Recent developments in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (and its Disney + spin-offs) have suggested that Phase 4 of their programme of titles will be taking something of a deep dive into the concept of the Multiverse, alternative Universes that share a universal hierarchy, realities where alternate versions of familiar faces and characters exist, having been brought into being by a decision made by the ‘prime’ character in our Universe. The idea really took flight in the recent Loki miniseries and advance word on upcoming titles suggests that the concept is going to be explored in some detail in the years to come. The danger has been that casual Marvel fans who just enjoy the colourful superhero adventures and wild characters might struggle to get their heads around such an esoteric and obscure concept. Disney +’s new animated series What If...? (inspired by the comic book title that launched in 1977) really couldn’t have arrived at a better moment; this a series that cleverly simplifies the idea of the Multiverse (without dumbing it down), explaining it in more traditional terms and delivering a series that really opens up the idea and properly explores the exciting potential that we’ll hopefully see realised in future live-action movies. The first three episodes of What If…? are a delightful treat, offering long-time fans and more casual MCU devotees alike the chance to become reacquainted with a surprising number of high profile characters (mostly voiced by the original big-screen actors) in clever, witty storylines that offer tantalising alternative timelines and scenarios without muddying familiar MCU waters or introducing new concepts and characters likely to deter viewers not familiar with sixty-odd years of convoluted Marvel lore.
The episodes are introduced by the Watcher (voiced with suitable gravitas by Jeffrey Wright) who provides a cursory explanation of the concept of the Multiverse and plants the idea of timelines where key events in accepted MCU history could have been completely different based on the turn of one particular moment in time or one decision that created a new reality. In such simple terms, the Multiverse suddenly becomes much less formidable and a much more fascinating proposition. In episode one we are right back in Joe Johnston’s colourful World War II setting of Captain America: The First Avenger where weedy Steve Rogers (sadly not voiced by Chris Evans) is about to be injected with the super-soldier serum. A certain turn of events changes accepted MCU history and Peggy Carter (Hayley Attwell) finds herself imbued with the powers intended for Rogers. She’s suited up, armed with a familiar shield and launched into a fast-paced, thrilling battle with the Red Skull and his forces. It’s terrific stuff, full of the gung-ho spirit and bravado of the original film; the animation is slick and stylish and the script has all the wit and sass of the live-action films. This clearly isn’t just a cheap, throwaway cartoon series aimed at kids (there are a couple of knowing gags and references aimed at adults), but a show that has been carefully and lovingly crafted to fit in absolutely with the style and tone of the live-action MCU itself.
Episode Two takes us to 'abandoned planet Morag' where we meet Star-Lord. But this isn’t the snarky Peter Quill we know from the Guardians of the Galaxy films; this is T’Challa from Wakanda, abducted and adopted by the Ravagers (led by Michael Rooker’s Yondu) as a child. This is Chadwick Boseman’s final work and here we’re reminded yet again what a loss he is to the MCU as he gives a supremely stately and measured performance as T’Challa, still noble and dignified even in this unfamiliar guise. He and a very different line-up of Guardians – including Karen Gillen’s Nebula and even Josh Brolin’s Thanos (who casually mentions that the Universe might be better off it was slightly depopulated) set off on an audacious heist that pits them against Benicio del Toro’s extravagant Collector. A certain duck also makes an extended guest appearance, voiced by Seth Green. Episode Three is perhaps the most intriguing of this first batch. Nick Fury (Samuel L Jackson) is in the process of putting together the Avengers initiative; but someone is assassinating his recruits before the Avengers can take their first faltering steps. Iron Man is the first to go, closely followed by Hawkeye (voiced by Jeremy Renner), Black Widow, and the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), but before Fury can find out who’s behind the killing, Loki (Tom Hiddleston) arrives with his own agenda.
On the evidence of its first three episodes, What If..? is not only a delight on its own terms it also offers fans the chance to become reacquainted with old favourites – many supporting characters are voiced again by original actors such as Dominic Cooper, Toby Jones, Kat Dennings, Angela Basset, Clark Gregg (Agent Coulson continuing his Captain America-related fixation), and Jeff Goldblum. This is no cheap Saturday morning cartoon show, this is a proper, bona fide, top drawer Marvel Studios gift that serves to take the sting from the potentially baffling concept of the multiverse whilst delivering joyously entertaining, beautifully-presented new adventures for beloved characters given a clever and enthralling twist. Set aside any “it’s only a cartoon” prejudices and allow yourself to be swept along into Marvel worlds that might have been…
WHAT IF...? airs on Disney+ each week from August 11th