In this, the golden age of geekdom, Sounds Geek To Me is a column that seeks to discuss and dissect the latest from the various fandom universes, new and old. From Marvel to Middle Earth to The Matrix, sci-fi sensations to superheroes, galaxies far far away to wizarding worlds, the column aims to inform, opine and take fantasy storytelling far too seriously.
I am not sure what we wanted from What If¦?, the nine-episode animated anthology series based in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Given that the aim of the show is to offer new possibilities and scenarios from the (currently) 25-movies-and-three-series-sized MCU, I guess what you would hope for is... something different.
Add to that the power of what animation can do, and has done, for these massive fandom-fuelled worlds " give them life (Amazon Prime Video's Invincible), go deeper into them (Star Wars: The Clone Wars), or even outdo their live-action counterparts (the DC animated universe). In theory, the show provides a thrilling opportunity to see new perspectives and find new ways to look at an existing world. To do, and go where the movies could not.
But as we have seen thus far, for the most part, the MCU is not really a fan of taking massive risks and big swings. Unless, of course, they involve a hammer.
Despite its promise and potential, What If¦? is largely more of the same. Slightly different combinations of good guys fighting slightly different combinations of bad guys.
The animated Disney+ series devotes each of its nine episodes to a different alternate-universe scenario. What if Peggy Carter took the super-soldier serum instead of Steve Rogers? What if Yondu accidentally nabbed T'Challa instead of Peter Quill? What if Ultron got the Infinity Stones? What if Killmonger saved Tony Stark?
While it is impressive how much ground they manage to cover in mere half-hour episodes, What If...? is at best a mediocre mixed bag. The reimagined stories are consistently curious but never compelling, with very little that is genuinely memorable. If anything, after a point, the episodes begin to blend into a blur of colourful action.
The standouts, for me, were the stories that leaned into different genres to make them distinctive. Episode 3's intriguing murder mystery of whose picking off the Avengers, the fourth episode's tragic, grief-driven madness of Dr Strange, the zany zombie apocalypse of episode 5, and elements of episode 8's dystopian survival drama, each interesting in their own way. But even with these standouts, I cannot think of a single scenario that really got me hooked and desperate to watch that movie. Perhaps because they all play it safe within the realm of what already happened. Slightly different combinations of good guys fighting slightly different combinations of bad guys.
Of course, it does not help that the series finale is obviously a team-up of the characters and stories of the different universes from the first eight episodes. A convenient finale of 'slightly different Avengers' (which could just as well have been the tag line for the series). Perhaps it is too much to expect for the MCU to break its very DNA. But you could have imagined this to be so much more. A series with the same essence, within the same world, reenvisioned to look and feel different. And you would not have to look very far to see what that might look like.
Mere weeks after What If¦? came another animated anthology based on reimagining an established fan-favourite franchise universe on Disney+ with Star Wars: Visions. Each episode offers new characters and stories within the Star Wars world, each with its own distinct animation style and even differing durations. It is the Star Wars universe' very own Love, Death, and Robots. In its stories, Visions asks its very own set of what-ifs. What If there was a Sith defector? What if a band of misfits on the run from Jabba the Hutt formed an actual band? What if a droid aspired to be a Jedi? In terms of pure unbridled imagination and style, Visions is the answer to the question what if What If¦? didn't play it safe?
But more than its lack of imagination, What If¦?'s failure to dazzle is equally the result of a larger issue of how understandably fatigued many of us MCU fans are. For years, those that did not worship at the altar of the Avengers would speak of these alien notions of 'Marvel fatigue,' and as the core audience of these movies, I would never relate to it.
But now, between the sheer volume of Marvel releases and the increasing amount of energy required to be an MCU fan at present, it is tiring to keep up with the onslaught.
For me, it is also in part because we have not seen any new stories and characters emerge from the MCU in what feels like the longest time. Avengers: Endgame satisfyingly concluded the Infinity Saga more than two years ago. But the two movies and four spin-off series since feel like they have revisited the same events from different angles. Either looking at the direct consequences of that film (Spiderman: Far From Home, Loki, WandaVision, Falcon And The Winter Soldier) or the events leading up to it (Black Widow).
Despite their individual achievements, each of these projects has had us either reeling from or rethinking, revisiting, and recycling the Infinity Saga rather than going for something new. I thoroughly relished Shang Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings for instance, because of how it was not burdened by interconnectedness and entirely reliant on the events of the old, giving us a brand new world with new characters to get lost in. Something I hope Eternals similarly delivers on.
But even within that universe (multiverse?) of giant interconnected storylines, What If¦? was the rare opportunity to really cut loose, and have fun and be different. Instead, it had me, an MCU nut, think like a superhero cynic. The kind who would call this animated series a creatively bankrupt exercise in recycling and repackaging the same heroes and stories without achieving much of anything along the way.
I guess, in the end, you could just throw your hands in the air and concede, telling yourself that maybe this is just a colourful, fun show for kids, and maybe we are all asking too much from it. It is a thought that I fear I will be coming back to often in the coming years.
What If...? is streaming on Disney+ Hotstar Premium.
Suchin Mehrotra is a film journalist and movie junkie who sincerely believes movies can change the world. You can find him on Twitter at @suchin545.