Disney+'s 'What If' introduces zombies to the Marvel universe with mixed results

·4-min read
What If... Zombies!? (Marvel Studios/Disney+)
What If... Zombies!? (Marvel Studios/Disney+)

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When the trailers for What If… were unveiled in the weeks leading up to its release, one of the more eye-catching snippets was taken from its zombie episode. What if everyone turned into the walking dead is an intriguing question to apply to any universe, let alone the MCU. But while there are some fun ideas here and there, the episode as a whole is all over the place and ultimately unsatisfying.

Every chapter of What If… has had pacing issues, but the problem is kicked into overdrive in episode 5. We open with Bruce Banner (a returning Mark Ruffalo) crashing into the Sanctum Sanctorum to warn of Thanos’ impending arrival, just as he did at the start of Avengers: Infinity War. Except this time nobody’s home, as the whole world – including most of the Avengers – have been zombified.

Bruce finds this out the hard way and almost gets bitten himself, before he’s saved via a timely intervention from Wasp (a returning Evangeline Lilly) and Spider-Man (Hudson Thames). It’s then that we learn how this whole thing started in the first place: when Hank Pym journeyed into the Quantum Realm to retrieve his wife, he found a woman who had been corrupted by a virus. Once Hank was bitten and made it back to his daughter, it was game over.

What If... Zombies!? (Marvel Studios/Disney+)
What If... Zombies!? (Marvel Studios/Disney+)

By the time all of that gets explained and we get an admittedly fun homemade video from Spidey that explains how to survive a zombie apocalypse – a neat nod to the skills he evidenced in Spider-Man: Homecoming – we are 8 minutes into an episode that (without credits) is 26 minutes long, and no closer to the thrust of the plot.

It’s no surprise that everything that follows feels rushed, from major character deaths that we just move on from to plot twists and reveals that aren’t allowed room to fully resonate.

A big reason why last week’s Doctor Strange episode worked so well was because it committed to its bleak, tragic tone. But ‘What If… Zombies?!’ wants to have it both ways, oscillating between dark moments and the lightly funny tone that has been part of the MCU’s DNA for the past 13 years. It makes the episode feel disjointed.

For most of the half hour, our ragtag team of heroes – which includes General Okoye (Danai Gurira), Sharon Carter (Emily VanCamp), Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau), Kurt (David Dastmalchian), and Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan) – are content to kill our zombified heroes, even when the idea of a cure is on the table. Later in the episode, that’s suddenly not the case. At multiple points I was unsure whether I should feel sad that a zombie hero got chopped in half, or just shrug it off like many characters in this episode seem to.

What If... Zombies!? (Marvel Studios/Disney+)
What If... Zombies!? (Marvel Studios/Disney+)

It doesn’t help that the voice acting is more mixed than ever. I’m a big Ruffalo fan – among many other things, he’s still my pick to play Columbo if and when they finally get their act together and bring the character back for a new movie or TV series.

But whether it’s the direction he’s been given or the fact that he’s just green (in more ways than one) when it comes to animation, his vocals are initially jarring and they don’t get much better as the episode progresses. Similar could be said for Stan’s Bucky, whom I’d hoped would be a much bigger presence here than he was. Even in the animated realm, he still can’t quite get his due.

What If... Zombies!? (Marvel Studios/Disney+)
What If... Zombies!? (Marvel Studios/Disney+)

There were some things that ‘What If… Zombies?’ nailed. I loved Spider-Man’s eternal optimism, despite the dire stakes and everything he’s been through. I love that Hope has become the big sister to his little brother.

Speaking of Hope, her final act of going giant size (a first for her in the MCU, even if it’s not our MCU) to get her teammates over the fence to safety is beautifully played. And Lilly – easily the strongest vocal actor of this chapter – is often at the forefront of what little emotional weight we get.

It’s just unfortunate that it comes in the weakest episode of the series so far.

More observations

  • I was not prepared for Chadwick Boseman repeating his “in my culture, death is not the end” line, first heard in Captain America: Civil War. Weak as this episode was, it was good to hear his voice.

  • Genuinely shocked to learn that the person voicing Peter Parker in this episode wasn’t Tom Holland. Hudson Thames did a fantastic job.

  • It is both crazy and sad that this episode marks the first time we’ve heard Uncle Ben’s name be mentioned in any MCU-related project.

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