‘Tis the season: ‘What If..?’ openers present more seasonal alt-histories…

Some fun, but somewhat unlikely alternatives play out in Disney+'s second season of multiverse maybes....

What if… people had made other choices? What if… other decisions had been made in the heat of battle? What if… in another reality, the fates had other plans for some familiar faces? Disney+ brings another round of alternate-realities as The watcher peers through the veil and sees how events could have chnaged…

 

*spoilers for first three stories*

After a somewhat troubled 2023 for the MCU, it’s nice to finish the year with something more satisfying. Marvel‘s What If – with one successful Disney+ season under its cosmic belt – returns to depict scenarios within the known Marvel continuity – overseen by the Watcher (Jeffrey Wright), ones that might have turned out differently if some singular element had somehow shifted in advance. A variety of styles and stories await the second volume, played out and dished out daily across the Christmas holidays.

If there’s a problem here it’s only that the series’ subject-matter and story-choices feel fun yet don’t feel quite as essential as before – none of them being the kind of outings that fans have long mused over or wondered about aloud.. The comics originally picked key-events in the Marvel universe and saw how they could have played out differently. Yet the comics eventually picked more obscure counterpoints, the ‘What Ifs’ being less dramatic and yet often played out in familiar ways (if tweaked individual fates). The second season starts with a similar diluted remit: an alt-Nebula joining the Nova Corps… a young alt-Peter Quill attacking Earth’s Mightiest Heroes. The results are fine but feel like excuses to have some broadstroke set-pieces than generating huge tensions.

The first episode¬† (What If… Nebula Joined the Nova Corps?) unapologetically emulates the look and tone of Blade Runner, depicting Nebula, well… as a member of Xandar’s Nova Corps but feeling every inch like a hard-boiled tech-noir outing in which Harrison Ford could emerge in soggy trenchcoat at any point. The animation, tracing the alleyways and underworld of Xandar, is moody and full of shadows and the action is best when it’s rotoscoping its main ensemble – sometimes recognisably lifting from earlier live-action appearances. Karen Gillan, Jude Law, Seth Green and Taika Watiti all ably reprise their big-screen roles and there’s a nice conceit streamlined from the plot of a bigger movie, distilled down to basics.

The second entry (What If… Peter Quill Attacked Earth’s Mightiest Heroes?) gives an excuse for an Avengers-like team to be formed decades earlier when a pre-adolescent Peter Quill (in this universe delivered successfully to Ego and imbued with cosmic powers) heads back to Earth and it seems like the planet will be the next on the list of Ego’s plan to repopulate the universe with versions of himself. Hayley Atwell as Peggy Carter (sadly not in her Captain incarnation) and John Slattery’s Howard Stark bring together Michael Douglas’ Ant-Man, Laurence Fisburne’s Bill Foster (aka Giant Man), Atandwa Kani’s King T’Chaka and Sebastian Stan’s Winter Soldier in a quick-response to the Quill’s pro-active wave of apparent destruction. Madeleine McGraw essays a young hope Van Dyne a character who end sup key to saving humanity when she recognises the pain and loss Peter feels, rather than any malicious intent. Kurt Russell reprises the role of Ego and Chris Hemsworth arrives as Thor to avenge Ego’s destruction of Asgard and once again, it feels like a story that could have made a feature-film premise, though an unexpected one.

The third entry (What If… Happy Hogan Saved Christmas?) feels less like a ‘What If…‘ and more of an untold story with distinct and deliberate fairy-tale appeal. Full of subversive nods to Marvel continuity, it’s a Christmas tale featuring a Die Hard motif and putting Jon Favreau’s Happy Hogan at the centre of it all as he’s forced to be the last line of defense against an unforeseen enemy. Yes, Sam Rockwell is back as Justin Hammer the Tony Stark wannabee last seen in Iron Man II and full of the same ego and failings. Happy has to stop a vial of Banner’s blood being stolen and accidentally ends up getting injected himself (despite this, it’s still a good twenty minutes before the inevitable Hulk Hogan joke is made. It’s an episode that would likely have cost far too much for live-action and never takes itself too seriously, but is fully-committed to the conceit and the stakes.¬† Kat Dennings as Darcy and all of the Avengers actors (excepting Downey Jnr and Johannson who are replaced by Mick Wingert and Lake Bell respectively) also provide their vocal talents and it feels a lot like this year’s answer to (has it been a year already?) 2022’s Guardians of the Galaxy Christmas Special.

Three quite different, yet mainlined Marvel antics for the opening salvo… and there’s six more to go.

'Marvel: What If..?  S02  EP 1-3'    (Disney+ review)
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'Marvel: What If..? S02 EP 1-3' (Disney+ review)
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