‘What If…?’ Review: Episode 1 Sets the Stage for an Exciting New Series

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Captain Carter and the Howling Commandos in What If...?
Marvel Studios

Phase Four of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) is underway, and today marks the premiere of a bold and exciting new animated series that complements Marvel Studios’ live-action offerings — What If…?

What If…? began as a Marvel Comics anthology series back in 1977. This new television series embraces the original concept from the comics but also takes things a step further by bringing these riveting stories to life in an animated format. What If…? flips the script on the MCU by reimagining events from the films in unexpected ways, creating a multiverse of infinite possibilities.

Warning: Spoilers for episode 1 beyond this point.

Episode 1 of What If…? takes a chronological approach to MCU, revisiting the first key event that took place in the franchise’s timeline — the birth of Captain America (as seen in the 2011 film Captain America: The First Avenger).

While the current canonical timeline sees Sam Wilson as the official successor to Steve Rogers’ Captain America mantle in The Falcon and The Winter Soldier, this show proposes an entirely different scenario: what if Steve Rogers never became a Super Soldier or Captain America in the first place? Although Steve was still the intended recipient of the serum in What If…?, a disastrous and unfortunate occurrence led Peggy Carter to bravely take it in his place.

Given that Steve Rogers is such an iconic pillar of the Marvel franchise, it felt jarring to see his backstory erased and rewritten … and that’s exactly what the point of the show is. What If…? is meant to shake up the established canonical timelines and flip the MCU as we know it on its back, daring to explore new, uncharted territory. As seen in this premiere episode, this series gives Marvel the opportunity to take risks and pitch unique, interesting, and unthinkable plotlines that we may not otherwise ever get the chance to experience.

Captain Carter in What If...?
Marvel Studios

What If…? sees our new Captain Carter (voiced by Hayley Atwell) trade in the stars and stripes of Captain America’s suit for the Union Jack, paying homage to Peggy’s British roots. There are certainly similarities between the two heroes, with Steve and Peggy both harboring a relentless penchant for fearlessly diving headfirst into missions for the sake of saving lives. However, the show also plays on the live-action Peggy that we knew previously in the films, allowing the Super Soldier serum to further enhance the astute, strong-minded aspects of her personality. Overall, it’s very exciting to see a female superhero represented in such a classic, meaningful role in the MCU.

Alongside the intriguing stories waiting to be told, one of the best aspects of What If...? is the fact that Marvel Studios was able to get so many of the original actors to reprise their characters in voice roles. And while this episode was full of many familiar voices, likes Dominic Cooper and Toby Jones, one of the most exciting by far was that of Sebastian Stan. It’s hard to imagine anyone else as James Buchanan Barnes, so it made the first episode that much better to hear Stan voicing Bucky (and his hilarious one-liners).

Though it was a shame not to hear Chris Evans voicing Steve Rogers, the voice actor that stepped into his shoes — Josh Keaton — did a phenomenal job. Hearing a different actor voice an established live-action character can often be jarring, but Keaton provided an incredibly immersive experience for viewers by channeling a similar tone of voice and accent to Evans.

I look forward to seeing how What If…? continues to creatively weave together bits and pieces of canonical events following the alternate universe point of divergence in each episode. Holding on to the ghost of well-known storylines with Easter eggs allows audiences to retain a sense of familiarity and connection to the show. For example, the fact that Bucky survived the train mission in What If…? but still made a comment about almost losing his arm was a fitting callback. And Steve’s near-fatal plummet in place of Bucky — which he ultimately survived — has left me dying to see a future Captain America/Winter Soldier role swap episode between the two best friends. My only wish is that after Captain Carter was fittingly sent to the future and met Nick Fury, the episode could have also given viewers a peek into the future of Steve and Bucky’s friendship (name a better duo, I’ll wait) sans 70 years on ice, brainwashing, and a cybernetic arm.

Coming at this from a much more general perspective now, I’d be entirely remiss not to mention the visuals of What If…?. The show employs a beautifully fluid, aesthetically pleasing animation style that prevents it from falling into the category of “just a cartoon for kids.” The show can absolutely be enjoyed by kids, but the attention to detail and dedication to capturing the likeness of the live-action counterparts of the characters allows What If…? to be appealing to an adult audience, too.

Marvel Studios has mastered the art of the delicate balance between action, drama, and comedy, and What If…? successfully draws upon this formula in its own way. As an animated feature, the show is able to employ a slightly more dramatic approach to fights and explosions. On the flip side, it’s also able to lean heavier into points of comic relief. The jokes would normally be too over-the-top in a live-action format, but they’re perfectly humorous and charming for this particular venture.

Overall, the first episode of What If…? was an entertaining and enjoyable introduction to the multiverse of potential that this series has to offer. And for those that weren’t sold by the first episode alone, do yourself a favor and stay tuned for what else this show has in store. I can guarantee you’ll be hooked by episode 3 at the latest, which appeals to a much wider audience of Marvel fans and feels like a true introduction to the series.

Don’t miss next week’s episode exclusively on Disney+, which will see the late Chadwick Boseman voice T’Challa as he steps into the role of the intergalactic outlaw Star-Lord, rather than Peter Quill.

Stay tuned for our weekly coverage on What If…?.

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By Lindsey
Lindsey joined the Nerds and Beyond team in 2018. She has spent a large portion of her life dedicated to her first love, photography. When she's not behind the camera, she's likely reading books and comics or dabbling in creative writing. Otherwise, she's probably yelling about Star Wars, Marvel, anime, or Ted Lasso. Contact: lindsey@nerdsandbeyond.com
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