Catching Up With Fandom.
The notion of taking favorite beloved (licensed) characters and playing around with them a bit isn’t exactly new–in fact, the internet has been doing it almost since its inception, with fan-written fanfic (‘fan fiction’, for the uninitiated). In pre-internet days, fanfic was often printed in mimeographed, self-published fanzines circulated at conventions, college campuses or by mail. As modern fans have became more adept as making their own stories or even movies (most of us have HD cameras in our pockets now), the studios have scrambled to regain control of their intellectual properties. CBS/Paramount’s Star Trek franchise, one of the properties that arguably birthed fanfic, has taken a hardliner approach–Star Trek fan made films can now be only 15 minutes long, and they can’t do this, can’t do that, etc. But the realm of written fanfic, which is usually produced without any monetizing or profiteering intent, is still an open frontier; limited only by fan imagination. Graphic novels have also explored ‘what if’ scenarios in alternate side-sagas such as DC’s Soviet Superman story, “Red Son” and Dark Horse’s “Star Wars Infinities” (not to mention a plethora of other DC & Marvel multiverse books). Now Disney is getting in on some of that action as well, with their new animated “What If…?” series, currently streaming on DisneyPlus.
Written by A.C. Bradley, Matthew Chauncey and directed with near feature-film quality animation by Bryan Andrews, the first two episodes of “What If…?” involve Agent Peggy Carter, voiced by Hayley Atwell (“Captain America” “Agent Carter”), and T’Challa (“Black Panther”), featuring the last performance of the late Chadwick Boseman (1976-2020) as the character he originated in 2018’s “Black Panther.” In fact, most of the actors from the Marvel live-action movies return to their now animated roles, including Samuel L. Jackson, Jeremy Renner, Michael Rooker, Sebastian Stan, Karen Gillan, and many more. Notable exceptions include Chris Evans (“Captain America”), Chris Pratt and Dave Bautista (“Guardians of the Galaxy”).
Each story is framed in narration by “the Watcher” (Jeffrey Wright, of HBO’s “Westworld”) who is a non-corporeal galactic entity who oversees (but doesn’t interfere with) the various avenues of the greater multiverse–where a different path taken, or even a simple mistake, can create a whole new chain of events, thus resulting in a whole new universe.
******A MULTIVERSE OF SPOILERS!!******
Episode 1: “What If…Captain Carter Were The First Avenger?”
Episode 1 begins at a familiar point within the movie “Captain America: The First Avenger” (2011), which saw scrawny World War 2 soldier Steve Rogers (now voiced by Josh Keaton) about to be transformed into a ‘super soldier’ thanks to an almost alchemic combination of elixirs and a iron pressure chamber. However, in this reality, Steve is shot and nearly killed by an infiltrating Hydra agent. With time running out, and no other viable candidate for the SSR’s (Strategic Scientific Reserve’s) super soldier experiment, Agent Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) volunteers to take his place…
Note: The short-lived ABC series “Agent Carter” (2015-2016) was one of my personal favorite Marvel movie off-shoots. Hayley Atwell was terrific in her greatly expanded TV role, and I loved the late 1940s period-piece setting as well; it had a a film-noir meets “The Rocketeer”-vibe to it (not surprising, perhaps, since Joe Johnston directed both “Rocketeer” and “Captain America”). It’s too bad the show failed to gain a wider audience. In my humble opinion, the character could’ve easily held her own feature film, or at least a DisneyPlus miniseries.
Carter emerges from the pressure chamber a changed woman; stronger, more coordinated, and downright Amazonian in stature. But, like Steve Rogers in the film, she retains her same basic decency and moral compass. Despite the 1940s brass scoffing at a ‘woman soldier,’ Peggy more than proves herself to inventor-genius Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper), who is impressed with the result of his super soldier program. General Flynn (Bradley Whitfield) however, refuses to allow a woman to go into combat.
Note: Peggy’s later designation of “Captain Carter” is a lot smoother-sounding than “Captain United Kingdom,” “Captain England,” or “Captain Britain”; they just don’t have the same ring to them.
Stark then secretly modifies a USO touring outfit into a combat uniform for Carter, and the familiar vibranium shield is now painted with an appropriate Union Jack in honor of Peggy’s nationality. Stark has faith in his creation, even if the general doesn’t. As we saw in “Captain America,” Peggy’s first unofficial mission is to steal the glowing blue “Tesseract Cube” from a Nazi-Hydra stronghold. Peggy successfully retrieves the Cube, and she captures Hydra scientist Arnim Zola (Toby Jones) as well.
Having proved herself to Flynn and the SSR brass, the newly minted “Captain Carter” (her rank is a prerequisite for handing over the captured Tesseract Cube) is then assigned to rescue some captured POWs from the 107th, including Steve’s friend Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan), Dum Dum Dugan (Neal McDonough) and others.
Note: In this reality, the captured Bucky isn’t converted into “Winter Soldier,” but instead allies himself with Captain Carter’s team. It’s possible that outcome resulted in a better overall Marvel universe than the one we saw in “Winter Soldier” and “Civil War.”
The rescue is successful, in part, thanks to the unveiling of a new weapon in the allies’ arsenal; a giant, prototypical (almost steampunk) “Iron Man”-suit prototype created by Howard Stark. The giant mecha-combat rig is dubbed the “Hydra Stomper,” and is being piloted by Steve Rogers. The suit uses the captured Tesseract ‘infinity stone’ as a power source (just as Stark’s son Tony’s suit would use an all-new “arc reactor”).
Note: I liked the attempts at retro-ing the Iron Man “Iron Monger” suit to look period appropriate; from the green military paint job to the analog dial readouts in the control chamber-head. These are some of the nice little details we see in the episode.
With the combined might of Captain Carter and Steve in the Hydra Stomper suit, the SSR begins to turn the tide of the war. Soon they learn that Hydra’s leader Red Skull (Ross Marquand) is on a train convoy, and they are sent to intercept him. The convoy, however, is a decoy; Steve is presumed lost when the train derails off the mountain track and explodes. A grieving Peggy Carter is now determined to destroy Hydra. She interrogates Hydra prisoner Zola, and learns of Red Skull’s plan to open an inter-dimensional portal to call for extraterrestrial aid in winning the war (similar to Hydra’s plan in 2012’s “The Avengers”). Carter, Stark and the liberated POWs take the fight directly to Hydra…
Infiltrating Hydra’s base, they see Red Skull, using the reacquired Tesseract in order to open an interdimensional portal–from where a large, Octopus-like creature emerges. The creature soon attacks Red Skull and kills him, before turning on Stark and Peggy. Meanwhile, Bucky and the others find a captured Steve alive, along with his Hydra Stomper suit, now rendered powerless without the Tesseract. Giving the suit a jumpstart with Hydra’s power sources, they get it operational, and Steve joins the fight. Howard fumbles with the portal power controls to force the creature back where it came from, but Peggy realizes she needs to use her own brute strength to do the trick–but she will be trapped within the portal itself. Steve sees Peggy just before she closes the portal, and they have a final goodbye, very similar to their radioed goodbyes at the end of “Captain Avenger.” She makes Steve promise that they’ll have their dance…
Note: I’m not crying, you’re crying.
After forcing the creature back to its own dimension, Peggy reemerges from the portal in 2015, just as Loki did in “The Avengers,” where she finds SHIELD agent Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and future Avenger, Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner). A disoriented Peggy Carter is told the war ended 70 years ago.
Note: Very surprised that Disney managed to recall so many of the “Avengers” A-list cast to return to their roles; even when those roles amounted to mere seconds of screen time. Samuel L. Jackson, Jeremy Renner, and so many more. It’s hard to tell if this is just actor loyalty to Marvel’s cinematic universe, or for Disney money, or both.
While a number of story beats in “Captain Carter” are close to how they played out in “Captain America,” there are just enough new elements (a woman’s perspective, scrawny Steve, the Tesseract-powered Hydra Stomper, etc) to keep this alternate reality from being a remake. Yes, some of this territory was arguably covered in the “Agent Carter” TV series (her friendship with Howard Stark, for example), but the fresh coat of paint, as well as an Amazonian Peggy Carter make it ripe for a quick half hour exploration.
Episode 2: “What if…T’Challa Became a Star-Lord?”
I want to preface my review of Episode 2 by saying that while I was pleased to see the late Chadwick Boseman completed what would be his final performance as “T’Challa” before his tragic death last year from cancer, I did have some issues with the story. However, these issues have nothing whatsoever to do with the late Chadwick Boseman or his stalwart performance. Rest in power, Chadwick Boseman.
The episode opens with what we assume to be Peter Quill’s Star-Lord romancing the power stone, as he did in “Guardians of the Galaxy,” but we don’t see the Walkman, nor do we hear his mother’s ‘awesome mix tape.’ Instead this new ‘guardian of the galaxy’ goes smoothly about his business, effortlessly seizing the Power Stone before he’s caught by Korath (Djimon Hounsou) and his gang, who are a bit star struck when they realize they’ve nabbed the great Star-Lord T’Challa. Korath and his men put up a perfunctory resistance before allowing their idol to escape. Unlike the nobody Peter Quill, T’Challa has a regal reputation in the galaxy, even with his enemies. T’Challa’s ally and adoptive father figure, Yondu (Michael Rooker) arrives in time to snatch T’Challa from any semblance of ‘danger’…
Note: While original Yondu actor Michael Rooker (“Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer,” “The Walking Dead”) is credited with the role of animated Yondu as well, but he doesn’t quite sound like his earlier self. The wily, blue-skinned alien seems to have lost some of the southern drawl he had in the live-action “Guardians of the Galaxy” (2014). I have no idea why.
In flashbacks, we see how a young T’Challa wound up as this version of Star-Lord. T’Challa was an adventurous child who wanders from his father’s palace, alone in the open fields of Wakanda, just as the Ravagers’ spaceship arrives. Unfortunately, Yondu was not on hand to abduct the boy in person; instead he outsourced the important kidnapping to two of his goons. Confused by the high vibranium readings from Wakanda (which rests atop a huge meteorite of the fictional element), and mistaking one human child for any other, they kidnapped the wrong boy! Yondu, however, grew very fond of young T’Challa, and he raised the curious human boy as his own (unlike the more contentious relationship between the Ravagers and Peter Quill).
Over the next 20 years, T’Challa’s natural leadership and penchant for peacemaking inspired everyone in his orbit to be a better version of themselves. Even the dreaded galactic overlord Thanos (Josh Brolin) is now just a member of the Ravagers, having given up his ‘silly’ ambition to annihilate half of the living universe (see: “Avengers: Endgame”).
Note: Yes, even Josh Brolin came back to reprise his role of Thanos…
At an interstellar bar, the Ravagers are met by admirers, including bartender Drax (Fred Tatasciore), who’s a great fan of T’Challa, who brought peace to his planet (thus, saving his family) and insists on a selfie together. The Ravagers meet with Nebula (Karen Gillan), who now has a full head of blonde hair and offers them a job; she wants the gang to steal very powerful cosmic ‘Embers’ from the infamous “Collector” (Benecio Del Toro). The Ravagers are talked into taking the job. Yondu, T’Challa and Nebula arrive at “Knowhere”, the home of the Collector, where they create a diversion in order to break inside the Collector’s vast menagerie of objects–inert and living. Soon after, T’Challa is inside the Collector’s estate, looking for the Embers, when he meets (and frees) Howard the Duck (Seth Green), who only seems to give a damn about getting hammered. Ha ha. Moving on…
Note: Howard the Duck was featured in a post-credits cameo in 2014’s “Guardians of the Galaxy” after achieving cult status in the 1986 film as well as the preceding comic book series. His addition here, much like the appearance of the fannish Drax (who sounds nothing like Dave Bautista), are little more than Easter eggs, and do nothing for the overall story. Actor Seth Green also voiced Howard the Duck in “Guardians…” as well.
In a series of betrayals, weapons fire and fisticuffs, it appears that Nebula double-crossed the Ravagers—only she didn’t. Her seeming betrayal was all part of an elaborate ruse to steal the Embers right out from under the Collector’s nose. During their escape, T’Challa finds an advanced spaceship from his father’s kingdom of Wakanda. The formidable Thanos is nearly killed when he takes on a menacing squad of the Collector’s soldiers by himself, until his loyal daughter Nebula comes to his rescue. With T’Challa locked in combat with the Collector, it’s up to Yondu to rescue the adventurous young prince. The Collector is locked inside of one of his own cages, while the rest of the cages in the Collector’s menagerie are opened–and the hundreds of angry occupants of those translucent prison cells are none too pleased with their former captor…
Note: The action gets a bit redundant after awhile, and to be honest, my eyes glazed over a bit–it’s certainly not badly done (the animation is gorgeous, in fact), but at my age, you want more character moments than tired fisticuffs and explosions. Action for its own sake offers few surprises, even in a “What If…” story where, theoretically, anything can happen.
Fleeing from Knowhere with the Ravagers aboard the Wakandan vessel, T’Challa learns that Yondu lied about his father’s empire being destroyed–Wakanda still exists. Knowing the truth, former “Star-lord” T’Challa is compelled to return to his father’s kingdom. Once there, he is greeted by his elderly father T’Chaka (John Kani) in the grand Wakandan royal palace. The former kidnapped prince is returned to his real family by his adopted family, the Ravagers. Yondu and his crew are forgiven for showing the wanderlust-filled boy a universe beyond his wildest childhood dreams.
Note: Maybe it’s just me, but I think it might’ve been a more interesting story if the Ravagers had kidnapped a young Kilmonger from his home in Oakland, California instead. What affect would it have had on the story if the ambitious and more dangerous Kilmonger had made his way into the greater galaxy? The problem with T’Challa as a character is that he’s so good he’s almost a paragon of virtue–and that’s far less interesting to me than a flawed person who has a journey of self-discovery ahead, even a dark journey. It certainly could’ve been worth exploring for a half-hour, at least…
Meanwhile, in a Dairy Queen in Missouri, Peter Quill (Brian T. Delaney) is cleaning up after closing. Mop in hand, and with his late mother’s gifted Sony Walkman over his ears, Peter is interrupted by a ‘customer’ who claims to be his father, Ego (Kurt Russell). Ego’s eyes begin to glow…
Note: “Guardians of the Galaxy” star Chris Pratt is one of the few Marvel actors who did not return for this series. However, Peter Quill’s dialogue is so brief that it scarcely matters.
Summing It Up.
While some may argue that the first two episodes of a series are hardly enough to make a summary judgment, the tremendous production value and A-list talent being poured into Disney/Marvel’s “What If…?” series render that point moot; this isn’t some coltish new fall TV show struggling to find its voice over a season. This is a well-oiled product fresh off of the Marvel showroom floor–fully serviced, and ready to drive. While “Captain Carter” kept things concise and to-the-point, “T’Challa/Star-Lord” had a less-focused, ‘see what sticks’ approach. Even wild imagination has to have some discipline, or it quickly becomes chaos. If future episodes of “What If…?” can stick to the central premise of each story without becoming too distracted by gobs of shiny Easter eggs and unnecessary cameos, then this series could offer a solid venue for standalone Marvel stories–much like some of the better one-off graphic novels. Many elements of this show (from the A-list voice talent to the superb animation) succeed–it’s the actual storytelling that may struggle to stay focused.
New episodes of “What If…?” will be available for streaming on DisneyPlus, every week, for a total of nine episodes. With the Delta variant of COVID on an upswing (over 624,000 COVID-related deaths in the U.S to date), I urge all readers to stay safe, get vaccinated ASAP, and, if you’re forced to quarantine, Marvel’s “What If…?” makes for an enjoyable, safe entertainment option. Take care.