Marvel’s 'What If...?' is like a love letter to every MCU fan theory

Is that T'Challa... as Star-Lord... knocking out Taneleer Tivan???

So many rabbit holes.

After 13 years, I think Marvel Cinematic Universe fans can all agree that the game of digging through the text for clues and cooking up theories on where the juggernaut franchise will go next is a huge part of the fun. In that sense, then, the new Disney+ animated series What If...? amounts to Marvel saying: "You are seen."

This is a show that dares to ponder what might have happened if Peggy Carter had received Dr. Erskine's super-soldier serum instead of Steve Rogers. Where would Peggy's life have gone? What about Steve? Or Bucky? Every episode calls back to Marvel's comic book roots in some way, but What If...? cleverly avoids the path of least resistance by simply turning Captain America into a gender-swapped Captain Britain.

The MCU has had a knack all along for neither zigging nor zagging in ways that fans expect. So when a mysterious assassin starts taking out Avengers in episode three, the eventual surprise reveal comes tumbling out of a realm you never would've guessed. The same vibe persists through all three of the episodes Disney provided for review.

Even still, the MCU as we already know it defines every frame of What If...?, offering Easter egg hunters a wealth of material to sift through. There are slightly twisted recreations of familiar scenes and even specific lines of dialogue, such as a return to the campus where an Edward Norton Hulk faced off against Thunderbolt Ross (it's Ruffalo Hulk now, and things go quite differently).

'What If...?' feels more like an intermission from the MCU, before shit gets really wild.

The result is a series that feels like it's poised to deliver multi-layered thrills. It's thoroughly enjoyable to see T'Challa, voiced by the late Chadwick Boseman, assume the mantle of Star-Lord in What If...?'s standout second episode. The story is a 30-minute gut punch that celebrates the gift of Boseman's take on T'Challa, just one more adventure for old time's sake.

But that episode, filled with familiar faces on both sides of the good vs. evil divide, also highlights the rippling of events that occurs when a shift in the timeline swaps one character for another. What becomes of our familiar Guardians of the Galaxy squad, not to mention their allies and enemies? What If...? repeatedly poses questions like these, and the one-shot format means that answers always arrive in the space of an episode.

It's a refreshingly low-investment gift to fans who are used to tightly clutching the shreds of clues disbursed by mid- and post-credits scenes. The MCU as a whole doesn't just reward investment; really, it demands that level of fealty. What If...? is rich with rewards for eagle-eyed fans, but there's no extra baggage to carry into or out of any given episode.

The show is also rich with beautiful imagery. End-of-episode credit rolls rightly start with the most critical art and design leads, the people who are most responsible for shepherding the look of this fantasy vision of the MCU into being. The animation, created using a technique called "rotoscoping" that layers drawn art over live footage, isn't quite as trippy as you may remember from Richard Linklater's A Waking Life.

It's distinctive, though. The dreamlike quality that exemplifies this visual style perfectly fits the core premise of exploring fantastical MCU rabbit holes. That vibe serves to reinforce the idea that none of this actually happened, at least in the Earth-199999 that we've spent more than a decade getting to know.

It's not Captain Britain, folks. It's Captain *Carter*.
It's not Captain Britain, folks. It's Captain *Carter*. Credit: disney / marvel studios

The only real issue is that MCU fans trained to invest, invest, invest may not vibe so easily with a series that puts everything on the table and then clears it all away in the space of a single half-hour plotline. Yeah, it would be cool to see more T'Challa-as-Star-Lord or Captain Carter beating Nazi ass. But more than that even is the idea that none of this really means anything in the bigger picture. If you're craving another step into Marvel's Phase Four, prepare to be disappointed. What If...? feels more like an intermission before shit gets really wild.

The episodic approach also means that some stories are going to be better than others. There's an admittedly small sample to draw from at this point. But already, the second episode featuring T'Challa stands far above the other two, and not just because it's one, last bittersweet ride with Boseman. It's also fully awash with fan service-y nods back to Guardians and Black Panther that elicit immediate shouts of surprise when they show up.

Sure, that's entirely subjective. But it's illustrative of how What If...? is probably going to land within MCU fandom. The lure to rank each episode, to measure each one on its merits as a story, will be strong. Breaking out of the MCU treadmill where everything, everywhere is connected is one of the most refreshing aspects of this series. So sure, it'll be fun to debate What If...? stories once this season is over.

Yes, let the last episode be a season finale rather than a series finale. My sincere hope is that What If...? returns in a year from now, or five years from now, with a new batch of stories to tell. Marvel Studios stumbled onto a potent idea here, taking a line of beloved but not widely known one-shot comics and setting that concept loose for MCU creators to play with.

The result is something that feels distinctly of the MCU without ever fitting neatly into that multi-movie puzzle box — by design. What If...? is an odd fit for the Marvel movie-verse, but hardly a bad one. For fans who obsess over every hint, Easter egg, and knowing nod especially, this Disney+ season of TV plows through new and unexplored plots of land for a universe — better yet, a multiverse — of freshly dug rabbit holes.

What If...? comes to Disney+ on Aug. 12.