CAST: Jeffrey Wright, Hayley Atwell, Josh Keaton, Samuel L. Jackson, Jeremy Renner, Stanley Tucci, Dominic Cooper, Bradley Whitford, Ross Marquand, Neal McDonough, Sebastian Stan, Toby Jones, Darrell Hammond, Isaac Robinson-Smith
RUNNING TIME: 34 mins
BASICALLY…: The Watcher (Wright) observes alternate versions of events throughout the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
IN THIS EPISODE: Peggy Carter (Atwell) takes the super-soldier serum instead of Steve Rogers (Keaton), becoming Captain Carter…
NOW FOR THE REVIEW…
After the events of Loki, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has become a significantly larger place, on account of the multiverse being unleashed. With it, a whole new range of possibilities have come forward, including alternative events of the main MCU timeline that would have made for a very different universe from the one we all know and love today.
These events form the basis of What If…?, Marvel’s first canonical animated venture, and also its first anthology; every week, we will see very different versions of moments from the MCU played out for us, as observed by The Watcher (voiced by Jeffrey Wright), a cosmic being who has the power to oversee all events across all timelines. The Watcher is basically the Rod Sterling of this very superhero-centric Twilight Zone, guiding the audience through these self-contained adventures set to some top-notch animation and featuring cameos from major players across the main films.
The first episode asks the question, What If… Captain Carter Were The First Avenger?; taking place in 1943, as HYDRA is on the rise across Europe, physically-meek soldier Steve Rogers (voiced here by Josh Keaton, stepping in for Chris Evans) is about to be injected with the super-soldier serum that will transform him into Captain America… until Steve is badly injured during a last-minute attack by HYDRA, and to save the experiment Agent Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) fills Steve’s place, receiving super-soldier abilities in his stead. Soon fitted with a Union Jack suit and shield, the newly-christened Captain Carter takes the fight to HYDRA, enlisting the likes of Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan), Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper) and even Rogers who is fitted with new Iron Man-like armour to go into battle, to face off against Red Skull (Ross Marquand) and his nefarious plot for world domination.
Already, it’s easy to spot the appeal of What If…?, in that you have new and rather exciting variations of stuff you already have seen in the MCU, like it’s high-level fan fiction come to life. However, to merely give it the “fan fiction” label feels a little derogatory, because there’s clearly a lot of thought that has gone into preserving continuity in spite of the radical new directions, with certain characters from Captain America: The First Avenger still feeling like they were in the original film, and the smallest of details like dialogue exchanges and background props also being reliably familiar. You can tell that the writers, director Bryan Andrews, and especially the animators are enjoying playing around with 13 years’ worth of Marvel cinematic history, in this instance the Second World War-era setting and inhabitants of that first Captain America movie, and are more than capable of delivering some high thrills in their action set-pieces which neatly blend style and sophistication as much as the live-action movies.
The animation is fascinating to watch, with its stylish draw towards comic-book drawings of familiar MCU actors like Hayley Atwell and Sebastian Stan, almost to a point where it could be mistaken as an actual comic come to life, similar to Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse but not quite as fluid-moving. This episode in particular sees Atwell’s Captain Carter getting to do some nifty fight choreography and battling in environments that would have been nearly impossible to capture in live-action (part of the reason why it makes sense that What If…? is an animated show, aside from the fact that regrouping many of these actors to film new versions of past stories would have been a logistical nightmare), and as the first Avenger in this parallel universe, it’s believable that she would become as inspirational a figure as Steve Rogers in the main timeline. You can feel in both Atwell’s vocal performance and the way she is animated that Carter is a hero who embodies everything that the ill-fated Dr. Erskine (a role that Stanley Tucci briefly reprises here) wanted out of Rogers after the injection: “not a perfect soldier, but a good [wo]man”, and she shines as someone who’s very easy to cheer for.
One thing that is also very noticeable is that the writing seems to be geared towards a slightly younger crowd, because there are lots of quips and physical humour that you would normally find in a Saturday morning cartoon, not to mention the villain’s plot which is very “evil scheme of the week” and slightly less sophisticated than how it transpired in live-action. That shouldn’t be too much of a problem for most viewers who have enjoyed this brand of Marvel humour from the very beginning, but those who have begun to tire of the constant quips and cutesy dialogue might feel disoriented by its powerful presence in this episode. Also, there are certain things which don’t entirely match up, even within the context of being an alternative universe; select moments appear to be placed slightly out of order, or moved along much quicker just to bring the scene to a sooner close, and even the villain’s main plan seems a little out of left-field compared to what he had in mind during the original film (again, it’s highly reminiscent of a Saturday morning cartoon).
The point of the episode, as it is with the series in total, is to show alternative events in the MCU timeline in a fun and accessible fashion, and this first entry achieves its level of enjoyability with strong action, dazzling animation, good attention to detail regarding characters and environments, and a satisfactory one-off storyline. Going forth, it will be interesting to see more alternative scenarios play out in similar fashion, and with the eclectic cast of returning actors (along with some soundalikes for the ones they couldn’t get back) it seems that we’re in for a season of truly mind-blowing variants to make even Loki blush.
SO, TO SUM UP…
What If… Captain Carter Were The First Avenger? marks the start of Marvel’s What If…? animated series and sets up a promising anthology filled with dazzling animation, strong attention to detail and fun storytelling, even if sometimes the latter seems like it’s aimed more towards a slightly younger crowd than Marvel fans are used to.