The Marvel anthology comic What If...? ran off-and-on from 1977 through 1998; mostly, it was narrated by the mysterious Uatu the Watcher, an alien who'd kick-off each issue by picking an established and familiar event (the formation of a super-team, say, or the death of a beloved side character) and introduce the reader to an alternate universe in which things were utterly changed in ways large and small (a different hero joined that team, or that character didn't die).
If that all sounds to you like a dry, insular, hopelessly wonky engine for storytelling, you are not a reader of superhero comics. What If...? spoke directly and bracingly to fans by taking the Marvel Universe's central tenet — that all these characters and stories exist alongside each other, with events in one book sending ripples through others — and briefly permitting even the most ravenous Marvel zombie to relax, and enjoy a story outside of that sometimes oppressive continuity.
Said stories could depict thought-experiments that appealed to very casual readers ("What If ... Spider-Man Had Joined The Fantastic Four?") or pose far more specialized alternatives that rewarded the hardcore obsessive's AP-level knowledge of some of the Marvel Universe's less frequented narrative cul-de-sacs ("What If ... The War Machine Had Not Destroyed The Living Laser?").
It functioned as a kind of release valve, providing both creators and fans with a place to chronicle endless alt-histories of the Marvel Universe free of the gravid portent that "real" storylines often imposed. The best issues represented exercises is imagination that revealed new sides to well-established characters by placing them in situations they could never experience in the pages of their own comic.
The new Disney+ animated anthology What If...? does for the Marvel Cinematic Universe precisely what the original What If...? series did for the Marvel Comics Universe. It's bright, bold, cleverly written and fluidly animated — and it features over 50 of the actors who portrayed various MCU characters on the big screen returning to voice them.
The series' character designs are closely based on those original actors, and there is often a rotoscopic, motion-captured quality to the animation, which occasionally locates the series in the darkest depths of the uncanny valley. But the series takes full advantage of its status as an animated property in which the special effects budget is unlimited, and employs those effects in deft, stylized flourishes.
It is perfectly natural to want to go into any given episode knowing precisely which MCU storyline is about to get tweaked, and how. Smartly, however, none of the three episodes made available to critics gave away the game upfront in the episode title, say. I'd recommend going into each episode knowing as little as possible, as the creators have deliberately structured them with built-in red herrings and minor misdirects; the reveals of these twists are a big part of this show's appeal.
Jeffrey Wright voices the shadowy, mysterious Uatu the Watcher, introducing each episode with the required all-knowing detachment. It has been widely publicized that the second episode features the late Chadwick Boseman's final performance, reprising the role of T'Challa with all the warmth and conviction he embodied onscreen. And while it can be puzzling for MCU actors' voices to show up as briefly as many do here (credit Disney+ money for getting Stanley Tucci to schlep into a studio to deliver two lousy lines into a microphone), it does lend the whole affair a familiarity that firmly grounds each episode.
In the run-up to this series' debut, there's been widespread speculation that it might somehow advance or at least acknowledge the events of Disney+'s previous MCU show Loki , which made a lot of hay out of the creation of a Marvel multiverse, and the looming threat to all existence that came with it. Here, though, the existence of a multiverse teeming with alternate worlds (NOTE: the word "timeline," so essential to the Loki series, never comes up) seems a long-established fact, and a pretty mundane one at that. Uatu, certainly, doesn't seem worried overmuch — but then, anyone with that guy's fashion sense (a high, Ming-the-Merciless collar, really? Before Labor Day?) is probably pretty unflappable.
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