Marvel Studios Falls Short of Neil Gaiman’s Magic in ‘What If…?’ Episode 8

In 2003, author Neil Gaiman’s eight-issue limited series, 1602, reimagined the existence of a couple dozen Marvel Comics heroes and villains in Elizabethan England. Make no mistake, while it was fun and won an award or two, the series was no critical darling. While it hit the mark with readers and ultimately spawned three sequels, critics were split on Gaiman’s first work for Marvel since he wrote Marvelman in the early 1990s. In fact, Comics Bulletin’s Cody Dolan described the series as a “glorified What If…? series” that was neither “revolutionary” nor “groundbreaking.” Unfortunately for Marvel Studios, their attempt to adapt that very same series into their own animated What If…? series is even less revolutionary.

This is certainly not to say that there’s no fun to be had in Episode 8, “What If…The Avengers Assembled in 1602?”; in fact, it’s rather loaded with solid performances, fun one-liners and even the return of The Freak. However, despite all the magic at the disposal of Wanda Merlin, who is revealed to be responsible for bringing Haley Atwell’s Captain Carter to the 1602 universe, the episode fails to capture even the limited magic of Gaiman’s original and oft-derided series.

1602 Wanda Merlin in Marvel Studios’ WHAT IF…?, Season 2 exclusively on Disney+. © 2023 MARVEL.

Unfortunately, a collection of moments does not a good episode make. And so not Jon Favreau’s Sir Harold “The Happy” Hogan, nor Paul Rudd’s Scott Lang, nor even Tom Hiddelston’s Loki doing Hamlet can find the right additive recipe to make the episode nearly as engaging as Gaiman’s comics. In the end, it feels as though the 1602 episode was one that the creators of What If…? were determined to shoehorn into the series from its inception.

Despite the lack of creative chutzpah apparent in it (to be fair, it’s likely that many of the characters that made the comic book series so entertaining were not available to the creators), the episode does come tantalizingly close to entangling the animated series in the larger ongoing issues that predominate the Multiverse Saga. Though it’s not explicitly stated, the presence of Steve Rogers “Hood”–once again the Man Out of Time–in 1602 is causing an Incursion. And, of course, there’s the much more axiomatic premise that no matter where or when these stories take place, Marvel’s core heroes remain Marvel’s core heroes. And as the Multiverse Saga approaches its swan song, “What If…The Avengers Assembled in 1602?” reminds us that Earth’s Mightiest Heroes can assemble anywhere and anywhen.

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