Derivation is the fundamental underlying concept of What If…?. In both the comic book series and the streaming series it inspired, stories are spawned by imagining an alternate history of a familiar character whose path diverged at some point. That point of divergence–or Nexus Point–begets an entirely new universe on an entirely new timeline. And it also begets an entirely new set of consequences. To that end, Season 2 of What If…? may not have a more intriguing installment than Episode 7, “What If…Hela Found the Ten Rings?”.
Set within the once-hidden history of Asgard that was revealed in Thor: Ragnarok, “What If…Hela Found the Ten Rings?” creates a new scenario in which rather than banishing his sanguinary daughter to Hel, Odin casts her out down to Midgard. The scene unfolds parallel to the more familiar banishment of Thor (as seen in director Kenneth Branagh’s 2011 film) right down to the spell the Allfather places on Hela’s signature helm. Make no mistake, this decision sets the episode on the precipice of becoming a boringly derivative adventure where Hela simply follows in the footsteps of the Sacred Timeline’s Thor (watch Episode 5, “What If…Captain Carter Fought the Hydra Stomper?” if that’s your thing); however, writer Matt Chauncey‘s creative choices allow for a wonderfully bold new adventure to unfold on Earth…and beyond.
By setting the episode roughly one thousand years before the events of Thor, Chauncey opened the door for Hela, one of Marvel’s most audacious villains, to cross paths with someone nearly as ruthless as her: Xu Wenwu. Awestruck by the now powerless Asgardian’s will, Wenwu proposes an alliance that would see Hela join him in protecting the people of Earth. Clearly uncomfortable with the idea, Hela flees Wenwu’s compound and-with the help of the dijiang Morris–finds her way to Ta Lo where one of its Protectors, Jiayi, helps her break free from Odin’s conditioning and break free to walk her own path and regain her crown. Once reunited with Wenwu the result is hardly what one would expect of the two characters from the Sacred Timeline. Rather than amplify each other’s destructive qualities, Hela and Wenwu choose to become champions of peace and, after defeating Odin, join with Asgard to help rid the universe of callous warlords and conquerors.
What’s put forth on-screen during the episode is worthy enough; however, what’s possible within this new alternate universe created by the divergence is equally fascinating. As the original change to the familiar story ripples throughout time, a fascinating cascade of changes emerges. With Odin storming across the galaxy liberating those who are held down, is Thor ever born? And if he is, it’s highly unlikely his journey would have much in common with his Sacred Timeline counterpart. Given that the Asgardian-Ten Rings alliance is seen charging at Thanos and a young Gamora, it would seem unlikely that the Mad Titan’s quest for the Infinity Stones would ever happen. And since in the Sacred Timeline Gamora and Shang-Chi are the same age and given Wenwu’s partnership with Hela and his lack of interest in seizing the power of Ta Lo for himself, there’s probably no Shang-Chi waiting for his own adventure. Much as the episode allowed Hela to explore her true nature, it also fully embraces the true nature of the premise of What If…?. One change leads to a new one and each new action leads to another until familiar characters exist in an entirely unfamiliar universe. And now, as happened on occasion in the comics, the streaming series has created an alternate universe worthy of further exploration.
What If….? Season 2 will stream new episodes daily through December 30th.