Marvel Studios’ animated series What If…? is back with another new episode this week, continuing to flip the script on the Marvel Cinematic Universe by reimagining famous events from the films in unexpected ways.
Thus far, we’ve seen Captain Carter wielding the shield, T’Challa as Star-Lord, a failed version of the Avengers Initiative, and a heartbreaking twist on the origin story of Doctor Strange. This week’s episode is a callback to a Marvel comics metaseries, Marvel Zombies. The first five-issue run was introduced in December 2005, written by The Walking Dead‘s Robert Kirkman with art by Sean Phillips.
What If…? continues to outdo itself with each and every episode, and this week has easily proven to be my personal favorite yet.
Warning: Spoilers ahead!
The episode opens with a familiar scene: Bruce Banner falling back to Earth to warn the Avengers about Thanos. This places this alternate universe event into the timeline during Avengers: Infinity War. However, when Bruce comes crashing down into Doctor Strange’s New York Sanctum, the only one there to greet him is the Cloak of Levitation (which truly manages to be a standout “character” once again). A brilliant switch on the showdown with Ebony Maw and Cull Obsidian follows, serving as a chilling introduction for the episode’s central plot — ZOMBIES!
It’s moments like this (and many others throughout the episode) that reveal What If…? for what it really is deep down: a love letter to Marvel fans. Watching each episode is not just an exciting dive into the unknown as audiences are introduced to an intriguing alternate reality. It’s also a walk down memory lane full of familiar characters and locations, favorite lines, Easter eggs, and reminders of all of the things that have collectively brought MCU fans together over the course of the past 13 years.
Coming into this episode, I found myself wondering what angle the series would take to introduce a zombie virus to the MCU. The writing choice to orchestrate this ended up being ingenious, as Hank Pym accidentally bringing it back from the Quantum Realm on his mission to rescue his wife Janet fits very neatly into the existing narrative.
While we’ve seen several different team-ups over the years in the MCU, this episode throws together a brilliant group with familiar faces and unsung heroes — who I really would have loved to have seen together in the films. I’d gladly tune in to an entire series of Peter Parker driving this team up a wall while filming them and teaching audiences how to survive a zombie apocalypse. And speaking of Peter, he seems to always find himself an adoptive parent wherever he goes (I’m ready and waiting for the Peter and Strange dynamic in Spider-Man: No Way Home), and his relationship here with Hope van Dyne is no exception.
On top of the inclusion of the Cloak of Levitation, there were other great appearances like Happy Hogan (arguably one of the MCU’s best characters and you know it), Sharon Carter, Okoye, and of course T’Challa. Eagle-eyed fans will also recognize Kurt as a character from the Ant-Man films.
Personally, my favorite part of the episode was the presence of Infinity War-era Bucky Barnes, who we didn’t get to spend nearly enough time within the film itself before he was dusted out of existence for five years. From his hilarious shower introduction to his final selfless sacrifice (and a heartwarming exchange with T’Challa in between), this is the James Buchanan Barnes we know and love … with the voice of Sebastian Stan, to boot. Above all, as a longtime fan of this character and his various exploits on the screen and in the comics, it was incredibly satisfying to see him given the opportunity to finally wield the shield in the MCU — something that has been teased countless times in the films. And yes, Bucky’s parting, “I guess this is the end of the line,” to Zombie Cap was an equal parts amazing and painful callback to one of the best friendships in the MCU.
This episode also takes a tragic cue from the Disney+ series WandaVision, which was an exploration of grief as Wanda fell apart after the loss of Vision and refused to let him go. What If…? turns the tables on this event when it’s revealed that Vision had no intention to cure the world of the virus, despite what he told Bruce and co. when he lured them into the building. Vision wasn’t able to cure Wanda after she was turned, so he devoted his efforts to keeping the zombified Scarlet Witch fed instead. No matter the universe, these two will do whatever it takes to be together.
While dark and dramatic at times, this episode was also laced with Marvel’s signature humor throughout, constantly hitting all the right notes with punchlines galore. Bucky’s offhanded comment to Okoye over the loss of zombie Sam — “I should be sad, but I’m not” — may sound crass out of context, but in reality, it’s an amusing reference to he and Sam’s entertaining frenemies dynamic. And animated or live-action, Scott Lang will forever and always be the most reliable and consistent source of comic relief — “Wingardium Leviosa!”
With a handful of episodes left to go and the second season on the horizon, my excitement and curiosity continue to grow for what other unturned corners of the MCU What If…? will question and explore.