Marvel’s been doing great with their TV shows, which continues to be a wild sentence to write even after we’ve had three complete seasons of shows. WandaVision was an absolute delight that had a lot of fun with its television format, The Falcon and The Winter Soldier was solid fun, even if it didn’t lean quite enough into its buddy antics, and Loki was a wild ride that was unafraid to change up its formula along the way (for better or worse). In any case, I, the guy who’s seen all but one MCU movie during its opening weekend, have been enjoying them all immensely. It’s really fun to see the stories unfold in a shorter serialized format.
The MCU has very much evolved into a modern iteration of the serial film. Each movie is its own episode that fits into a larger narrative, with subsequent movies expecting you to have some level of familiarity with those that came before, even if the movie doesn’t have a big 2 slapped on it. It’s a delightful dose of irony that the MCU’s story has moved to television, like how film serials were supplanted by episodic television over fifty years ago. In any case, the Marvel shows expect you to know what’s going on; WandaVision and The Falcon and The Winter Soldier go easy on exposition about who their characters are and what the Snap was, choosing instead to touch lightly on what’s relevant to the narrative and focus on where these people are going next. Loki doesn’t both really explaining what led up to him hopping out of the timeline, just that he’s out and we’re gonna send him places.
It’s What If… ?, the new animated series, that takes this one step further. The first episode, What If… Captain Carter Were The First Avenger, is a riff on the first Captain America movie, switching things around so that Peggy Carter gets the Super Soldier Serum and becomes the hero. From there, the story follows the major beats of the movie it’s riffing on: despite being super strong, Peggy’s relegated to the sidelines, so she strikes off on her own, is finally taken seriously, a mission involving a train results in an ally going missing, and then there’s the big fight against the Red Skull. What’s missing is a lot of the connective tissue — all the bits in between that connect those Big Moments just aren’t in the story.
And they don’t need to be. What If… ? assumes a familiarity with the original story, the sort of broad strokes that really all MCU movies expect these days, and so doesn’t waste any time retreading trodden ground. You know that Red Skull’s a crazy Nazi, you know that Captain (be they Rogers or Carter) is going to try and save the world, you know what the Tesseract can do, So we can skip that and focus on how this story is different, now that something’s changed.
The result is a half-hour of television that feels like a sugar rush, hitting all the highs and just delivering on pure, unbridled fun. Which is fantastic, because two episodes in, that seems like what What If… ? is setting out to do: take a known story or character, throw some curveballs at it, and then sit tight for the narrative roller coaster that ensues. Paring the exposition down to only what’s absolutely necessary for the story (the second episode doesn’t bother telling us what Wakanda is or who Ego is when he’s mentioned in passing in the beginning) lets it focus on the story at hand.
Part of why it works is because even though the show knows it doesn’t need to do nearly as much exposition as usual, it still focuses in on a narrative arc. Captain Carter’s basic good guy vs bad guy story hits all the right beats, and the second episode zeroes in on T’challa’s character amidst a heist story. There’s still some substance within the fan service, which, if anything, sounds like a good modus operandi for the What If… ? show and, if it’s not been made clear, I am very much here for it.