Captain Carter to the Rescue

What If...?: Season 2

As we’ve noted on this site more than once, Marvel has been struggling as of late with their cinematic universe. Post-Endgame, the studio hasn’t been floundering, trying to find a way to build momentum for their new phase, “The Multiverse Saga”, and their next big villain, Kang. In the course of a single phase, and just a year and a half, Marvel cranked out nearly 50 hours of content, the same amount as they put out in the previous three phases across a whole decade. And most of it was greeted with a shrug by the general public. Their TV projects, especially, felt more like chores than essential content, and it’s hard to convince people that they need to watch everything that Marvel is supplying. There’s too much, with little reason to keep up.

Recently Marvel has pivoted, trying to put out projects that fans don’t necessarily have to watch, programs that will still tie into the Marvel Cinematic UniverseWhen it first began in 2008 with a little film called Iron Man no one suspected the empire that would follow. Superhero movies in the past, especially those not featuring either Batman or Superman, were usually terrible. And yet, Iron Man would lead to a long series of successful films, launching the most successful cinema brand in history: the Marvel Cinematic Universe. in some capacity even while being mostly just “for the fans”. That way the movie goers can be encouraged to just go see the films while anyone that wants the deep-cut material can tune in and keep watching everything. That, of course, doesn’t address the issue of quality that Marvel has been struggling with (many of the recent shows and movies weren’t great), but it does address the idea that the MCU has become more like homework than entertainment.

Will this pivot work? Well, that remains to be seen. We’ll have to wait for the next big cinematic release to see if fans are interested in actually paying for Marvel content on the big screen anymore (so, Deadpool 3, everything rides with you). The value proposition of seeing movies in theaters when you’re already paying for Disney+ feels like it isn’t there. But maybe casual fans of the cinematic universe can be encouraged to come back when they don’t have to keep up with everything. And on the subject of shows that are absolutely not essential, but are worth watching if you’re a fan of Marvel, we have What If…?: Season 2.

This isn’t me dismissing the show, bear in mind. I deeply enjoyed the first season of What If…?, and I was absolutely looking forward to the second season when it was announced. But the show isn’t essential; it’s a side story made of side stories, a collection of tales that are fun to watch but they only really work if you’ve watched and seen everything in the cinematic universe so you can enjoy all the deep-cut references and see how things play differently in these alternate Marvel history tales. If you’re that kind of fan (and, well, I am), then this series is perfect for you. But it’s absolutely not essential for anyone else, and any casual fan can simply skip this series because, well, it won’t have any bearing on any of the movies or other larger stories going forward. That’s actually its strength since it can be both an enjoyable, deep-cut show but also as self-contained as it needs to be, siloed from the rest of the MCU. This is simply a project for the fans and you can watch it, or not, as you want… but you really should.

As with the previous season, this second batch of episodes presents a mixed set of episodes, each with a single divergence point for the characters, situation, and universe. "What If... Nebula Joined the Nova Corps?" posits a setting where Nebula (voiced by Karen Gillan) became a space cop instead of becoming Thanos’s daughter. This lets the episode explore her character and see that her shift to being a hero (from conflicted villain in the first Guardians) movie wasn’t a fluke but was deep within her all along. "What If... Iron Man Crashed into the Grandmaster?" sees Tony Stark (voiced by Mick Wingert) go tumbling into the setting of Thor: Ragnarok, the Gamemaster’s world, after the Attack on New York (as seen in The Avengers), and he has to take on the Gamemaster and help free the people under that villain’s boot. It’s a fun episode that delights in the weirdness of that world, that movie, and the fun that can be had when Tony Stark gets to be, well, Tony Stark.

That’s the joy of these episodes and this series, the fact that you can get strange new settings from just a simple twist of the world. Then the creators can go off and play with their toys, concocting all kinds of weird narrative diversions without having to worry about how it will affect the greater MCU. The movies and shows are generally tightly plotted and designed to shove fans forward to the next episode, the next film, the next bit of “content”, but What If…? simply gets to have fun telling stories on its own terms, following its wild ideas no matter where they lead or what strangeness comes from their mashed up, mixed up stories.

This does also lead to probably the best episode of the run: "What If... Kahhori Reshaped the World?" This story focuses on an alternate timeline when European colonists are never able to take over the “New World”, all because the Tesseract falls to Earth when Ragnarok comes early at Asgard. So instead of Odin placing the artifact in the safe care of a town in Northern Europe, it instead falls into the Mohawk Nation, dropping into a lake and imbuing the water with the Tesseract’s magical properties. When Spanish conquistadors come to the Mohawk village, one of its people, Kahhori (Devery Jacobs), falls into the hidden lake and finds herself transferred to the land of the Sky People, a world powered by the Tesseract, whose people gain magical abilities from the land. But while living in the Sky World seems great, Kahhori realizes she has to help her people and fight the Spaniards, so she becomes a hero and inspires others to follow her to keep her people, and their lands, free.

"What If... Kahhori Reshaped the World?" is notable for a number of reasons. For starters, it was developed with care by Marvel. The studio worked with representatives from the Mohawk Nation and the Smithsonian to make sure the episode was not just respectful but true to the people of that culture and time period. It also introduces a completely new hero to the MCU, Kahhori, who isn’t based on any previously existing character in Marvel’s properties. This shows that Marvel is willing to push their own continuity further and create new stories in their cinematic world that aren’t based on what’s already come before. Plus, the episode is just an enjoyable, well-written tale that sucks you in and keeps you interested the whole time. This is Marvel’s writing at its finest.

Like with the first season there is also a larger arc at play in this season, which comes out in the later half. When Captain Carter (who was introduced in the first season as an alternate version of Captain America) goes on an adventure with Black Widow (to take down the Red Room), she suddenly finds herself sucked into another world, one where the whole of the MCU happens 400 years early, in 1602. And then this leads to a larger adventure that could have consequences for the whole of the Multiverse. It’s a collection of tales that tie together and create a larger narrative that drives the season.

Now, I mention this because the interconnectivity of the first season was something some fans complained about. Traditionally What If stories in the comics didn’t have effects on the main continuity (although that wasn’t always the case; see also the Venom symbiote and its earliest origins). To have all those episodes connect together felt like it was adding in continuity where these tales didn’t normally need it. So there might be fans that don’t like the fact that this second season also features an interconnected story, one that plays with the ideas across the whole of this season (and stars a character from the first season, no less) all to build to another season-ending finale.

But then, I say we just ignore those picky fans. This is a season of television and whatever the comics could or should do, television has certain rules that guide it, and one of those big rules is that seasons should develop to something. Some endpoint should be the goal, something that tells viewers that they spent their time watching this for a reason. I happen to like that these seasons have each rewarded viewers for sticking around and watching all the episodes. It makes the finales feel like something more than simply another episode in the run, and it lets the seasons become more than just the sum of their parts. A good finale for these seasons feels rewarding, and this second season (without spoiling it) does have a good finale. It works, and works well.

I also want to commend Marvel for getting most of the original actors back to voice their animated counterparts. While not every actor is here (Robert Downey, Jr. will never return to play Tony Stark, and I’m pretty sure that bridge is also burned with Scarlett Johansson) the large majority of the players are here and it lends authenticity to their characters and performances. We even get some actors that I assumed wouldn’t want to do voice work on a Disney+ animated series, including Academy Award-winning actress Cate Blanchett. She must have had such a ball playing Hela in Thor: Ragnarok (or Marvel was willing to throw just enough money at her) that she wanted to return, and it’s great. And when Marvel had to find a replacement voice actor, they did a solid job of it (props to Lake Bell for taking over as Black Widow and making the character fun and engaging).

But, really, the biggest commendation I have to give to Marvel is that this season actually redeems some of the projects from earlier in these phases that didn’t necessarily work. Black Widow was a bad movie in basically all the ways that matter, but using that movie’s ideas as a basis for an episode of this season actually works, and it’s fun to have Captain Carter and Black Widow working together to bring down the Red Room. It almost redeems that movie. The same can be said for “What If… Hela Found the Ten Rings?” which brings back the villain, and ideas, of Shang-Chi and explores them in a way I think works even better than that film (which was fun, albeit slight).

What If…? is a show that gets to play by its own rules even as it goes venturing off into Marvel continuity. It gets to have fun, to take audiences on rides that they wouldn’t expect, all so that fans can truly get into, and enjoy, the Multiverse. This show realizes the true potential of “The Multiverse Saga” in a way that Marvel’s greater ambitions still haven’t managed. While I don’t think this series is essential viewing for the casuals out there, for anyone that really enjoys the MCU and wants to see it let loose and get weird this show deliverse. And hell, even if you are a casual and don’t want to have to keep up with everything Marvel produces, go watch the Kahhori episode as that one alone is worth the price of admission. And then maybe watch the rest of it because, yes, it really is a lot of fun.