What If...? review: MCU animated series imagines alternate timelines and events

·4-min read
Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) in What If...? (Still: Disney+)
Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) in What If...? (Still: Disney+)

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Length: 13 episodes (20-30 minutes each)
Cast: Jeffrey Wright, Chadwick Boseman, Hayley Atwell, Samuel L. Jackson, Jeremy Renner, and Benedict Cumberbatch.

One episode drops weekly on Disney+ from 11 August

3 out of 5 stars

This review covers episodes 1-3 of What If...? 

Popular movies have always been ripe fodder for speculative discussion. What if events had played out differently? What if a different character had assumed a particular role? What if a show took place in another setting? The latest Marvel offering on Disney+, What If...?, explores such questions in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), bringing them to life in each episode. With Loki having already shown us the existence of the multiverse, this series expands on that by taking major established premises and giving them a unique twist, offering up quirky and sometimes bleak outcomes for these alternate scenarios.

What If...? is a cel-shaded animated anthology series that imagines alternate versions of events that happened in the MCU. It is based on the comic series of the same name. As an anthology series, each episode focuses on a particular character or concept that's different from the mainstream MCU, and shows us the ramifications of that change. It is narrated by a distant and omniscient being, the Watcher, who observes such events from a distance but never interferes in them.

Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) in What If...? (Still: Disney+)
Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) in What If...? (Still: Disney+)

The great thing about an anthology series, especially one set in a universe as vast as that of the MCU, is that it can span the gamut when it comes to the flavour and tone of each episode. Already in the first three episodes, we've got a range of different genres — straight-up action, mystery, and military. It gives us room to explore other perspectives and look at unconventional stories that wouldn't be suitable for a full-length feature film. In that sense, it's more experimental in nature, which is part of the excitement of watching What If...? — you never know what's going to happen next.

Because it's an animated series, the main characters get to be larger in life in terms of their action sequences. They leap higher and punch harder, being able to engage in stunts that would not be feasible for a live action series. That's not to say the action scenes are necessarily better, just that it feels more fantastical in nature.

The Watcher (Jeffrey Wright) in What If...? (Still: Disney+)
The Watcher (Jeffrey Wright) in What If...? (Still: Disney+)

However, as a cel-shaded series, the visuals for the show can get a little... irksome. Cel-shading is a type of rendering for 3D-animation to help make it look more "flat" and less, well, three-dimensional. It's an intentional artistic direction, and it's not as awful as other cel-shaded shows like Star Wars: Resistance. Yet, for an animated series that's supposed to have a strong connection to the films, this cel-shaded approach falls flat on its face. The characters either end up looking deformed (because the cel-shading may emphasis or de-emphasise certain facial features that we're accustomed to seeing) or cartoony, which detracts from the entire viewing experience. Cel-shading works for the backgrounds, props, and vehicles... but for human characters, it's hardly appealing.

Thankfully, most of the characters who appear in the show are voiced by the actors who played them in the films. This builds a stronger connection to the MCU, because even if the characters you're seeing don't quite look like the film counterparts, their voices immediately immerse you in that universe and remind you of who they are. There are a handful of characters who aren't voiced by their MCU actors, but for the most part, the show manages to get all the original cast to reprise their roles.

Captain Carter (Hayley Atwell) in What If...? (Still: Disney+)
Captain Carter (Hayley Atwell) in What If...? (Still: Disney+)

As an anthology series, it is interesting enough to keep you hooked and wanting to see the next alternate timeline the Watcher is going to show us. But the individual stories themselves aren't thought-provoking enough to be all that memorable, especially not compared to the original comic series it was based on. Without an overarching plot to tie everything together, an anthology series requires an implicit incisive commentary in its individual stories to truly have an impact, like those of Black Mirror. That's something that the show lacks, even though it is entertaining in its own right.

What If...? provides us with a healthy variety of stories, as any good anthology series does, even if those stories don't have enough depth to be memorable. The animation gives the characters more room for superheroics, even though the art direction isn't all that appealing. It's an interesting series for sure, but it could have pushed the envelope further.

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