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Of all the What If episodes we’ll be getting over the next couple months, it’s hard to imagine that any of them will be more emotional than this week’s. Chadwick Boseman voiced four different variations of T’Challa for the series before his passing – which together comprise his final performance – but he’s the main focus of this episode, entitled What If… T’Challa became a Star-Lord?. It’s a bittersweet gift, in addition to being a fun watch in its own right with exciting twists and turns.
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This time, the big change is that T’Challa is abducted from Earth by Ravagers instead of Peter Quill because Yondu (a returning Michael Rooker) outsourced the task to his subordinates. But while the Star-Lord we meet in 2014’s Guardians of the Galaxy is initially a self-serving rogue with an inflated opinion of himself that others don’t share, the T’Challa variant of the character is an intergalactic hero who “is not comfortable” with the Star-Lord title and whose feats are known all over the world(s).
This speaks to one of the smartest aspects of What If so far: the characters that we’ve come to know and love over the last decade don’t fundamentally change. It’s the world around them that changes in response to the new, unforeseen circumstances they find themselves in. In T’Challa’s case, his innate goodness, intelligence, and leadership has ended up transforming everyone around him into better versions of themselves. The best example of this is the fact that Josh Brolin’s Thanos is part of T’Challa’s crew. The key to the Mad Titan going straight? In T’Challa’s own words, “sometimes the best weapon in your arsenal is just a good argument.”
Just as humorous is the playful relationship between T’Challa and Nebula (Karen Gillan), whose continual utterance of “Cha-Cha” – her nickname for our favourite Wakandan – never once gets old. But the character who draws the biggest laughs is Djimon Hounsou’s Korath. Despite appearing in two different films, both the actor and the character have been under-utilised in the MCU. It’s a crime as well as a joy that it’s taken this episode for him to truly shine, because Korath is an absolute riot here as T’Challa’s biggest fanboy and newest recruit.
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None of this would work as well without Boseman’s performance to tie things together. Without the burden of royal responsibility to worry about, he’s free to make this version of T’Challa lighter and funnier than the one we’ve been following since Captain America: Civil War. He hits those tones effortlessly, but when the time comes for gravitas he is more than equal to the moment. And even though he’s helped foster a makeshift family in space, T’Challa’s roots are never forgotten. There’s a poignancy to the episode’s final moments that are made all the more emotional by the vocal work of the venerable John Kani, who reprises the role of T’Chaka.
We should probably mention the main plot itself, which sees T’Challa’s crew set out on a tricky mission to nab the ‘Embers of Genesis’ – a macguffin capable of healing a dying planet in minutes – from The Collector (Benecio Del Toro). There are some really fun heist elements here, with multiple plans and believable double and triple crosses you don’t see coming. The action is as fluidly animated as ever too, with the battles ranging from the cool and Easter Egg heavy (keep an eye out for the weapons at The Collector’s disposal) to the surprising (the mini-arc of Nebula and Thanos works surprisingly well).
But in the end, it’s T’Challa’s story that will stick with me the most. The end of Black Panther saw the Wakandan King open up his home to the world. What If’s second episode allows him to fulfil that mission on an impossible scale, showcasing the best of the African nation to the universe. Both the characters on screen and the audience are better for it, even if our world is a little less bright for not having Boseman in it.
There’s lots of fun Easter Eggs in The Collector’s vaults: Cosmo the Spacedog and a Dark Elf make an appearance, and T’Challa actually starts up a conversation with Howard the Duck, who ends up being a big help in this episode. (It is wild that this is a sentence that is 100% true. The MCU has come a long way).
I love that Ludwig Göransson’s iconic drums from the Black Panther score are so recognisable that just a few seconds of it are enough to evoke Wakanda. Hope he’s back for the sequel.
Drax’s wife and daughter survived! I hope they enjoyed the “awful” pics of their Dad with Star-Lord.