Marvel has had a year of “what ifs,” thanks to two of its three theatrical blockbusters (Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania, The Marvels) falling flat, its centerpiece Disney+ efforts (Secret Invasion, Loki) fizzling out, and the actor positioned to be the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s new Big Bad, Jonathan Majors, being convicted of assault and harassment, compelling the studio to drop him. Ironically, then, the Hollywood juggernaut ends its terrible, horrible, no-good, very-bad 2023 on a somewhat upbeat note via the second season of What If…?, an animated anthology of alternate-reality MCU tales that underline the franchise’s greatest strengths—if also its persistent weaknesses.
What If…? (Dec. 22, Disney+) enlists an enormous roster of Marvel veterans for its nine half-hour stories of multiversal mayhem, all of them narrated by the Watcher (Jeffrey Wright), a cosmic being who observes (but rarely intervenes in) the comings and goings of the MCU’s many extraordinary inhabitants. Save for Robert Downey, Jr., Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Anthony Hopkins, Zoe Saldana, and Tony Leung, virtually every one of the series’ numerous notable characters is voiced by their original actors, lending the proceedings a creative consistency with their live-action predecessors. With the additional enhancements of sharp writing and dynamic visuals, the show’s feel is of a piece (stylistically and tonally) with what’s come before.
Spearheaded by showrunner A.C. Bradley and director Bryan Andrews, What If…? continues to boast dexterous and fleet animation that’s just the right side of cartoony, and the same can be said about its scripts, which are primarily notable for capturing the distinctive and vibrant personalities of the MCU’s various famous (and lesser known) faces. Whether it’s taking a lighthearted or grim approach, the series feels comic-book-y in the best sense of the term. That’s never truer than in a fourth installment set on the homeworld of the Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum); Tony Stark (Mick Wingert, doing an excellent Downey, Jr. impression) winds up in the aftermath of the Battle of New York (as seen in 2012’s The Avengers), and has to fight to escape by participating in a chariot race that involves both Gamora (Cynthia McWilliams) and Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson). Also featuring the participation of Taika Waititi’s Korg and Rachel House’s Topaz, it’s a standout episode which recognizes that sarcastic and ridiculous comedy is central to Iron Man and company’s appeal.
The series’ third episode similarly grasps this fact, staging a Yuletide skirmish in Avengers tower between Tony Stark’s right-hand man Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau) and Iron Man 2 nemesis Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell) that plays as a delirious and self-conscious riff on Die Hard. While the vast majority of What If…? episodes demand considerable knowledge of the franchise’s earlier films (this is not, it must said, for MCU neophytes), its strongest outings still work as standalone stories. To wit: The premiere simply necessitates a bit of familiarity with Guardians of the Galaxy in order to follow its noir-ish yarn about Nebula (Karen Gillan) working as a detective on the hunt for the killer of Yondu (Michael Rooker), during which she uncovers a conspiracy aimed at letting Ronan the Accuser—who, in this universe, has betrayed and vanquished Thanos—carry out a catastrophic planetary invasion.
What If…? smartly brings back a fan favorite too: the alternate-MCU heroine Captain Carter (Hayley Atwell), who stars in multiple episodes of this second season, including one set in 1602 that finds her striving to assemble an old-school version of the Avengers. A female mirror of Captain America who’s driven by her unquenchable desire to reconnect with her beloved Steve Rogers, Carter remains the series’ finest original character—to the point that one wishes she’d receive proper feature-film treatment (rather than just that pitiful Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness cameo)—and she ultimately becomes the axis around which much of the action rotates. That’s both good and bad, however, since despite her welcome presence, the material ultimately ditches its anthology format for a serialized narrative about Carter (carried over from season one) that causes everything to devolve into the sort of confusing multiverse craziness that currently plagues the MCU.
Nonetheless, even in its more convoluted passages, What If…? exhibits more imagination than most of its recent big-screen counterparts, and its mix-and-match approach to characters—envisioning them in different guises and contexts, and pairing them off in unexpected ways—is generally inspired. Less successful is its creation of a new heroine in Kahhori (Devery Jacobs), a Native American woman who, in the sixth episode, becomes imbued with the power of the Tesseract and uses it to repel Spanish conquistador “monsters.” Kahhori is a clear attempt to further diversify the MCU but she’s conceived in the dullest terms possible; like the rest of her Indigenous brethren within the series, she’s simplistically and monotonously noble, with no unique or defining character traits outside her angelic goodness. The fact that she has amorphous powers (she’s fast! She can do magic energy-beam stuff!) merely underscores her generic construction, and makes her the show’s biggest disappointment.
Kahhori doesn’t measure up to the myriad MCU alums that populate What If…?, especially considering that Cate Blanchett returns as Hela, the Goddess of Death (in an episode concerning Shang-Chi’s Wenwu), and Kurt Russell reprises his role as planet-devouring Ego. Fortunately, Bradley and Andrews keep things brisk and lighthearted, at least until a final clash between Captain Carter and a twisted Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) that more strenuously—and less entertainingly—foregrounds the series’ fixation on loss and regret. Witty repartee, swift and concussive super-combat, and inventive scenarios are this MCU spin-off’s strengths, at its most confident and engaging when liberated from obligations to devise, and develop, its own intricate intertwined mythology. Once the show begins miring itself in the type of gobbledygook complexities that require Wikipedia research, it loses its way.
Going forward, What If…? would be wise to keep things bite-size brief and self-contained, and to leave sprawling serialized storytelling to the MCU’s bigger-budgeted films. Which is another way of saying: less interconnected multiverse mumbo jumbo, and more wisecracking Howard the Duck absurdity.