What If…?’s ninth and final episode (tangled wires led us to believe last week that we were due ten episodes… and in fact, a tenth episode was indeed shelved due to the pandemic, and would have answered several questions raised by this ninth instalment) attempts to wrap up the series by tying up many of the storylines seeded across the series. In that regard at least it’s pretty successful. The series has, in fact, followed the template of Phase 1 of the MCU, creating its roster of Multiverse heroes (recognisable alternatives of the characters we already know) before bringing the best of them together, Avengers style, to be pitted against an apparently unstoppable and undefeatable foe.
The opening sequence of Episode Nine is great fun, returning us to the events of Captain America: The Winter Soldier but with Hayley Atwell’s lively Captain Carter (from the first episode) leading the rescue mission on a captured SHIELD ship and battling Georges St Pierre’s lithe Batroc in a frantic and well-animated fight sequence. In this corner of the Multiverse Carter is “BFF” (her words) with Black Widow (Lake Bell). The Watcher (Jeffrey Wright) suddenly intervenes and enlists Carter to join a new team of heroes being fashioned by Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) – as we last saw him at the end of the gut-wrenching fourth episode – to fight to Multiverse-threatening Ultron who caused such devastation in Episode Eight. The episode wastes no time in bringing together this new team, dubbed 'Guardians of the Multiverse' and in no short order, we’re reacquainted with Starlord T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman in what is now surely and sadly his final turn as the character), the Killmonger Black Panther (Michael B Jordan) as well as the character now tediously dubbed 'Party Thor' (Chris Hemsworth). If nothing else, the episode now finally makes it clear that the MCU now regards Thor as a purely comedic character as he completes his transformation into little more than a muscular, gormless moron. If this indeed the direction Marvel are now going with the character - Love and Thunder looms on the horizon, remember - then it might be better to lose Thor altogether rather than see him demeaned and dumbed-down any further - no matter how much Chris Hemsworth is enjoying exercising his comic chops. The team is completed with the arrival of Gamera (Cynthia McWilliams) lifted from Nidavellir where she and another Multiverse Tony Stark (in a Hulkbuster-like suit of armour) are helping Dwarf King Etri dispose of the Infinity Gauntlet. What’s that now? This particular scenario is our only reference to the missing tenth episode and its inclusion, entirely without context, throws a bit of a spanner in the episode’s works as we realise there’s an important story untold here.
Tasked with stopping Ultron (Ross Marquand) from collecting the Infinity Stones (we don’t need any of that malarkey again, thanks) the team are thrown into combat with the metal monstrosity, with Strange calling up a ‘protection spell’ as extra security and battle is commenced. It’s heady stuff, the usual whizz-bang we have come to expect from MCU live action finales as the Guardians tangle with Ultron in the previous episode’s universe where Black Widow is the lone survivor of the human race. Eventually, of course, our alternative heroes win through and Ultron and one of the Guardians who has his own agenda are hurled into a pocket Universe by Strange.
All’s well that ends well with the Guardians returned to their own timelines and Black Widow deposited into a world where she doesn’t exist and where she is handily able to help Captain Marvel (What If..? has certainly made a point of promoting a character still not fully established in the wider MCU) in her fight against Loki (Tom Hiddleston having fun again). There’s even a mid-credits sequence that possibly sets up a couple of storylines for Season Two…
What If…? has been a curious beast. Exploiting and explaining the concept of the Multiverse has certainly paved the way for the next few Phase 4 movies but, inevitably, the whole idea has become more tangled and complicated as the episodes have rolled by, referencing one another and requiring the audience to have watched and remembered (and possibly made copious notes about) each episode if they’re to get anything at all from this hectic finale. Hardcore fans will love the Easter eggs dotted throughout this episode (and some will groan at the brief return of ‘the Marvel zombies’) but there remains a nagging sense here that Marvel has just created another hugely convoluted canon likely to alienate casual viewers instead of creating a fun, throwaway series offering up intriguing alternatives to familiar characters and situations without weaving a whole new narrative to bind it all together. A largely entertaining series with only a couple of clunkers, What If…? has been an interesting and creative diversion blessed with superior animation, the participation of a surprising and satisfying number of live-action star names and with the potential to dive even deeper into the murky waters of the Multiverse in the inevitable second season. But can we have proper Thor back at some point, please?