'What If...?' Episode 1 review: A bloodless but entertaining romp through alternate history

The title treatment for Marvel Studios' What If...? (Disney)
The title treatment for Marvel Studios' What If...? (Disney)

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Beginning in 1977, the What If…? comic line took a well known event — or character — and twisted crucial elements in the story, creating new ripples that yielded fresh outcomes.

With over a decade of cinematic storytelling under its belt, the Marvel Cinematic Universe is in the perfect position to bring this clever conceit to screens. If the first episode of Marvel Studios' first animated series — titled What If… Captain Carter Were the First Avenger? — is any indication, MCU fans will be in for an entertaining ride over the next nine weeks as it hits Disney+.

Read more: Everything coming to Disney+ in August

The first episode takes us back to 1943 and the birth of the first super soldier. Except this time, rather than Chris Evans' Steve Rogers undergoing the transformation, it’s Hayley Atwell's Peggy Carter. When a Nazi attempts to sabotage the experiment and shoots our would-be Captain America, she steps into the booth before all is lost and gets Dr. Erskine’s serum.

Watch an explainer for What If...?

It’s a decision that puts Carter at the forefront of an MCU story for the first time since Agent Carter, which was prematurely cancelled back in 2016. That series leaned into many of the things that makes the character great, from her toughness to her field skills to her assertiveness.

Though there are times where you wish the storytelling would slow down just a touch or that we had more time to play with so that we could learn more about how this world and the relationships within them differ from the one we’ve come to know, we get a satisfying taste of all of that in this episode.

Marvel Studios' What If is a Disney+ exclusive (Disney)
Marvel Studios' What If is a Disney+ exclusive (Disney)

It helps that Hayley Atwell is back to voice the titular hero. This version of Carter is even more confident than the one we were introduced to in Captain America: The First Avenger, and that very much shines through her performance.

In fact, the vocals across the board are solid: Dominic Cooper hits the sweet spot between cocky and funny in reprising the role of Howard Stark, veteran voice actor Josh Keaton effectively amplifies a serum-less Steve’s warmth and determination, and Ross Marquand continues to be scarily good at evoking Hugo Weaving’s performance as Red Skull.

Marvel Studios' What If is a Disney+ exclusive (Disney)
Marvel Studios' What If is a Disney+ exclusive (Disney)

When it comes time for Peggy and co to throw down, the animation is equal to the task. That’s no surprise considering that What If…? is directed by Bryan Andrews, who worked with legendary animator Genndy Tartakovsky (of Samurai Jack fame, among others) in the past.

One sequence that sees Captain Carter — who is a lot more adept with the shield here than Steve initially was — take out a squad of Hydra goons is impressive in its fluidity. The addition of the Hydra Stomper (think the Iron Giant crossed with the Mark I from Iron Man) adds more welcome flavour to the action too.

With all this said, the decision to go bloodless feels unnecessary; an early scene where Steve is shot and seemingly on death’s door only to be more or less fine in the next scene feels especially weird.

Hayley Atwell as Peggy Carter and Chris Evans as Steve Rogers in Captain America: The First Avenger (2011) (Credit: Marvel)
Hayley Atwell as Peggy Carter and Chris Evans as Steve Rogers in Captain America: The First Avenger (2011) (Credit: Marvel)

There is a larger question within all this that still hasn’t been answered: what does all this mean for the wider MCU? The What If…? comics were fun but largely inconsequential.

With the end of Loki having cracked open the multiverse, time will tell just how important the MCU plans to make these stories going forward.

More observations

  • Composer Laura Karpman gets to put her own spin on a lot of familiar MCU cues in this series, and she’s off to a good start here.

  • Among the fun MCU callbacks in this episode: Peggy going behind enemy lines to rescue Bucky, a ‘death’ on a train, and Steve and Peggy still realllllly wanna go dancing. Keep ‘em coming!

Watch 'What If...?' on Disney+

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