This is truly a family show that feels both real and aspirational.
What if Agent Peggy Carter was the first Avenger? Or if Clint “Hawkeye” Barton could turn into the Hulk? Or if Ant-Man’s head found its way into a jar?
Welcome to What If … ?, Disney+’s newest—and truly most twisted—take on the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Here, in its animated confines, most anything is possible. Avengers might turn into zombies. Superheroes might turn into other superheroes. Or every character from the Marvel pantheon might retire and start to work as bank tellers, leaving the heroic work to the world’s true champions: television reviewers.
If you’ve heard the phrase, “crazier things can happen,” this is a show about those crazier things—at least as far as the MCU is concerned.
Personally, I blame Loki.
Before the events of Disney+’s Loki television show, the universe (at least the Marvel Cinematic Universe) was presented as a pretty tidy place, chronologically speaking. It had one timeline that ran from the beginning to the end, and everything went according to form.
But all the while, an infinite number of different timelines were just dying to pop up, like pimples on the face of time itself. And if those timelines were allowed to grow as they wanted, they’d grow into universes all unto themselves. And those universes would spawn their own divergent universes, and so on, turning a straightforward chronology into a weird pyramid scheme of possibilities.
Not to spoil anything, but Loki pretty much unleashed those possibilities at the end of his self-titled TV show. And now, suddenly, things unthinkable are downright plausable—as long as they take place in one of those spinoff universes.
Yeah, if you thought WandaVision was strange, buckle up. The show, as its title would suggest, is a long series of “what ifs,” as presented by a character called “the Watcher.” “I am your guide through these vast new realities,” he tells us at the outset. And the MCU, which had already gotten pretty perplexing to many, takes on a hotel laundry’s worth of new wrinkles. Might Tony Stark be a villain in one of these universal adjuncts? Maybe. Could Thor be a piece of frosted birthday cake? Why not?
But it’s not just the chronology that’s a little untidy here: The content can get a little messy, too.
Each episode of What If … ? is animated, setting it apart from the live-action movies and television shows that form the MCU’s canon. As such, the show takes on more of a comic-book-like hue from the get-go, and each episode looks pretty swell. And many of the actors who play these superheroes onscreen lend their voices to What If … ?, as well—suggesting that Thanos’ power is nothing compared to that of Disney’s contract lawyers.
And What If … ? feels, in terms of its violence and language, much like a standard superhero film would feel. Episodes can be pretty violent but not gory, deadly but blithely so. Language can be an issue. Characters can wear some form-fitting garments, as superheroes are wont to do. And because the show is animated, the content is not quite as sensual, visceral or disturbing as it might be in live-action form.
But keep in mind, your average superhero flick is more than two hours long. What If … ? sometimes stuffs a movie’s worth of content concerns in one half-hour episode.
And because the show goes off canon, some of the “what if” storylines could land, for parents, in the “what are you doing?” territory.
What If … ? is certainly an interesting exercise in revisionism, and it follows a long comic-book tradition in creating wildly new spins on very familiar characters. Batman has been everything from a 1900 psychologist to a vampire to Green Lantern in some offshoot comics.
But when you throw off the shackles of canonical purity, literally anything goes, and that’s something that parents should be aware of as this clever series moves forward. As for me, I still kinda like my timeline clean.
The title of this week’s episode tells you almost everything you need to know about it. The only question, one might say, is who becomes a zombie.
In this surprisingly grim episode, the answer is that most of the Avengers succumb to a quantum virus that corrupts their brains. Turning them into, you guessed it, zombies. So when Tony Stark seemingly comes to rescue an un-Hulked Bruce Banner from Thanos (in a story set during an alternate reality timeline cotemporaneous with Avengers: Infinity War), let’s just say the rescue isn’t what it seems.
A handful of heroes who’ve managed to evade being bitten (so far) include Bucky Barnes (the Winter Soldier), Spider-Man, Wasp, Hulk, Black Panther’s sister, Shuri, Scott Lang and a few others. They’re desperately trying to get out of New York City, and they eventually find a safe haven in a compound with Vision. But as with most zombie stories, safe havens rarely stay that way.
The animated violence here is intense, grim and graphic. Zombies do their zombie thing: they eat people. And, of course, the only way to kill a zombie is to do bad things to its head. As in, removing it. Accordingly, we see multiple decapitations. One hero has body parts (including a leg) grimly fed to a super-powered zombie. One unfortunately hero ends up as only a head (preserved in a glass case), something that’s played for dark humor throughout the episode. Other violence includes zombies being obliterated from the inside out.
Further heightening the emotional bleakness of the episode, many heroes who are fighting zombies one minute succumb to their attacks the next—and become enemies whom their friends have to dispatch. Doing so takes a particularly steep emotional toll on Peter Parker, in particular, who is weary of watching friends die.
Though we may not see tons of splatter and gore, the vibe here—as well as most of this story’s narrative—is very dark. Grimmer, in fact, that the majority of the violence we’ve seen thus far in any other Marvel property.
Profanity pops up along the way as well, with a handful of uses each of “oh my god” and “what the h—.”
Most of us know Steve Rogers as Captain America. In this version, though, HYDRA agents sabotage the experiment before Steve can be injected with the super-soldier serum. With Steve injured, Agent Carter—Steve’s main love interest in the movies (and the protagonist in her own short-lived ABC show)—jumps into the experimental pod and becomes a super soldier herself, carrying a shield emblazoned with a Union Jack. Now she, along with Steve (in an Iron Man-like suit), Bucky Barnes and other familiar faces must stop Red Skull and HYDRA before they destroy the world.
The tool for said destruction turns out to be a massive tentacled monster that kills a few people before it’s overcome—including squishing someone to death. (The tentacles themselves obscure any ookiness.) The limbs also throw people around quite a bit, only to be hacked off in turn.
But the creature is nowhere near as lethal as Captain Carter. She kills dozens of Germans—crashing their trucks, overturning their motorcycles, gunning them down, smashing them with her shield and dispatching them with all manner of explosions. She punches and kicks and breaks someone’s kneecap, too. And when she hurls disc-shaped weights into a wall, she laments, “if only I was allowed to do that to Hitler’s head.” Soldiers, both Allied and Nazi, shoot sheets of bullets at one another. People fall (with quite a bit of help from Captain Carter) from airplanes. Red Skull kills two people in cold blood, filling their bellies full of lead. Steve is shot several times following his aborted experiment, but he survives. Heroes often risk their lives for others, and one seems to make the ultimate sacrifice.
Steve and Peggy flirt throughout the episode (though the only time they nearly kiss is interrupted by someone). Several people express some rather sexist attitudes over Captain Carter’s military capabilities (reflecting the show’s 1943 time frame). We see Carter in a camisole as she prepares to be injected with the serum.
Peggy and Steve drink at a restaurant or bar, with Peggy lamenting the fact that she can’t feel the drink’s effects. Red Skull refers to himself as a “god,” and we hear references to the Nazis’ “supernatural science” division. Characters say “d–n” once and “h—” twice, along with a use of the British profanity “bloody.” Someone uses a strong profanity in German.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.
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