Spoilers follow for Episode 3 of Marvel’s What If…? For more, see our reviews of the first two episodes of What If below:
What If…? Season 1, Episode 1 – Review
What If…? Season 1, Episode 2 – Review
After two episodes that each remixed the plot of a single Marvel movie, to varying degrees, What If’s latest installment surprises with a genre I didn’t think we’d ever see in the MCU: murder mystery! For all the wanton death and sacrifice plays superhero movies celebrate, it’s rare to see those heroes killed off of the battlefield, and especially jarring here given the thick plot armor Marvel characters have (how many times has Vision “died” now?) Episode 3 may suffer from trying to do too much in too little time, but the intrigue at the heart of its plot keeps that from totally killing the fun.
First, let’s do a quick refresher on some relevant MCU history: this week’s episode of What If reinterprets the events of Fury’s Big Week, a seven-day stretch in 2011 which saw the SHIELD director attempt to recruit Tony Stark, Bruce Banner, Thor, and the recently thawed Steve Rogers to the Avenger Initiative. In Marvel’s darkest divergence from canon yet, this foundational week for the Avengers is marred by murders most foul! Someone’s killing off Fury’s (Samuel L. Jackson) recruits before they can reach their potential, leaving him with more job openings than he’d planned on. What’s worse, it seems like his own agents, Black Widow (Lake Bell) and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), may be implicated. The ways in which Stark, Banner, and Thor each go out are surprisingly grim (HULK SPLASH!) and yet feel totally believable, as each death leans on the struggles the heroes were going through at that time.
Marvel’s What If…? – 9 Wild Stories From the Original Comics Series
Voice acting continues to be a tough nut for What If to crack and this week, Lake Bell’s Black Widow is the odd lady out. What If has been wildly inconsistent in how it handles assigning talent to characters from the MCU. Why, in an episode where you’ve got voice actor Mick Wingert doing a perfectly serviceable Robert Downey Jr., do you ask a big-name actor like Bell to try to impersonate another MCU vet and expect the same level of fidelity to the original performance? The issue is compounded by Natasha’s personality feeling much jokier than she was in the films of this era. But on the other hand, when you’ve got a voice as iconic as Sam Jackson’s, if you can get him, use him, right? Alternate timeline though it may be, Jackson’s Fury is remarkably consistent with his live-action counterpart and that actually helps build the stakes for this story. Fury’s famously one step ahead of the game, so having him spend the whole episode on his back foot is a great way to test his resolve.
And we can’t spend a whole episode in Phase I without getting some quality time with Clark Gregg’s Phil Coulson! Gregg’s mix of professionalism and hero worship is as funny as ever, although how he’s characterized here feels a little more in line with his ‘90s Captain Marvel persona than his more buttoned-up style in The Avengers. This is probably the least action-heavy episode yet, but the visuals aren’t as distractingly bland as they were in the premiere’s dingy WWII-era. Culver University’s lush campus pops, and the sleeker, modern aesthetic of SHIELD’s various installations is far more palatable than the SSR headquarters of the 1940s.
Because of the truncated runtimes What If works with — arbitrarily, it’s streaming — this episode does bite off more than it can chew when it comes to stringing out the mystery killer’s identity. If you find yourself asking “why are we talking about Hope Van Dyne dying as an agent of SHIELD out of nowhere?,” the list of suspects shrinks (heh) to just two. Seeing as one of them’s in the Quantum Realm, that just leaves Hope’s father, a totally unhinged Hank Pym (Michael Douglas). Pym being the killer may not come as a huge surprise by the time it’s revealed, but storywise, it feels like a logical progression from the opening of Ant-Man, where Pym leaves SHIELD over their intent to weaponize his Pym Particles. Seeing the MCU tackle a serial killer story, and even making it feel organic to established canon, definitely bodes well for the future of the series. You can only get so far by swapping characters in and out of hero mantles, so allowing room for different genres will be critical for keeping the show interesting and surprising.
This story in particular feels like it could’ve used more focus, even if it meant extending it into a two-parter. Episode 3 also solidly confirms that no character or paradigm introduced in What If can be safely considered a one-off, especially considering the familiar faces we see answering Fury’s call for some replacement Avengers by the end.