Last week gave us a rousing opening to Marvel’s What If…?, a series that imagines parts of the Marvel Universe if certain decisions had been made differently. The introduction of Captain Carter was well received, and led speculation as to whether the character could be seen in future live action stories, given that The Multiverse has made all things possible. Tragically, this week will have no such speculation, as this alternate take on the character T’Challa (AKA Black Panther) would be the final performance of Chadwick Boseman in the role before his untimely death last summer. However, it is a fittingly heroic send-off for the much-loved star.
“What If… T’Challa Became a Star-Lord?” is the episode’s title, but host/narrator The Watcher (Jeffrey Wright) defines the story even further: “is your destiny defined by your nature, or by the nature of your world?” We meet T’Challa similarly to how we met Chris Pratt’s Peter Quill – caught in the act of stealing by Korath(Djimon Hounsou). In Guardians of The Galaxy, Quill introduces himself as Star-Lord, prompting a reply of “Who?”. Here, it seems Korath is a bit of a Fan Boy, joining up with T’Challa after a brief tussle.
Meeting up with Yondu (Michael Rooker), it’s clear that T’Challa made very different choices as Star-Lord. Instead of a common thief, he is a Robin Hood figure, taking valuable assets to revive planets and save civilisations. A hero across the galaxy, his exploits mean several characters are different to how we know them – Drax’s family are alive and he is working as a bartender, and most startlingly The Mad Titan Thanos (Josh Brolin) is one of T’Challa’s crew, after being talked out of his plans (“T’Challa here showed me there was more than one way to reallocate the universe’s resources”).
It’s an interesting take on the Marvel Universe as a whole – through this one character change, most of the MCU is different as the absence of Thanos’ threat means many heroes may not even have been created, or at least had an alternate journey. There’s still elements of the old villain there, however, as Thanos insists his method would be “efficient” (“pretty sure it’s still genocide big guy” quips Sean Gunn’s Kraglin).
With so much changed, the rest of this story is different to Guardians of The Galaxy. A femme fatale version of Nebula (Karen Gillan) brings T’Challa a heist – robbing The Embers of Genesis from The Collector (Benicio Del Toro) in order to help brings resources to dying planets. The Collector was not as pivotal to The MCU the first-time round, being something of a tease to fans who expected more. Here, however, he’s taken the place of Thanos as the most feared villain, even hiring The Black Order as his protection.
What If…’s third act is a standard heist plot – infiltrate The Collector’s lair, get captured after Nebula double crosses the crew, who then escape when it’s revealed this is a triple cross and T’Challa knew the plan all along. The most interesting development is a revelation about T’Challa’s origins. In flashbacks we see T’Challa was taken instead of Peter Quill, after Yondu outsourced the job to Kraglin and it got botched. He grew up believing Wakanda was destroyed in his absence, but through a discovery in The Collection, he sees that Wakanda is still there, and Yondu lied to him to keep T’Challa from going home.
We could write an entire second article about the Easter Eggs in this episode, but we’ll run through some of the more prominent ones: in a final stand-off with The Collector (who is a lot more muscular than we remember), the bad guy brings out a variety of weapons from vanquished foes – he uses Hela’s helmet and necrosword, Malakith’s dagger (the Thor adversary is seen in one of The Collector’s cells), and a rock gauntlet which it’s revealed was… the arm of Korg. Add to this the sight of Captain America’s shield in the background, and it appears a lot of heroes might have died in this timeline. Elsewhere, The Collector makes a veiled DC reference (“are you sure you don’t fly, or shoot lasers from your eyes?”), while T’Challa also briefly teams up with Howard The Duck (Seth Green), filled with wisecracks and more references to artefacts in the collection.
This Star-Lord makes short work of The Collector, and continues to make things right. He forgives Yondu, and reunites with his Wakandan family in a light-hearted finish. Well, somewhat light-hearted. Wondering what happened to Peter Quill? A final scene sees him mopping a Dairy Queen at night, only to be interrupted by his father, Ego (Kurt Russell). The Watcher ominous says “too bad this might spell the end of the world. But that’s a story for another day.”
As mentioned at the beginning of this review, Boseman’s passing means the idle speculation of whether this could be expanded on is inappropriate. It was fun to see T’Challa’s character in a different context, freed from the heaviness of rule and allowed to be a charismatic outlaw. It would be nice to see more of Green’s Howard The Duck, which has a lot of potential as a not-for-kids Disney+ series.
For now, however, the second episode of What If… serves as an eloquent goodbye. Boseman will reportedly make supporting appearances in other episodes, but the touching dedication to “our friend, our inspiration, and our hero Chadwick Boseman” acknowledges that this is his last time in the lead. The answer to the question “What If T’Challa Became a Star-Lord” seems to be that the universe would be a much better place. It’s a fitting tribute to a character and its star, who also made a significant impact in his short time as a hero.
New episodes of What If…? are available every Wednesday on Disney+