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Disney+'s What If...? is a Cynical Remix of MCU Storylines

Marvel’s latest series on Disney+ is more of a remix album, playing with the elements you recognize, to show different outcomes with much of the same structure. In the case of the anthology series' first episode, “What If ... Captain Carter Were the First Avenger,” it’s about imaging Hayley Atwell’s Agent Peggy Carter as the one who gets the super serum that creates Captain America, and not Steve Rogers. A simple choice during a pivotal moment taken from “Captain America: The First Avenger” makes a whole dimension difference, and Peggy Carter gets the injection, the strength. It’s up to her to smash against the forces of HYDRA, who are themselves being led by the villain appropriately named Red Skull. Rogers, on the other hand, is still the “skinny kid from Brooklyn,” but he gets his own massive power later on with the help of Stark's ingenuity. 

The series debuts with great timing to a recently published article in The Guardian about how Marvel and DC Comics are barely paying some of the original comic book storytellers behind these entities. Not that all of these particular characters come from that generation, but that they are from the same school of thought of Disney and Marvel repurposing, of taking brand storylines and characters, and making whatever they can from the same pieces; the honoring of originality is more of a bonus, like the $5,000 check sent to creators when their characters are used. 

I love the idea of different dimensions in general, and think it's fascinating to think about—this series is like a 101 version of it for kids, which beats showing them the movie "Rabbit Hole." But playing with different realities in "What If...?" feels kind of weightless here; when the series is more staying within the parameters of what we’ve seen before, it’s kind of obnoxious. It starts to branch out a little more as the episode moves on, but the lack of truly messing with things makes clear how much the web of possibilities always leads to the lesser ambitions of the almighty IP. 

Inexplicably not released on a Saturday morning, this is the breakfast cereal version of the larger full course meals that Marvel has been giving their viewers tentpole after tentpole. The plotting takes out much of the excess from the earlier stuff and relies on a cartoon’s breakneck development, with just a bit of dialogue and character development, while the previous movie rings in your brain. That is to say that the first episode goes down pretty quick, zipping from one big sequence like Captain Carter jumping from one enemy to attack with her shield to the next. It's also to say that it feels more indulgent than usual; it's the MCU at 1.5x speed. 

The animation does provide a big advantage to the goal of action, and this first episode is nearly a mix of shield-bashing scenes which might be enough. The crisp visuals can pull off certain spectacle that would be tougher with live-action, like a mid-air fight scene where she jumps between different Nazi planes and uses her shield to bash the ever-loving crap out of her opponents. It’s mighty fluid stuff that even the highest budget live-action production wouldn’t be able to accomplish as cleanly with zeroes and ones. It looks cool, in one of the show’s many brief glimmers, even though it feels like it means very little. That’s the true indulgence of the episode, and I imagine will be for the series as it goes to Black Panther, Iron Man, Doctor Strange, and more. 

“What If…?” has an affable ease and comforting gloss to it, as Saturday morning cartoons are meant to. But the light fun of it is eaten away by the cynicism from within the project, that what purports to be about infinite possibilities is blatantly more about repurposing. I can’t tell if it’s more saddening than not to hear an original cast member return (as with Hayley Atwell), or to hear someone only try to sound like them, as with the guy who tries to nail Hugo Weaving’s hiss when playing Red Skull. Did Weaving, or Chris Evans (who also doesn't return), see through the premise and decide their work hours were best placed elsewhere? Recognizing characters and performances from live-action Marvel movies, but seeing them inside these animated bodies, repeating much of what they’re good at, does not inspire the sense of creative freedom, but captivity. Isn’t that ... the great evil that Michael Jordan and the Looney Tunes were desperately trying to avoid in “Space Jam”? 

First episode screened for review. "What If...?" is now playing on Disney+. 

Nick Allen

Nick Allen is an Assistant Editor at RogerEbert.com and a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association.

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