In a secret bunker, the diminutive would-be soldier Steve Rogers has been selected to be the recipient of a ‘super-soldier’ serum which, if successful, could turn the tide of World War II. But there are forces at work eager to make sure that such an army is never brought into being. Fatefully declining the offer to watch from the gallery above, British agent Peggy Carter finds herself close to Heinz Kruger, a double agent whose job it is to bring the experiment crashing down… but Peggy sees his deceit and he triggers his bomb earlier than planned and in the process of trying to escape he shoots Steve before the serum can be given.
Realising that this is the experiment’s one chance of success, Peggy leaps into action, taking the serum herself and in doing so – instigates a series of events that will send her to the front-line, pit her against Nazis and sexism, will test her and those she cares about and, ultimately, decide the fate of the world itself…
All of Marvel‘s modern Disney+ series have been met with huge anticipation and What If..?, though a slightly different beast and format, is no exception to that rule. While the likes of WandaVision, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier and Loki have had decent-to-mixed reviews – often down to pacing problems and delivering something different than initially anticipated – there’s a solid chance that Marvel‘s animated alt-history anthology show may circumvent some of those obstacles. Each week provides a different askew view through a fractured cosmic looking-glass into events that didn’t happen in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but could have done by the wont of slightly different decisions. Each brisk thirty-minute instalment is a bite-size chunk of possibility and though the success of each entry may depend on your interest in those rearranged pivotal moments, the building blocks are there, delivering what it says on the branding and avoiding drawn-out exposition… arguably the only problem being that the running time could have been longer to more fully explore the wider ramifications each time.
For those looking for epic deviations from the known MCU history, it’s true to say that the events in this opening salvo are not radically different from the bullet-points of the main story in’The First Avenger‘ movie, but really the demographic the show is mining are exactly the party-faithful who turned up in record-breaking numbers for past efforts and are familiar with the toys in the sandbox. So… spoilers… Originally, weakling Steve Rogers assumed the strength, mantle and shield – now it’s simply that the central character shifts, courtesy of a seemingly minor and different decision, with Carter taking a similar role instead. Steve is gravely injured in the assassination of Doctor Erskine and in an instinctual act to save the super soldier program it’s Peggy who takes the serum process. While Rogers’ version of Captain America had to endure some stage-show theatrics before fully rising to his potential, Carter ploughs her way through such niceties and quickly dispenses with the singular sexism and condescending elements of her superiors (Bradly Whitford providing the voice for Colonel Flynn) and it’s Steve who must find a different way to enter the fray (which he does in proto-type Iron Man armour), keeping intact a similar if inverted relationship between the two ‘heroes’. But, in general, similar events transpire around them with slightly different scenery, though it’s the Red Skull’s Lovecraftian ambitions (Hellboy, anyone?) and defeat that removes Peggy from the 1940s theatre of war rather than a crashing plane, this time around.
Jeffrey Wright provides the dour voice of The Watcher, the cosmic being from the Marvel Comics source material whose job it was to observe the alt-timelines. He has the right cadence and remains essentially an off-screen guide in the spirit of Rod Serling, though the book-ending format itself seems a little disconnected.
The animation itself is solid, leaning initially into almost rotoscoping some familiar movie scenes but growing more confident as it proceeds and making good use of kinetic action sequences and inspired lighting – making the result a nice mix that looks stylised but not adolescent. It takes the momentum of the live action movies and gives them a tweak, using the animation to construct sequences that might have been possible with modern CGI but ensuring they have a style and ambition unto themselves. Almost all the main original actors are back – sans Chris Evans who is ably replaced by Josh Keaton. Alongside Atwell are Stanley Tucci, Sebastian Stan, Dominic Cooper Ian McDonough, Toby Jones, Samuel L. Jackson and Jeremy Renner and Ross Marquand as the Red Skull. Though Robert Downey Jnr, Scarlett Johansson and Evans passed on voice-duties, it’s impressive how many performers have returned for the series and how much fun they seem to be having.
Yes, there are some quick leaps of logic in ‘and convenience a a British agent’s rise through the American military ranks is far more overt than could be conveniently overlooked in her supervisory role in the live-action universe, but if that’s your only complaint, then the tightly-packed thirty minute instalment delivers on almost every other front, both as a reintroduction to Carter and as a mission statement for the show. There’s no real blood on show and the violence is strictly PG, but the retro-feel of the show combined with modern style is welcome. There’s some speculation that the various stories being told in the animated What If..? series will have greater resonance in the wider and live-action MCU – a thought given some weight with the amount of time, energy and coverage being given to the idea of the multiverse in upcoming Marvel projects. It also seems to be the case that we’ll return to Captain Carter in the now-confirmed second season of the anthology show – which makes sense as she really doesn’t get to be the First Avenger here, merely a hero in her own regard. If all that is true, then Marvel could also do far worse than see Hayley Atwell fully inhabiting the character in form as well as voice…
One final thought: Though certainly more gung-ho and action-orientated in story, watching the Captain Carter in action reveals how good Atwell could have been / would be as Doctor Who instead of the recent luke-warm and misdirected era (meant as no offence to Jodie Whittaker who just wasn’t given the opportunity to play to strengths). There’s an infectious glee on show here, coupled with a sardonic tone and sense of innate justice, a combination of the animation techniques and performance – with Atwell’s already proven sense of fun helping she commands attention and respect while never losing that sense of awe in others and in humanity. Whomever Who‘s new showrunner turns out to be, the Captain Carter chapter should be a wake-up call as to how to have fun with a caring, daring female agitant…
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