Episode Eight of What If..? picks up on the ending of the fairly dire sixth episode of the series and explores the idea of a Multiverse where the events of Avengers sequel Age of Ultron led to a very different conclusion, a conclusion that has disastrous consequences for all creation. This is actually a fairly simple story played out on a more Multiversal canvas and it provides a welcome opportunity for Jeffrey Wright’s Watcher to become something more than an omniscient observer. In an apocalyptic Moscow, Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) and Black Widow (voiced here as in previous episodes by Lake Bell) are fighting a desperate rear-guard action against Ultron who, in this corner of the Multiverse, has implanted himself into the vibranium body that, in the MCU we’re familiar with, becomes home to the Vision. Undefeated and apparently undefeatable, Ultron carries out his fatal plan and activates the nuclear codes (Tony Stark, voiced again by Mick Wingert, is killed again… it’s becoming a habit in What If..?) and turns the world into a wasteland. But wait, here comes Thanos, stepping through a portal to put him in his place… Well, that doesn’t quite go as we might have expected and, now in possession of the Infinity Stones, Ultron sets out to devastate the entire Universe. Quick cameos see him destroy many MCU regulars and even Captain Marvel (Alexandra Daniels) has met her match. Extraordinarily, Ultron becomes aware of the ‘presence’ of The Watcher and he realises that having destroyed the Universe, there are others still waiting out there in the Multiiverse. With the help of the Watcher, Hawkeye and Black Widow, back on our Earth, locate a hidden KGB Archive file of the one man who might be able to help them and in time they find the uploaded consciousness of Arnim Zola (Toby Jones) – are you all following this at the back? – but their attempt to upload Zola into Ultron is thwarted by the fact that he’s busily engaged in a physical dust-up with the Watcher himself. With the Multiverse itself falling apart there may be only one man who can help the Watcher in his battle with the all-powerful Ultron. In the scene-stealing final sequence, here comes Doctor Strange (well, his Strange Supreme version from Episode Four), voiced as ever by Benedict Cumberbatch.
It’s interesting to see What If..? now setting up its own convoluted in-series continuity. It’s no longer a casual experience, it’s starting to require a fairly comprehensive knowledge of the alternative Universes created in earlier episodes; as ever, great fun for fans and there are some lovely visual Easter eggs here but this, in particular, is an episode that probably won’t mean a lot to anyone who just fancies watching a (very well animated) thirty-minute MCU-inspired cartoon. But there’s some very good stuff here, not least a powerful sequence with Hawkeye and Black Widow that neatly and poignantly flips a certain dramatic moment from Avengers: Endgame on its head and there’s a real sense of terrified disbelieving awe when Ultron activates the nuclear codes and Hawkeye and Black Widow watch, helpless, as the missiles launch and the surface of the Earth blossoms with terrible mushroom clouds.
Heading towards the end of its first season, it looks as if What If…? has rediscovered its mojo after a mid-season wobble (zombies, comedy Thor) that only seemed to accentuate the pointlessness of the entire project - often the stick the show’s detractors have used to beat it with. Whether this particular arc will occupy the remaining two episodes of the season remains to be seen (although it’s hard to imagine a tenth episode offering anything other than a brief diversion if this huge story wraps up next week) and the jury may well be out for some time on whether What If…? really is worth the effort, this is an episode that delivers massive dramatic stakes and offers up an alternative MCU that really is the stuff of nightmares.
What If...? is available to stream on Disney+