This Is What Marvel’s What If…? Understands That the Previous MCU Shows Don’t

Warning: Full spoilers follow for Marvel’s What If…? through Episode 5.


When it comes to the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s television shows, What If…? was always the wild card of the line-up. Yes, it’s the first animated MCU offering, each episode so far is relatively self-contained outside of the unifying gimmick of The Watcher’s limited involvement, and it’s a collection of multiverse stories rather than an installment of the mainline universe canon. Those are the obvious answers. But now that we’re several episodes into the first season, a more prevailing theme is becoming clear.

It’s the first Marvel Disney+ show to actually take advantage of being a television show.

Previously, on the MCU…

With WandaVision, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier and the first season of Loki all in the bag, Marvel’s production ethos for their live-action shows has crystallized: They are making six-hour movies. This isn’t even a supposition on my part; Kari Skogland, the director of Falcon and the Winter Soldier, said as such when discussing how she and Marvel Studios President Kevin Feige approached the series: “I approached [it] like a film. From the beginning, as Kevin said, we were making a six-hour film.” It is as plain a statement of creative intent as it’s possible to make, and it’s also indicative of the pitfalls that have held these shows back from being their best selves, because they are actively fighting against the medium they’re in.

Aside from the first couple of black and white installments of WandaVision, it is remarkably difficult to distinguish the various episodes in any of these shows from one another, or to recall what specifically happens in each one. The narratives are segmented into episodes at relatively random intervals and widely differing runtimes, and this general lack of a consistent episode structure makes each one feel vague as an installment in itself. This is a recurring problem with a lot of “paced for the binge” mini-series television production in the last several years, but it’s an openly acknowledged part of the mindset for creating these shows. The episodes of MCU shows are not distinct entities because they are not designed to be. Beyond more readily apparent concerns like sluggish pacing and lack of thematic coherence, what this approach also facilitates is the shows as a whole feeling largely inconsequential.

WandaVision begins with Wanda grieving over the death of Vision, and ends with her… grieving over the death of Vision, but with a new costume and the added loss of their hypothetical children. The Falcon and the Winter Soldier was essentially a prologue to Sam Wilson accepting the mantle of Captain America, something the audience could reasonably be expected to infer happened between films after being given the shield by Steve Rogers in Avengers: Endgame. Loki is basically now in a pocket dimension with the TVA, and although the show is responsible for Kang’s arrival, he will be properly introduced (and, we can assume, adequately explained) in his first film appearance in the upcoming Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania. It is as if these series are designed on purpose to be ignored if the moviegoing audience happens to not have a Disney+ account, and while that’s sound from a business perspective, it’s unsatisfying from a viewer standpoint because the shows are so defined by their MCU connectivity to the point of diluting their own core narratives.

[Episodes] are allowed to be more complete as narratives because they are not beholden to either building off of previous threads or setting up future ones in the larger franchise.

A Universe of Infinite Possibilities

In contrast, What If…? couldn’t be further from its brethren. Despite only having a handful of episodes to its name, What If…? has already cemented itself not just as the best Disney+ Marvel show so far, but the first to firmly coalesce as both a television show and an installment of the wider MCU, and it did so by not really mattering to the wider MCU. Each episode of What If…? is not only a specific entity that are (so far, anyway) only spiritually tied to each other by the show’s multiverse branding, they are also allowed to be more complete as narratives because they are not beholden to either building off of previous threads or setting up future ones in the larger franchise. That the individual episodes can even be judged against each other at all speaks to how much more distinct they are than the episodes from the live-action shows.

While the first episode is not much more than a gender-swapped remake of Captain America: The First Avenger as a way to get the ball rolling, each subsequent one has created more of a unique identity, with the T’Challa-starring second having fresh takes on an array of well-known MCU characters, and the third and fifth embracing wholly new genres as a murder mystery and zombie apocalypse story, respectively.

But none have succeeded so far as much as Episode 4, which takes place in a reality where the death of Christine Palmer was an inextricable part of Doctor Strange’s origin story. This “absolute point,” as the Ancient One calls it, is what Strange seeks to reverse, leading him down a dark path that ultimately results not just in his own moral dissolution, but also the destruction of his entire reality. As a take on the Doctor Strange mythology, it is a sibling to the film instead of a sequel, one that mirrors its live-action counterpart without needing to act as connective tissue to everything it established.

This is clear in the episode’s central conceit, which pumps up Christine Palmer’s importance to a level that doesn’t match the film’s use of the character at all. In the movie Stephen and Christine were distant exes at the time of his fateful car crash, while in the episode their romance had apparently never died out. What If…? builds on Strange’s central traits: his brilliance, his determination, and his ego, but channels them towards an inevitably tragic conclusion.

The same principle applies to Hank Pym’s chance to reconcile with his daughter being ripped away, which turns him into an Avengers serial killer in Episode 3, and Vision’s emotional dependence on Wanda causing him to betray his ideals by feeding people to her zombified form in Episode 5. As for the Doctor Strange story, it ends exactly as the story needs it to: with Strange alone, defeated, his world destroyed in exactly the manner he was told it would. It’s a brave and heartbreaking note that stands in stark opposition to Strange’s formative journey of accepting humility in his origin film.

By being the “least important” show to the wider universe, What If…? has ironically wound up being the one with the most genuine consequence.


Carlos Morales writes novels, articles and Mass Effect essays. You can follow his fixations on Twitter.

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