Respect for the audience. Thoroughly considered plots. Thoughtfully developed characters. These have been the hallmarks of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Then came “What if …?”
At first glance, the juggernaut’s fourth Disney + series looked like an animated show exploring how famous stories could have turned out differently with a crucial tweak – a chance to have fun with Marvel myths and invited lots of “Whoa” moments along by road. How to play the cartoon it is based on at its best.
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Instead, the series, which ends Wednesday, has been a darkly unimaginative waste of its unlimited canvas: Though it could conceivably use any character or location, any plot unit, or twist: “What if …?” produces a disappointingly small number of mouth-agape moments-if any. And given that it’s an exploration of the Multiverse – the driving force behind several upcoming MCU movies – the series’ shortcomings could be an ominous sign of things to come for the most successful entertainment franchise ever.
That is not to say that the series is without profit. “What if …? The animation is beautiful. Top actors from the films give their voice, including the late Chadwick Boseman, in his last appearance as T’Challa. The gonzo, all-you-can-do re-images have their fun. The Comos are entertaining (yes, it was Kurt Russell who dropped in for a line like Ego, and Howard the Duck, Drax and others who partyed in Vegas).
But in the end, it’s just silver linings. At its core, the episodes are dominated by exposure and plot, leaving relationships, motives, and emotions out of the equation. The dialogue consistently plays down to an audience that the creators assume is easy to please. In the finale, Uatu, the unfathomable Watchers voice of Jeffrey Wright, says with cosmic gravitas: “It’s showtime,” while a vanishing attempt at “sweet pun” between Captain Carter and Black Widow fails not once, but twice. . Even the humor, such as Episode 7’s portrayal of Thor, the God of Thunder, as Thor, the Prince of Parties, has felt like an “SNL” sketch with a big budget rather than evoking the organic stupidity of e.g. “Thor: Ragnarok.”
All of this adds to non-existent dramatic efforts similar to what DC Comics used to call “imaginary stories.” Tony Stark’s death in “Avengers: Endgame” was hugely touching for MCU fans (though some observers insist that these films do not “convey emotional, psychological experiences to another human being”); it’s hard to imagine Tony Stark’s multiple deaths in “What If …?” do as much as an emotional ripple. Cap is a zombie now? No worries, he’s doing well in the next section. Ultron has destroyed the universe? Thanks, next. It’s MCU equivalent to Pam waking up to find Bobby alive and in the shower.
Some MCU has been very good at keeping dead grades dead. That finality makes death important. In the comics, of course, when a protagonist dies, it evokes little more than a yawning “How many questions before they are left?” from veteran readers.
“What if …? S ”habit with beloved characters biting the dust and spitting it out from episode to episode resembles a grim game Whack-a-Mole that bodes ill for MCU’s Multiverse with its infinitely varied timelines infinitely varied results.
What will stop the MCU from dipping into a molehole in a future Avengers movie to produce a vibrant and well-maintained Tony Stark who stopped Thanos without dying in another universe? The trailer “Spider-Man: No Way Home” features a villain who died in his last appearance (Alfred Molina’s Doctor Octopus, RIP in “Spider-Man 2”). The franchise risks permanently opening the doorway to lethargy if it repeals the law of gravity so that the death of its characters has no weight, such as “What if …?” shows.
Perhaps the series’ biggest sin, however, is its disregard for the MCU’s internal logic – or really anyone logic. The Doctor Strange-centered episode argued that the death of Strange’s beloved Christine was an unshakable moment (an “absolute point”), and his attempt to avoid it would result in cosmic disaster. Except that is not unshakable or absolutely at all: In Strange’s Origins (“Doctor Strange”, 2015), Christine does not die at all, and he still becomes Master of the Mystic Arts. She lived; reality did not die.
In the finale of “What If …?” Forms Uatu – after throwing its primary directive on non-interference in the vacuum – a team to defeat ultra-Ultron. With access to countless realities, does he bring in Galactus, a fully powered Thanos, Ego, Phoenix? How about 1 billion Captain Marvels and Doctor Stranges? No, he chooses the same tough bunch of people we’ve seen in previous episodes, most of whom are far down the superpower scale, and some of them are, shall we say, unreliable. As Cap once said, “Well, we’re not ’27 Yankees’.”
Of course, the MCU is almost certain to remain bulletproof – for now. Even the least-liked movies have a positive score on Rotten Tomatoes, and its pandemic movie releases are among the biggest earners of the era.
Let’s just hope the powers that be look at the Multiverse through the prism “What if …?” and say, “We only get one shot. We need to do better. ”
‘What if …?’
Where: Disney +
Evaluation: TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children under 14)