On paper, it's easy to see how 'What If...?' was sold as an idea.
Comic-book characters frequently depart to other universes where seminal moments are played out completely differently, and the narrative cocktail that's been stirred up results in some intriguing propositions. What if Bruce Wayne died instead of Thomas and Martha Wayne? What if Superman landed in the Soviet Union instead of Smallville, Kansas? With Marvel's 'What If...?', each episode supposes a new idea along these lines, but with a lot less ambition. The opening episode sees Peggy Carter - voiced by the character's live-action star, Hayley Atwell - injected with the Vita-Rays that created Captain America, while Steve Rogers is given a giant armoured suit to do battle with HYDRA and the Nazi threat in World War II.
After that, you've essentially got a rehash of 'Captain America: The First Avenger', except it's Captain Carter charging out of a prison with the Howling Commandos by her side, and bashing Nazis with a Union Jack shield instead of a Stars and Stripes shield. Atwell, for her part, knows how to imbue Carter with a real sense of confidence that was already there in her live performance, and the addition of Bradley Whitford as the typically chauvinist commanding officer brushes up against it and adds another layer to the story, if an overtly obvious one. Of the three episodes made available to critics, the episode where T'Challa joins the Guardians of the Galaxy - voiced by Chadwick Boseman, in what was sadly to be his final performance in that role - stood out as the best.
For one, Boseman gave a far more spirited vocal performance than any of the other actors. Sure, it's great having Josh Brolin in there as Thanos, not to mention Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury, but if they can't be arsed to play with a bit more gusto, then what's the point in having them at all? Not only that, it only serves to highlight how little they give a crap about voicing an animated version of their character.
Beyond the vocal performances, what's intriguing about the T'Challa / Guardians of the Galaxy episode was that it played with conventions of what if stories. Essentially, T'Challa would have been the same person if he was taken by Yondu as a child, and not only that, he would have influenced the Ravagers - Yondu's crew of bandits and mercenaries - to be much closer to a merry band akin to Robin Hood than what we saw in the movies. Yet, while this might be an intriguing idea to explore, it's a pretty small one.
What you really get in 'What If..?', from the three episodes we saw, is a decidedly small variation on the stories we've seen. Even in an episode where we see major characters killed off one by one, it doesn't deviate enough from what we know and have seen in order for it to feel like we're getting something unique or exciting. Not only that, the fact that it's been condensed down to one episode, even if it's super-sized, means it's taking a lot of leaps and glossing over things for the sake of expediency. Again, this doesn't serve anything other than to highlight how disposable the whole thing really is.
Still, 'What If...?' is an enjoyable detour off of the grand Marvel Cinematic Universe timeline. Uber-fans will probably get a big kick out of seeing the possibilities shift around them, but there's little else here to keep non-believers hanging around.
'Marvel's What If...?' is available on Disney+ from August 11th, with a new episode every Wednesday.