Marvel has opted for a more reserved approach for it’s second season of the hit animated series
Story: The Watcher (Jeffrey Wright) returns with more tales with alternate history from the vast multiverse of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Review: The first animated series What if…? is a surprisingly good mix of excellent storytelling and some of the MCU’s signature formulaic productions. But the episodes that exceeded expectations are compelling and pushed the boundaries of the fabled ‘Marvel formula’. Episodes four, five, eight, and nine are unlike anything Marvel Studios have attempted before. These episodes offer far more mature themes with far greater threats and obstacles the heroes are forced to overcome. But a few episodes such as episode 7, What If... Thor Were an Only Child?, are poorly written and it takes away some of the gleam of the overall season. Season two on the other hand offers a more consistent batch of episodes with fairly decent entertainment value, which is ironically typical of most MCU releases. However, it has come at the cost of thoroughly compelling and mature stories, like the ones featured in season one.
If season one gravitates more towards a version of an infinitely powerful Doctor Strange, then season two mostly centres around Captain Carter – Peggy Carter from the universe where she becomes the super soldier instead of Steve Rogers. Hayley Atwell reprises her role as Peggy Carter and delivers a unique take on the character who is the quintessential superhero of the What if…? series. Just like Loki in the finale of Loki, Captain Carter’s arc has elevated her to become a greater hero than the Avengers. It shouldn’t be surprising that the three episodes featuring Peggy are among the best of season two. Another episode that towered over the rest is the one featuring the incredible Cate Blanchett as Hela the Goddess of Death. The episode has an intriguing story and great character arcs despite its 30-minute runtime. Hela and Xu Wenwu from Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings teaming up to battle Odin is truly a sight to behold.
The other episodes often risk muddling the line between pastiche and imitation. The episode featuring Happy Hogan in a Die Hard story at the Avengers tower is certainly an exciting concept but lacks a bit of nuance in its execution. Similarly Tony Stark’s ‘galactic death race’ appears to have borrowed elements from Tron Legacy, Speed Racer, and even the Hot Wheels DLC from the hit Xbox video game Forza Horizon 3. In other words, it’s a little too on the nose for it to be a homepage to the aforementioned titles. While it does attempt to provide a bit of backstory to the alternate reality Gamora, the story is marred by a few minor plot holes. The first episode, featuring Gamora’s sister Nebula, is certainly a proper homage to the noir and cyberpunk aesthetic of Cyberpunk. But unfortunately, the story is far too predictable and flat. Whereas, the episode featuring a young Peter Quill with god-like abilities fails to resonate with any meaningful themes apart from Marvel’s tried and saturated theme of family and fatherhood.
Episode 6 introduces a new character, Kahhori, who is also the MCU’s first-ever original superhero, not inspired by previous comics. It tells the story of a young Native American Mohawk woman in the 16th century, who is imbued with the power of the tesseract, as she embarks on a quest for justice. The story itself despite being cliched has enough components to keep one invested in the series. But the best episode of the series is episode 8 What If... The Avengers Assembled in 1602?. Set in mediaeval England, the story puts Captain Carter in the centre as she attempts to save a universe where the Avengers have inexplicably ended up in a period setting. The story is rife with vibrant characters in one of the most unique settings one could imagine, and the idea of ‘what if’ truly thrives in this episode. Captain America is a Robin Hood archetype, Thor is a ruler burdened with loss, and Tony Stark is a ‘mad inventor’ in this outstanding tale from the multiverse. However, it is a shame that the studio did not indulge in more risks with its storytelling like in season one.
Verdict: Despite the promise of some of the most exciting ‘what if’ scenarios from the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the second season of What if…? has limited itself to a more cautious approach to its storytelling. While a few episodes do offer a glimpse of the series’ potential, it ultimately spirals down to a ‘what could’ve been’.