moments we’ve already seen. T’Challa’s adventures as Star-Lord will hopefully be very different than those undertaken by Peter Quill. And, ideally, Killmonger saving Tony Stark will lead to both men having very different lives than the ones we’ve seen them lead.
Changing a few characters’ roles simply won’t be enough for What If…? to be fresh or exciting — the stories need to be new too. And no, adding a giant tentacle monster isn’t enough either.
The Inverse Analysis — The good news is that there’s reason to believe What If…? will stray further from Marvel’s existing stories in some of its future episodes. One installment of the Disney+ series’ first season is set to depict a Marvel Zombies-inspired storyline, while another is said to follow a version of Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) who becomes ensnared in the dark arts of magic. In other words, there are plenty of opportunities for What If…? to tell totally new, surprising stories in the coming weeks.
All this said, there’s a lot the first episode of What If…? gets right, including making us want to see a whole lot more of Captain Carter. The problem is that the episode mistakes switching a few characters and minor details around with actually telling a new story.
There’s a difference between offering a new twist on a familiar tale and telling the same one twice — with tweaks. Hopefully, the upcoming episodes of What If…? will prove that Marvel and the show’s creators know their audience well enough to avoid that easy trap.
What If…? is streaming now on Disney+.