*** WARNING: This review contains spoilers for all current episodes of Disney’s What If…? ***
Disney+ show What If…? has thus far presented some interesting questions, with satisfying answers. We see that Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) would have made a brilliant Avenger, and T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) would have been a hero wherever he called home. This week, however, we look into a question that is more complicated: what if The Avengers were wiped out before they started?
The Watcher (Jeffrey Wright) opens with his usual introduction, before taking us back to the beginnings of The Avengers during Phase One of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. For those who had forgotten, didn’t know, or don’t care, he reminds us that the events of Iron Man 2, Thor, and The Incredible Hulk all happened within the same week. “I am The Watcher, and where human see chaos, I see the crucible that would transform this collection of individuals into a team of heroes. At least, that’s how things played out in one universe”. The Watcher loves a wordy monologue.
We then see the very familiar Iron Man 2 scene where Tony Stark (Mick Wingert) is nursing a hangover while laying in a giant doughnut. Nick Fury (Samuel L Jackson) coaxes him into the shop below and tries to get him to join The Avengers Initiative. It’s more or less the same as the scene above until the moment Black Widow (Lake Bell) injects Stark with Lithium Dioxide to “take the edge off” of his palladium poisoning.
In this What If…? universe it does more than that: Stark keels over and dies, and he’s not the only one. During the moment in Thor where The God Of Thunder tries to get back Mjolnir, he is killed by Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), who protests his innocence before being mysteriously killed himself in custody. Certain that someone if offing Earth’s Mightiest Heroes, he asks Black Widow to break out of custody and find answers. She follows her orders, but even she can’t stop Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) being killed during his face off with General Ross (Mike McGill).
A lot to unpack here, but it’s an excellently written episode that combines nostalgia for the first phase of the MCU with an imaginative fresh take on its events. Rather than phoning it in, the voice performances are energetic and bring life to the witty script (there’s a lot of jokes about Thor being gorgeous, and Agent Coulson being a Captain America fanboy).
Fury and Black Widow make a great central team, although Natasha Romanoff being the centre of an episode is awkward timing given the real-world legal disputes between Scarlett Johansson and Disney. Lake Bell gives a good performance, but those in the know may wince when the character first pops up on screen. Those with a good memory will also notice Edward Norton is further erased from the timeline, as Ruffalo is Bruce in what was originally Norton’s film.
In the small town where Thor ended, Fury is confronted by a Loki (Tom Hiddleston), determined to take over Earth as retribution for his brother’s death (or maybe that’s just the excuse he needs). Black Widow is ambushed while looking for answers, but a panicked voicemail from her gives Fury a clue as to who the killer may be. With his knowledge, he convinces the God Of Mischief to help him confront the culprit: Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), in his own Ant-Man/Yellowjacket hybrid costume. I
t’s here we learn the moment this universe broke off in a different direction. Fury recruited Pym’s daughter Hope van Dyne as a SHIELD agent in this timeline, before losing her on a mission (it’s hinted that the Winter Soldier was the one who killed her). Vengeful for this and the death of his wife, he attacks Fury, but it’s revealed to be Loki in disguise and Pym is overpowered.
It’s a fun whodunit to sink our teeth into, and while the reveal might have been a damp note for those expecting a new supervillain, a spirited vocal performance from Douglas makes you feel his rage. Rather than being sold something (a spin-off, or at least a new line of toys), this story feels self-contained, tying up loose ends and offering fans an alternative vision of the future that is surprisingly compelling considering it kills all of our favourites. Well, almost all.
There’s good news and bad news in the coda for the episode. Fury asks Loki to go back to Asgard, but as you might recall he is burdened with glorious purpose, and with no-one to stop him, Hiddleston purrs that he might stay a while. We cut to the UN, where it’s clear that Loki has taken over Earth quite easily and is giving his original conqueror’s speech to a much bigger audience.
Back at the Avengers HQ, Fury and Coulson look over the coffins of the five lost Avengers, but the SHIELD boss reiterates that the initiative was never one person. We then see him uncovering Steve Rogers, still frozen, and we see Captain Marvel (Brie Larson) behind him, ready to fight.
Would this have been a better version of 2012’s The Avengers? Probably not, and as much fun as the story was, an alternate live action storyline isn’t necessary. However, while it’s fun to speculate what might grow out of these episodes, What If…? is more than a pitch session. As we’re reminded by The Watcher, it’s about exploring alternate realities, and maybe this episode is less about remixed characters and more about appreciating the MCU’s history. The ending in particular feels like a message from Marvel during a transitional period: no matter who leaves, more heroes will arrive.
New episodes of What If…? are available on Disney+ every Wednesday.