The idea of live-action stories living in harmony with animated stories in one cohesive canon is a dream I’ve had for the MCU for a decade. When Star Wars started doing it back in the day, there was an excitement to it. Invigorating energy that made George Lucas’ world feel truly alive in a way that his live-action films couldn’t come close to. The Clone Wars was an incredible dissection and reconstruction of all the things Lucas wanted to make cool with his Prequel trilogy but failed to do. The medium of animation allowed for all that. The palette artists have is essentially limitless. They can conjure whatever they want and how they want it. Whatever concept they couldn’t execute smoothly in live-action could now be done in an unbridled fashion. The animation was at one point the future of Star Wars and those shows proudly waved that distinction.
What If…? makes that dream come true for me, an experiment in its own right to expand the MCU in ways unexpected. It dissects all the things that make the MCU so good and reconstructs them in ways that feel alive. Through the ethereal voice of Jeffrey Wright, Kevin Feige dares pose the question, “What if the MCU as we know it turned out differently?” The result feels ambitious in a lot of aspects. The show attempts to be visually distinct from most superhero animated shows out there. It boasts an ensemble of actors that would make any animated show jealous. And it’s filled with premises that deepen the tapestry of the MCU.
Not every bit of it works but the ones that do make the show worth watching. If anything, What If…?’s biggest strength lies in its titular premise. What if Steve Rogers didn’t become Captain America? What if Ultron won? What if Fury’s Big Week didn’t go as planned? And like most Marvel films nowadays, these quirky premises are underpinned by genre trappings. One episode has a hard-boiled mystery tone to it while another has a heist tone akin to Ant-Man. These tonal flourishes accent the entire package, imbuing them with excitement that goes beyond an interesting logline.
What If…? also hones in on the best parts of the movies which are the character interactions. When making Infinity War and Endgame, one of the things the Russo Brothers as well as Markus and McFeeley made sure to thoroughly explore was the unlikely character pairings i.e. who would have the most interesting moment with who. It’s why you end up with a moment where Groot and Steve Rogers introduce themselves to one another. It’s how moments like Nebula and Stark bonding while marooned in space are created. The guys making What If…? understand that part of the assignment.
Perhaps what they didn’t understand was that getting marquee movie stars won’t always equate to good voice acting. What If…?’s vocal performances are its biggest drawback. It ranges from being decent in the films to sounding eerily unrecognizable. The whole thing is this weird uncanny valley situation where it should sound familiar since it’s the actual actors voicing them but ends up feeling so disjointed to what we’re familiar with. Some of the performances feel like they were done in a bubble as if they just sat in a booth with their pages and no reference of what’s happening on screen. Some voices are over-the-top and stiff while some are true to the performances in the films. It’s frustratingly inconsistent.
To point out the bad voice performances of the actual MCU actors in light of the mixed reactions everyone had hearing some other guy voice Tony Stark in the trailers feels ironic now. Having heard non-MCU, real voice actors inhabit these characters feels surprisingly okay. It’s a placebic feeling in that it’s easier to accept someone who’s not Sebastian Stan fumble at sounding perfectly like Bucky than it is to accept Sebastian Stan himself failing to replicate the Bucky he does in live-action. On one hand, it’s a testament to how infused these characters and actors have become. The slight difference in performance and even voice quality feels unnatural. On the other hand, the bad performances make the experience less special and sometimes unsettling.
Visually, it looks fine. They get points for trying something different despite it not always working The show’s cel-shaded 3D animation feels rigid at certain moments but when it gets good, it looks really graceful. The style comes to life whenever a big fight scene takes place and really, in a show like this, that’s what matters. Though in an interview we did with director Bryan Andrews, he admitted that they wanted to go full big-budget 2D with the show which would have been incredible. A lot of 2D animated shows nowadays feel cheap. Even Invincible, for all the acclaim and love that show got, looked really rusty at times. Knowing that this show could have brought back good 2D animation makes me feel wistful.
Among the three episodes screened for press, my least favorite has to be the Captain Carter one which is unfortunate because the character is the show’s most important one. It’s not that it was bad but it’s the episode that plays the story the straightest. It riffs on the first Captain America movie real hard up until the end with no monumental deviation other than Peggy Carter is Captain America. What If…? is all about exploring multiple big ideas in one episode and Episode 1 seems to just focus on one. Episodes 2 and 3, however, go big with their subversions. Episode 3 finally tells the story of Fury’s Big Week, a story only explored in a tie-in comic prior to the show but then throws a big curveball, causing a series of escalating twists.
But the T’Challa Star-Lord episode is something else. At a glance, it’s a fun twist on the Guardians of the Galaxy ensemble but the deeper subtext of the episode’s themes about home and family hit harder now that Chadwick Boseman is gone. The episode marks the actor’s final performance and it just plays so powerfully. People are sure to feel something when they watch it. Overall, What If…? is sure to scratch the itch for fans awaiting the next big live-action release. The premises are fun. The easter eggs are abundant. The cameos will send fans into lengthy discourses in the forums. It’s a great addition to the MCU.