The version of Ultron that beat the Avengers and acquired the Infinity Stones is now causing havoc across the multiverse.
The Watcher is no longer able to contain him, but will the universal all-seeign alien be forced to break his oath of non-interference to keep the multiverse from imploding. If so, just who can he get to help?
Last week’s What If..? gave some cause for concern. An atypical episode that actively involved Uatu/The Watcher in proceedings (rather than just as the book-ending narrator) seemed to strike entirely the wrong tone. Though Jeffrey Wright is a great actor with a distinctive voice, the dialogue he was given sounded hokey and jokey and far from the distant, even cold voice many would have perceived from the overseer’s long history in the comics. Equally the animation of the character left a lot to be desired – there was something even Scooby-Doo’ish about his overtly dramatic reactions and the ‘battle armour’ was wholly misjudged. Playing it all as set-up and prologue, it likely left some viewers wondering what the season finale would bring.
There’s good news and bad news in that regard, though – grading on a curve -i t’s at least a significant improvement on last week’s chapter.
We’ve immediately thrown out the ‘observe but never interfere’ aspect as the giant, bald-headed one reaches out across the multiverse to do what must be done. The resulting animation is an upgrade. Compared to last week’s efforts, it feels like more time has been spent on the process and despite the inevitable cherry-picking, rotoscoping and re-purposing of key MCU scenes in the mix, there are certain scenes that give real texture and tone to the poses and choreography on show with better mood-lighting factored in. The scenes that stand-out include a slight reworking of the raid on the Lemurian Star ship from Captain America: The Winter Soldier (with ze return of Batroc!), zombies ploughing through a cosmic portal (followed by Wanda), some of the choreography in the close-up fight sequences and the unexpected but delightful chemistry between Peggy and Natasha as BFFs, even across universes. There’s also an obligatory mid-credit scene that suggests we may not have seen the end of one character we last saw in the pilot.
Pretty though it all is in execution and enjoyable enough for thirty minutes of merry Marvel mayhem, the quibbles do start to buckle… like a house of cards, rather than a House of Ideas.
The Watcher still has far too much ‘banter’ with Stephen Strange to feel like a good tv version of the comics-character, though his active involvement is kept to a minimum once the action part of the story kicks into gear. The Watcher wants to defeat a near-omnipotent Ultron as he stomps through cosmic barriers and all he can find out of every universe ever created is this team? With all due respect…. huh? Yes – it’s absolutely a tie-everything-together-strategy (or ‘endgame’ if you must) for the first series, but the internal logic is questionable at best. I mean, don’t get me wrong, any excuse to have Peggy Carter/Hayley Atwell back in any form is always welcome and she’s delightful here as a modern, alt-shield-slinging Captain, but when every atom in existence is at risk, she’s hardly a cosmic powerhouse. Equally, of all the various Odinsons available, Uatu picks… ‘Party-Thor’ as a champion? Really? Were drunk Rocket Raccoon and stoned Howard the Duck busy? Killmonger’s a brilliant and pragmatic strategist but out of his depth and Gamora is… wait. Gamora?
One obvious head-scratching aspect is the ‘Why is Gamora?‘ question. The idea of the finale is to bring back some of the alt-versions of the characters we’ve already seen in this run and reassemble them for one cosmic battle, becoming – temporarily – the self-proclaimed ‘Guardians of the Multiverse‘. But this is an alt-Gamora that audiences have yet to see. The real-world explanation is that this alt-Gamora was supposed to have a story in the first season but it wasn’t possible to complete that episode due to COVID delays and therefore the decision was made to push her episode into the already-confirmed second season and keep the opening salvo at nine episodes instead of the original ten. That’s all well and good, but it off-sets the balance quite considerably, alters our investment and make the inclusion of maguffin-like items such as an Infinity-Stone-Smasher seem even more abstract and hand-wavery in the telling. (The device would actually have featured in that missing tale that dealt with Gamora battling and beating her father alongside Tony Stark). Though it conveniently only destroys Infinity Stones in its own universe, the logic forgets that Ultron is already breaking the rules by using them outside their native universe as well!. As for Stark himself, he has become the ‘Kenny’ of the What If..? universe, so far being killed off in almost every version in which he’s actively appeared.
With T’Challa as Star Lord returning, we get the positively final vocal performance of Chadwick Boseman who, at least, gets to have fun. Tom Hiddleston, Samuel L. Jackson, Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hiddleston, Michael B. Jordan and Toby Jones as Arnim Zola and Kurt Russell as Ego all reprise their movie roles. Lake Bell once again steps in to play Natasha, Mick Wingert is Tony Stark, Cynthia McWilliams plays Gamora and Ross Marquand returns as Ultron. All acquit themselves well.
So, the result is certainly not a flawless finale, but one that encompasses most of the format’s pros, cons, brickbats and bouquets in sharp relief. Some inspired moments and some wasted opportunities that sound good as a one-sentence pitch but often crumble slightly under tighter reasoning and limited running-time have alternated along the way… but it’s likely you’ll still find yourself watching this finale, enjoying parts of it in the moment and mentally wondering how utterly wonderful this would have looked as a live-action outing, warts and all.
Still, with that second season now in production, one hopes that lessons have been learned. The options and execution of such should be limitless (especially with Phase 4 underway) and cover a wide range of scales both personal and cosmic but a better balance is needed to make the most of those and avoid Saturday Morning Cartoon cliches.