The fourth What If..? episode (bears an awkwardly bland title that seems a bit of a stretch in the ‘people are demanding to see this’ department. But the entry does exactly what it says on the tin (or iron) by having Tony Stark defeat the Chitauri in the Battle of New York but – in this version of events – unfortunately doesn’t make to back to Earth through the closing portal. Instead, yes, you’ve guessed it, he ends up on Saakar where – you’ll remember from Thor: Ragnarok, the Grandmaster resides over all sorts of self-aggrandisement and apocalyptic sports. So instead of the Hulk and the God of Thunder sparring in the ring, we find Tony Stark teaming up with Korg and, surprisingly, moppet of Thanos, Gamora (whose own story had one version joined the Guardians of the Multiverse – an alt-team-up featured last season – and is the Watcher’s supposed raison d’etre for spinning this tale, though that seems a tenuous link at best). For the first part she seems very much superfluous to proceedings and the main event pivots around a chariot race that’s one -part Mad Max and one-part Tron.
The script zings along nicely (with Stark’s snark referring to Korg as Mount Rushmore, the Grandmaster as Dr. Moreau and there’s a deep-dive fan-reference to a Demon in a Bottle). Mick Ringert continues to be a great stand-in form Robert Downey Jnr. and Cynthia Kaye McWilliams essays Gamora, but most of the other supporting characters are voiced by their original big-screen counterparts (including Jeff Goldblum, Tessa Thompson, Josh Brolin and Rachel House). Ultimately, it’s a run romp that would have been good as an expensive live-action outing – and that’s reason enough to applaud.
The Watcher tells us he ‘rarely does sequels’ but the fifth episode (seems more of the genuine fan-service required for inclusion… with an opening showing that Battle of New York, but in this version, it’s Captain Carter (the same one we saw in the Guardians of the Multiverse finale last season and voiced once again by Hayley Atwell) who leads the Avengers. There’s some immediate sisterly chemistry between her and Lake Bell’s Black Widow (comparing fighting strategies and origins). The Wasp is also onboard with the Hulk being absent from this line-up (this time it’s Natasha and Peggy that get to smash Loki’s ‘very punchable face’). Again, there’s fun with references, with Natasha noting that Peggy isn’t familiar with RoboCop but apparently knows Star Wars continuity (maybe because that’s also under the Disney banner nowadays?)
Rotoscoping recreates and tweaks some of the original Avengers footage and mismatches some of the events. The title might once again be unwieldly, but it also quickly pits Carter against the Iron-Man-esque Hydra armour which the Steve Rogers of her continuity once wore… and apparently still does. In this continuity it was Rogers who was presumed killed in the early 1950s but who may have survived and suffered at the hands of the infamous Red Room (whom we know trained and controlled the Black Widow and countless assassins) and Bucky Barnes (voiced again by Sebastian Shaw) – who was never abducted and so rose within the ranks to Secretary of State. Now he’s the Hydra Stomper’s new target. Lake Bell continues to be a good stand-in for Scarlet Johansson and Josh Keaton gives us a believable Steve Rogers, but it’s good to see – or rather hear – Samuel L. Jackson and Frank Grillo returning to their screen roles, alongside Rachel Weistz as Melina and a surprise cameo at the very end setting up another chapter.
Like the events of The Winter Soldier, it’s a story that makes the old friends and allies face each other as opposing, deadly forces. It’s remarkably decently paced, arguably a tale in which viewers will be the most emotionally-invested so far with fan-favourite characters and askew situations play out with enough tension that we aren’t assured a happy ending. It also secures Atwell/Carter’s very special continued place in the firmament…
The sixth story (What If… Kahhori Reshaped the World?) may have its origins in a rewriting of Odion and Asgard’s battle outcomes but quickly takes us beyond the normal MCU territory. It is one quite different from the template of rearranging the action-figures of the toy box and takes one event to create a whole new toy-box and an interesting new character, Kahhori… and mostly presented in the seldomly-heard-on-screen Mohawk language with subtitles. Set in the time when the Spanish Conquistadors were carving their way through what would become ‘the New World’, the Watcher explains that after Surtur’s earlier destruction of Asgard, the Tesseract found a second home amongst Kahhori’s Mohawk ancestors, gifting them abilities but setting them apart from a world that quickly turned them into immortal but absent legends. Years later, Kahhori (voiced by Reservation Dogs‘ Devery Jacobs) is chased from her village and apparently fatally shot by her pursuer, but the Tesseract saves her and draws her to the Sky World where she starts to learn the truth about the ‘real’ world and what lies beyond it. But it is this realm and its ‘Fountain of Youth’ legends that the conquistadors seek and they don’t give up easily. The heart of the story is – sadly – a familiar one about how greed supplants the more basic needs. One can argue it’s simplistic moral anchor – and one can already hear the wailing of certain demographics bemoaning a ‘woke’ agenda as if they knew what the word meant – but here it’s told with real heart. If one wanted, you could look to films like Avatar for similar interpretations, though this What If..? entry actually feels more grounded and telling… and it’s barely thirty-minute running-time encompasses a quite epic tale that’s more enjoyable than the entire The Way of Water. Yes, there are superhuman abilities and powers at work, but Kahhori’s strengths and the empire she helps forge are more driven by the natural rather than the technological. There’s a certain Wakandan vibe to the empire she helps to build… with just a hint that the noble decisions she makes wielding such power against her oppressors may ultimately have a toll, even with the best of intentions. Given Marvel‘s early marketing of the character – before the series’ broadcast was delayed – it’s almost guaranteed that we’ll see more of Kahhori beyond further appearances in this series. As with the previous episode, there’s also an unexpected epilogue that hints at some major events that will be drawn together by the end of this second run and so far, it’s promising much.
Having overcome somewhat unnecessary entries early on, these middle three stories of What If..?’s second run begin to re-establish the show’s core strengths and the potential of more nuanced story-telling within the MCU when it’s not squandered on pretty but opportunistic tent-poles.