CAST: Jeffrey Wright, Hayley Atwell, Lake Bell, Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, Chris Hemsworth, Benedict Cumberbatch, Ross Marquand, Toby Jones, Tom Hiddleston, Samuel L. Jackson, Kurt Russell, Frank Grillo, Georges St-Pierre, Brain T. Delaney, Mick Wingert, Cynthia McWilliams, Ozioma Akagha
RUNNING TIME: 35 mins
BASICALLY…: The Watcher (Wright) observes alternate versions of events throughout the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
IN THIS EPISODE: The Watcher assembles heroes from multiple universes to take down the powerful Ultron…
NOW FOR THE REVIEW…
Now it all makes sense – throughout Marvel Studios’ first animated series What If…?, I was always under the impression that it was merely a Twilight Zone-style anthology series, where each and every episode was a self-contained adventure exploring alternate timelines where established characters would do very different things than we’re used to seeing them do. Now, though, with the release of the ninth and final episode of the first season (a second has been confirmed to be in development), I realise that the truth was staring me in the face this whole time: it has simply been building towards a massive payoff, where nearly all the elements we had seen previously finally come together to take on a shared enemy – ring any bells?
The structure of this series really does resemble that of the pattern used for the main MCU movies, and I can’t believe that it’s taken me this long to figure that out. Regardless, this first season of What If…? goes out with a corker of an episode, combining characters and universes for a spectacular climax packed to the brim with dazzling animation, fun character growth, and enough action to satisfy the inner fan.
Directly following on from last week’s rapid ascension of power for the rogue AI Ultron (voiced by Ross Marquand), where not even the observant Watcher (Jeffrey Wright) could escape the android’s might once he assembled the Infinity Stones for himself, What If… The Watcher Broke His Oath? sees him do exactly that, by stepping out of the shadows and assembling a group of multiversal heroes we have previously seen throughout the show. The Watcher’s so-dubbed “Guardians of the Multiverse” include Captain Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell), Star-Lord T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman, in his absolutely final performance as the character), the hard-partying Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) following his betrayal of Tony Stark (briefly voiced here by Mick Wingert), the tragic dark version of Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), Natasha Romanoff (Lake Bell) from the post-apocalyptic world left behind by Ultron, and a version of Gamora (Cynthia McWilliams) who has donned Thanos’ armour, in a story we have strangely not yet seen (although apparently this season was meant to have ten episodes before the pandemic forced one to move to the next season – perhaps this is the one we’re missing?). Together, they must try and stop Ultron from destroying all realities with what little arsenal they have – but will they succeed?
The greatest strength of this series is how it really flexes its alternative storytelling muscles, in that each episode takes as much advantage as it can within its roughly half-hour time limit to offer fascinating parallels to characters and narratives we’ve become familiar with in the main film timeline. Over the course of this first season, we’ve seen Peggy Carter become the world’s first super-soldier instead of Steve Rogers, a zombie infestation turn some of the world’s strongest heroes into undead monsters, and Tony Stark essentially becoming the Kenny of the series by dying in almost every appearance he makes; all of which were once thought impossible to visualise until What If…? made it so, with the assistance of some intricate and stunning animation to go places where live-action simply cannot. Under Bryan Andrews’ direction, this animated series has kept a consistent flow to its storytelling which makes it so much more palatable than your average fan-fiction, and even at its weakest (probably the third and sixth episodes) it’s still been enjoyable to watch unfold because, unlike some of the more straightforward MCU entries, it hasn’t been afraid to take chances with its scope, its characters, and especially its ideas.
This episode in particular is, much like the first Avengers movie, a neat culmination of everything we’ve seen up to this point, as we get to see alternate versions of characters interact with one another for some interesting moments that make all the difference. It’s fun seeing the likes of “Party Thor”, as he’s officially known in this continuity, essentially be the comic relief alongside much more noble figures like Captain Carter, Star-Lord T’Challa and Doctor Strange Supreme, who all have strong dynamics that are vastly different from the Avengers we all know and love, and in battle they all work well together with their separate powers forming a unique kind of strength that might just save the multiverse. As with last week, The Watcher also has a good presence in a much more expanded role than we’re used to seeing him, and kudos to Jeffrey Wright for injecting so much smooth life into an all-knowing being that even he feels humanised like all the best Marvel heroes. Hopefully, his voice will be back next season for more adventures through the multiverse, and maybe he might even make a live-action appearance in the future as well? After all, nothing seems out of the question nowadays in the MCU, does it?
Since this is the last What If…? episode of the season, it’s also a good time to see where it stands amongst the other Marvel Disney+ shows. Of course, this one is radically different to something like WandaVision or Loki, and likely upcoming ones like Hawkeye (which begins its six-episode run next month) as well, because it isn’t following a thorough narrative quite as closely, but in terms of its imagination it’s certainly been a fun ride. Not every episode has been God-tier Marvel entertainment, but it has brought back those feelings of watching Saturday morning cartoons as a kid, which not even WandaVision can claim to do. For that reason, it’s been worth the rocky but ultimately rewarding Marvel experience.
SO, TO SUM UP…
What If… The Watcher Broke His Oath? concludes the first season of Marvel’s animated series with a joyous and action-packed culmination that brings together alternate Marvel heroes for a dazzlingly animated showdown, while capping a debut set that has opened up the imagination like no other property in the MCU has yet come close to delivering.