CAST: Jeffrey Wright, Chadwick Boseman, Michael Rooker, Karen Gillan, Djimon Hounsou, John Kani, Josh Brolin, Benicio del Toro, Kurt Russell, Sean Gunn, Chris Sullivan, Seth Green, Danai Gurira, Ophelia Lovibond, Carrie Coon, Tom Vaughan-Lawlor, Fred Tatasciore, Maddix Robinson, Brian T. Delaney, Tanya Wheelock
RUNNING TIME: 35 mins
BASICALLY…: The Watcher (Wright) observes alternate versions of events throughout the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
IN THIS EPISODE: T’Challa (Boseman) is abducted by Yondu (Rooker) and the Ravagers, and becomes the intergalactic hero Star-Lord…
NOW FOR THE REVIEW…
Almost one year ago, Chadwick Boseman suddenly left us with a fruitful legacy, and an impenetrable mark on the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The man who became a hero to many for his portrayal as the King of Wakanda T’Challa is remembered as more than just the Black Panther; he was a true artist, dedicated to his work right up to the end, and not letting even his fateful cancer diagnosis stop him from fulfilling his crowd-pleasing obligations.
How can we know this? Because mere months before he died, when he was surely feeling the brunt of his tragic illness, Boseman completed voiceover work for what would end up being his final major outing as the character, in the second episode of Marvel’s animated anthology series What If…?. That alone shows how dedicated he surely must have been to continuing the story of the Black Panther, even if that story ends up taking place in an alternative reality where, as the title for this second episode suggests, he takes Peter Quill’s place as the intergalactic outlaw known as Star-Lord.
The episode itself is a fine beat of “what if” storytelling; we learn that, instead of Quill, the Ravager and part-time Mary Poppins himself Yondu (Michael Rooker) accidentally picks up a young T’Challa (Maddix Robinson) from the hidden nation of Wakanda, and twenty years later the former Prince (Boseman) has firmly adopted his new status as Star-Lord. However, this Star-Lord is rather well-known in this universe, having affirmed himself as a Robin Hood figure who steals from the rich and gives to poorer planets, while also retaining his inherited diplomatic skills to bring a sense of peace and harmony to corners of the galaxy; in one of the funniest reveals of the episode, it seems that he was even able to talk down Thanos (Josh Brolin) from his genocidal ambitions. Here, we see the (former) Mad Titan’s daughter Nebula (Karen Gillan) – now a blonde-haired femme fatale free from her maniacal adoptive father’s grasp – recruit T’Challa/Star-Lord and his team for a heist from the halls of the devious Collector (Benicio del Toro), who’s become the galaxy’s feared conqueror in Thanos’ absence.
In addition to being a fun and imaginative sci-fi adventure, What If… T’Challa Became a Star-Lord? is also a surprisingly sweet and endearing episode. Obviously, it’s very emotional hearing Chadwick Boseman speaking for the final time as this character – who will not be recast in any future Marvel outings as a sign of respect for the fallen real-life hero – and the late actor gives a very moving vocal performance that brings out all the best qualities of his take on T’Challa: his wise and regal tone makes all the sci-fi jargon he utters here feel even more dignified than it was in the original MCU timeline. However, the episode also packs a serious amount of heart and likeability into its half-hour running time, whether it’s showing the respectful relationship shared between T’Challa and Yondu, or even depicting an infamous villain such as Thanos as this redeemed, much more clear-minded muscle of the group who still struggles to connect to his estranged daughter (who, even in this timeline, was at one point still subject to her father’s maniacal torture). It’s a character-heavy episode, with tons of little surprises and Easter eggs regarding other familiar faces along the way, but the way that everyone is written you really do want to spend a lot more time with them on their adventures throughout the galaxy, which makes it so much more worthwhile.
In the review for last week’s debut episode, it was pointed out that the humour and overall tone felt a lot more geared towards a younger crowd, with the combined quips and the incredibly stylish animation lending it the feel of a Saturday morning cartoon. The same can be said about this episode too (and, I presume, all episodes of What If…? going forward), but there is something about this one where the Saturday morning cartoon feel makes a lot more sense; in a way, it’s almost like a pilot episode for an ongoing spin-off series, introducing us to its charismatic and good-hearted protagonist, his numerous sidekicks – including Djimon Hounsou’s Korath who’s much more of an excitable fan-boy here – and the world(s) that they visit in order to stop the villain of the week. Even if that were the case, it’s definitely a show that would be worth watching, because there’s so much to like about the pacing, characters, animation and the overall imagination here that spending a whole series with these people in this universe doesn’t seem like such a bad idea.
Unfortunately, that isn’t going to happen, least of all because its lead is no longer around to provide his voice to a character who is, by all definitions, irreplaceable. Chadwick Boseman was a trooper all the way to his final breath, and frankly there is nobody, not even in voiceover format, that can fill his shoes in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, making this episode both a bittersweet but also poignant farewell to both the actor and the character (the episode naturally ends with a dedication to the late actor). It might not have been the send-off for T’Challa that anyone– not even Chadwick Boseman himself, probably – was expecting, but if the King of Wakanda and the Black Panther was to bow out in style, then it might as well be in an alternate universe where he’s an intergalactic Robin Hood who has such powerful charm that he can even lure Thanos to the good side.
Now that’s an ending fit for a King, if ever there was one.
SO, TO SUM UP…
What If… T’Challa Became a Star-Lord? is a fun and action-packed slice of alternative storytelling that makes for yet another thrilling episode of Marvel’s What If…?, but there is a much sweeter and poignant feel to this one, not just in the overall focus on making the characters extremely charming and likeable, but also with the bittersweet presence of the late Chadwick Boseman, in his final outing as T’Challa in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.