I'd been looking forward to What If? The concept of the comic series has always really interested me, and I feel like a lot of the more intriguing ideas that Marvel has come out with have roots in the alt-reality canons that it creates. Plus, it means that they can just tell some short, fully encapsulated stories that simply wouldn't work in the wider MCU anymore, and that's always a good thing. The fun of What If? is that it lets you do anything with any of the characters!
So I was a little disappointed with the opening episode. They had a little bit of fun with things, and I enjoyed the duality of Peggy Carter and Steve Rodgers working together as a pseudo-Cap/Iron Man combo, but it also varied very little from the First Avenger movie. On the one hand, that feels right: Peggy and Steve are fairly similar people whose actions would be largely consistent, whilst the villainous plot of that film would remain unchanged regardless of who received the super-soldier serum. But it also felt a little dull to watch.
On the other hand, I was pleasantly surprised to see both Hayley Atwell and Dominic Cooper reprise their roles! In fact, Chris Evans is a notable MCU actor in that he didn't return to voice his animated counterpart. The cast list for this series is utterly ridiculous and likely more star-studded than even End Game was. Heck, even single-movie villains like Kurt Russell and Benecio Del Toro are back, though I feel like the biggest weight falls on the Wakandan plots, where both Michale B. Jordan and Chadwick Boseman return to voice their respective characters in multiple episodes.
The realisation that almost all of the OG cast were returning for the show buoyed me a little after episode one, and then we get right into true alt-timeline stuff in episode two with T'Challa as Star-Lord, which was a great episode with some surprisingly lengthy ramifications. From here, the show only goes from strength-to-strength, whilst taking a surprisingly dark turn. Episode three gives us a world where Hank Pym kills the Avengers in retaliation for Hope's as a S.H.I.E.L.D agent, a twist that was generally unexpected and a plot driven by Widow that really twists and turns. We also see the classic Marvel Zombies franchise joining the MCU, proving yet again that Hank Pym can be a monumentally destructive force, which is just a whole lot of fun and has some great moments between the remaining heroes. And then there's Killmonger vs Iron Man, which almost feels like Marvel trying to retcon Eric's character to be more evil just so they don't have to try and redeem him in the main series; still a lot of fun and arguably a much better villainous scheme than the actual Black Panther plot.
Thor's comedic "only child" routine was a slight breath of fresh air, but otherwise fairly forgettable, until we launch back into Ultron gaining the infinity stones and a surprise twist finale where all the disparate plotlines come together in a multidimensional Avengers: Assemble! moment that lands surprisingly well. I was not expecting them to do this, but getting to see the Watcher fight, and generally returning to (and concluding) many of the prior episodes' arcs was a really fun way to go out. I found the sudden inclusion of a previously unseen Gamora a little odd (unless I'm forgetting something from episode two?), almost like an episode was scrapped late in development, but otherwise it was a really well-written conclusion with some genuinely great humour, action, and twists along the way.
And then there's episode four: What If Doctor Strange Lost His Heart Instead of His Hands? This is a highly acclaimed episode and I totally understand why. Not only does it play into the finale surprisingly well, but it's also such a different yet understandable journey for the character to take, one which Benedict Cumberbatch really brings to life via voice acting. Strange's descent into reasoned madness and his ultimate folly brought on through despair is a harrowing and tightly written tale that feels completely believable, despite the magical setting and incomprehensible outcome. It's an extremely well-done episode and worth the rest of the season alone 👏👏👏