One of the great strengths of the MCU – and its Disney + TV spin-offs to date – is that it manages to delicately balance the outlandish drama of its superhero shenanigans with the need to occasionally puncture the pomposity with a bit of well-placed humour. It’s a difficult balancing act, though, but by and large they manage to keep their high stakes narratives rolling without undermining the drama and the excitement (or the absurdity) whilst providing moments of levity thanks to some well-judged humour, one-liners and quips.
The MCU humour arises from the characters as they have been carefully established; it’s rarely allowed to tip over into parody, slapstick and farce - or at least it didn’t until Tahita Watiki’s tiresome comedy romp Thor: Ragnarok in 2017. At a stroke the God of Thunder was robbed of his nobility and his majesty (and much of his intelligence) in a script that could have run with a laughter track (if you found its brand of infantile humour amusing, that is) in which every character made the same sort of glib quips and jokes, totally undercutting the impact of any drama inherent in the plot because it was obvious that no one was taking anything seriously and everyone was grabbing every available opportunity to pratfall, boggle their eyes or throw out some lame gag. But many fans adore the film and certainly its…refocusing… of Thor’s character persuaded Chris Hemsworth to stick around and sign up for a fourth Thor movie next year. Presumably it also persuaded him to lend his voice to the character in this misjudged comedy episode of What If…?, the only core Avengers star (apart from, debatably, Jeremy Renner) to make the transition from live-action to animation. Sadly whilst it’s clear that everyone involved here is having a great time – there are a number of MCU big hitters on board, as ever – What If… Thor was An Only Child? is as annoying and irritating and throwaway as Ragnarok but mercifully runs for only thirty-odd minutes.
Jeffrey Wright’s Watcher introduces us to a Universe where Odin discovered an abandoned baby Frost Giant nd returned it to its father rather than raising it as a son of his own where, in the MCU we know and love, it becomes the devious Loki. Bereft of fraternal influence Thor grows up to be a boisterous, carefree party animal who travels down to Midgard to host a huge party, inviting aliens from all over the Galaxy, including various Guardians, Jeff Goldblum’s Grandmaster and even Howard the Duck. Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) and Darcy Lewis (Kat Dennings) track Thor and his posse to Las Vegas and become involved in the merriment. Giant-sized Loki (Tom Hiddleston) and his Frost Giant mates also arrive to join in the fun and games. Meanwhile, SHIELD has become concerned by the group’s destructive antics; Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders) and Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg) summon Captain Marvel (voiced here by Alexandra Daniels) and she and Thor engage in combat around the world, hilariously destroying monuments such as Stonehenge in the process. Eventually – and tortuously – Thor’s mother Frigga (Josette Eales) is summonsed and Thor races to put right the damage he has accidentally caused before his mother arrives to read the riot act.
What if… Thor Was an Only Child? is as silly and inconsequential as it sounds and is so light and fluffy and pointless, even by What If…? standards, that it barely sustains its running time. It really is just a succession of gags, both visual and verbal, that can’t help but grate and annoy in a series that has previously explored much darker and more interesting corners of Marvel’s Multiverse. That’s not to say that the episode doesn’t elicit a few smiles; Howard the Duck’s whirlwind relationship with Darcy is fun and a few of the gags and bits of wordplay do land – Thor desperately putting right his vandalism by rebuilding Stonehenge, cleaning up the defaced Mount Rushmore and… er… straightening up the Tower of Pisa – is amusing. But, as with Ragnarok, the humorous tone is just too relentless, the comedy a bit too kindergarten and unsophisticated and, in the end, the whole episode just seems to undermine characters the MCU has worked hard to make audiences believe in, root for and want to spend time with.
It was inevitable that Marvel would do an out-and-out comedy episode of What If…? and having previously established that this is a style that seems to “work” with Thor, it was equally inevitable that they’d chose the God of Thunder to deliver the big yuks. But now that the comic cuts are done and dusted, let’s hope What If…? can return to the flavour of the first half of the series and regain its dramatic sensibilities whilst delivering the odd bon mot when the moment arises. What If… Thor Was An Only Child? really is too much of a not very good thing.