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Strange-Supreme coming through a portal in Marvel Studios’ WHAT IF…? Image: Marvel Studios

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If Marvel’s What If…? can do anything, then why is it doing this?

The fun-questions show forgot how to ask fun questions

Joshua Rivera (he/him) is an entertainment and culture journalist specializing in film, TV, and video game criticism, the latest stop in a decade-plus career as a critic.

It is wildly frustrating how small the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s multiverse is.

Let me show you what I mean. Here are the episode titles for all seven episodes of What If...? season 2, the show about imagining all the possibilities present in the MCU multiverse, that have aired thus far:

  • “What If... Nebula Joined the Nova Corps?”
  • “What If... Peter Quill Attacked Earth’s Mightiest Heroes?”
  • “What If... Happy Hogan Saved Christmas?”
  • “What If... Iron Man Crashed into the Grandmaster?”
  • “What If... Captain Carter Fought the Hydra Stomper?”
  • “What If... Kahhori Reshaped the World?”
  • “What If... Hela Found the Ten Rings?”

What, pray tell, does any of that mean? Nebula joining the Nova Corps isn’t terribly exciting, because, well, the MCU Nova Corps are boring space cops, and this episode isn’t concerned with fleshing them out. Captain Carter fighting the Hydra Stomper? Beg your pardon? I like half of that sentence, I guess! Hela finding the Ten Rings? Props for finally pulling from Phase 4, but Hela was already bad news without the Ten Rings from Shang-Chi; this is not a huge twist.

Xu Wenwu and Hela team up in Marvel Studios’ WHAT IF…? Image: Marvel Studios

Worse, these premises all obscure the cool stuff each episode is actually doing. Happy Hogan saving Christmas? That’s sneakily an Iron Man 2-era Die Hard spoof. Iron Man and the Grandmaster? That’s a Marvel-flavored Death Race/Ben-Hur pastiche. Kahhori reshaping the world? That one is supposed to be confounding, because it introduces a brand-new hero, the Mohawk woman Kahhori, who is empowered by the Tesseract in one universe and thrust into the wider multiverse by last season’s Strange Supreme. (Kahhori’s episode is also the only one to truly try anything new here, as opposed to mixing and matching things we’ve seen in MCU movies.)

What If...? didn’t start this way. While it had its problems — problems that remain consistent, like an animation style that is pretty great for people fighting and pretty horrid for people talking — there was a clarity to every episode’s proposed twist. Compare season 1’s first seven episode titles to the current lineup:

  • “What If... Captain Carter Were the First Avenger?
  • “What If... T’Challa Became a Star-Lord?
  • “What If... the World Lost Its Mightiest Heroes?”
  • “What If... Doctor Strange Lost His Heart Instead of His Hands?”
  • “What If... Zombies?!”
  • “What If... Killmonger Rescued Tony Stark?”
  • “What If... Thor Were an Only Child?”

These are all questions worthy of the invitation to wonder in the show’s title, and proposed changes that ripple outward in a way that goes beyond a one-off escapade or a slightly different lineup for the Avengers or Guardians of the Galaxy. (Which is more or less the extent of what several season 2 episodes do.)

It turns out that making Marvel’s cinematic multiverse feel truly infinite is an impossibly large task, because the possibilities present in the Marvel Cinematic Universe are frustratingly limited. Sure, the movies have taken us from Earth to the far reaches of space, but the people in it? They are functional. Every heroes’ supporting cast mostly comprises co-workers or fellow soldiers, perhaps a love interest. Few have favorite bands (how quickly has Tony Stark’s taste in loud rock disappeared), a distinct sense of style, or annoying opinions. This lacking ripples outward, limiting the array of imagined futures writers on shows like What If...? can conjure for these characters, leaving them with no choice but to nudge plot events around, reshuffle rosters, or, if they’re feeling ambitious, retcon some diversity into the MCU’s stodgy white early years.

In other words, What If...? desperately needs to ask better questions, before we start asking the obvious one: What if we all did something else with our time?

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