DIRECTOR: Bryan Andrews

CAST: Jeffrey Wright, Mark Ruffalo, Chadwick Boseman, Paul Bettany, Sebastian Stan, Evangeline Lily, Paul Rudd, Jon Favreau, Danai Gurira, Emily VanCamp, David Dastmalchian, Hudson Thames, Tom Vaughan-Lawlor, Josh Keaton

RUNNING TIME: 33 mins

CERTIFICATE: 12

BASICALLY…: The Watcher (Wright) observes alternate versions of events throughout the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

IN THIS EPISODE: A zombie plague turns most of the world, including the Avengers, into flesh-eating monsters…

NOW FOR THE REVIEW…

Dammit, Marvel’s What If…?, can you stop getting bleaker with each and every episode?! Last week, Doctor Strange destroyed the universe, and the week before that, the original Avengers line-up was brutally murdered – now you have to top it all off by bringing the undead into the mix? What must be going on in your head to get consistently darker and pessimistic with each passing week?!

All joshing aside, though, What If… Zombies!? is definitely a fun episode to watch (that title alone is joyful in its own way), because it shows what would happen if your favourite Marvel characters suddenly entered the realm of George A. Romero, with all the gruesomeness and horror you’d expect from one of the late director’s zombie films, albeit with a typical Marvel-branded tone.

The episode begins just as Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) arrives back on Earth after his run-in with Thanos, only he finds that the streets are completely deserted – except for the zombified remains of heroes like Iron Man and Doctor Strange, who despite their undead nature are still able to use their many powers in order to feast on human flesh. As it turns out, the events of Ant-Man and the Wasp brought an interdimensional virus into the world, which quickly spread and overpowered even Earth’s mightiest heroes, bringing about the zombie apocalypse. Banner teams up with a group of survivors – including Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan), Peter Parker (Hudson Thames), Sharon Carter (Emily VanCamp), Hope van Dyne (Evangeline Lily) and Okoye (Danai Gurira) – to try and find a cure for the virus before they too are overwhelmed by the flesh-eaters, and in typical zombie movie fashion it transpires that some of the most shocking monsters aren’t exactly undead.

I can imagine that young children who watch this particular episode might develop nightmares upon seeing the likes of Iron Man, Captain America, Hawkeye etc in full-on zombie form, but that isn’t me clutching my pearls and condemning a zombie story for having zombies in it. The imagery is certainly intense, but the idea itself – inspired by a fan-favourite limited comic series written by Robert Kirkman, best known for co-creating The Walking Dead – is surprisingly entertaining, because it offers the chance to see classic Marvel heroes in this very familiar zombie situation, and imagine things beyond what are shown in this episode. Which heroes would actually become flesh-eaters, and which superpowers would they use for their brain-hungry ambitions? Which ones would survive, or go on to potentially do things that would make the actual monsters seem idealistic by comparison? How, if at all, could those who do make it out alive rebuild what was once overrun by an infectious virus? All possibilities are up for grabs in your imagination, and chances are that some of the ideas swirling around in your head might actually have been animated and displayed right here as well.

For instance, the idea that popular heroes like Bucky Barnes and Spider-Man would team to create a handy zombie apocalypse survival video, or the zombified remains of Doctor Strange and Wong using their magical portals to easily capture victims who might be running away, are all given moments of clarity so that the viewer can have the opportunity to see some of their fantasy scenarios play out exactly like they’d hope. It’s fun watching them play out, as much as it is seeing some of these characters interact with one another as their typical zombie-movie archetypes, while still giving off their familiar Marvel personalities at the same time. This leads to a lot of the standard Marvel humour which sometimes can become overwhelming, especially during scenes where very serious things are occurring and suddenly one of the characters delivers a tension-diffusing quip, though a fair amount of the one-liners do land thanks to some of the precise deliveries of the voice cast. It’s also cool hearing actors like Mark Ruffalo, Evangeline Lily and Danai Gurira – the latter being very familiar with the zombie genre, having of course been a major presence in The Walking Dead – converse with each other, and with other unexpected but welcome surprises like Chadwick Boseman, whose posthumous final performance as T’Challa apparently stretches even further than the second episode of What If…?, which is a nice little extra.

As for how it fits into the larger standalone format of this series, What If… Zombies!? sets up an apocalyptic alternate universe which we’re probably not entirely done with yet. The way that this episode ends hints that the worst is yet to come, but unlike some of the other What If…? entries this one feels like it could go on for dozens, if not more, episodes for the foreseeable future. Of course, if it did that, we’d end up like how we are now with The Walking Dead, which has gone on for so long that nobody seems to really care as much as they once did, but even if this is the last we will see of the Marvel Zombie Universe (the MZU?), at least it’s been a fun enough ride that’s fuelled our imagination enough to envision this horrific but creative realm of possibility.

But seriously, given the current pattern of What If…? episodes getting progressively darker with each anthological tale, do we have to worry about next week’s episode? Is it going to turn into a dour tale of the nuclear holocaust or something, because that’s really the most logical step after zombies at this point. Maybe things will lighten up in a week’s time, but for now I suppose we must brace ourselves for something much bleaker, just in case.

SO, TO SUM UP…

What If… Zombies!? is an entertaining episode that explores the imaginative, if intensely dark, possibility of your favourite Marvel characters either succumbing to the zombie apocalypse or finding inventive ways to survive, delivered in typically fun Marvel fashion (though sometimes overwhelmingly so) and offering countless potentials as to the far wider status of this new and horrifying MZU.

What If…?: Episodes 1-5 are now available on Disney+. Episode 6 will be available next week.

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