Spoilers follow for Episode 8 of Marvel’s What If…? For more, see our review of the previous episode of What If.
For all the loose plot threads dangling in the many worlds of What If, it was surprising to see this week’s episode immediately pay off last week’s cliffhanger: Ultron arriving on the scene with a full set of Infinity Stones. The murder robot is still dead-set on fulfilling his programming and wiping out sentient life, so the only question is whether humanity has the will to stop him. Well, that and “is the Watcher finally going to move his melon-on-a-toothpick head and help out?” As we near the end of the season, What If is more forthcoming with answers to questions like these, leaving this week’s alternate sequel to 2015’s Avengers: Age of Ultron as one of the clearest displays yet of What If’s strengths and potential for extrapolating worthwhile stories out of MCU canon.
What If has done well at choosing specific, interesting points to diverge from the stories we know, and continues that trend by explaining that this universe saw the Avengers fail to recover the vibranium android body that would become host to Vision, giving Ultron (Ross Marquand) an organic, invincible shell with which to destroy all mankind. And destroy all mankind he does! The Watcher’s (Jeffrey Wright) retelling of Ultron’s victory is surprisingly bleak and sober, which sets up the stakes for the rest of the story nicely. Episode 8 does a good job keeping the themes of Age of Ultron at the forefront by centering the story on the lone human survivors of Ultron’s nuclear holocaust: Black Widow (Lake Bell) and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner). It’s always valuable in MCU stories, with gods and Celestials and Eternals and so on, to remind us just why the “normies” like Natasha and Clint belong at the table. Often joked about for their lack of powers, they’re an obvious choice as a longshot last hope, but in the context of Ultron’s inhuman legion, focusing on them feels appropriate.
Bell fares far better as Natasha this time out, mainly because the setting keeps the character more grounded and less jokey than she was in Episode 3. More attention is given to Clint’s story, who’s struggling to fight on after losing his family, and Renner brings that daunting challenge to life well through his performance. Clint’s wavering will to survive serves as the argument against Ultron’s philosophy in microcosm, well-captured in a stunning shot of a solo Clint going up against hundreds of Ultron drones at once. This episode feels the most cinematic of any What If installment yet, which goes a long way towards making it feel like a continuation of the events of Age of Ultron.
What If doesn’t spend much time on deepening our understanding of Ultron, with his more nuanced, personal motivations taking a backseat to his broad “peace in our time” directive, but with his father figure dead at this point, finishing the job he started is good enough incentive. Marquand goes two-for-two on subbing in for MCU villain actors, capturing James Spader’s sneering superiority well, though his Red Skull has a touch more fidelity to the original performance than his Ultron. Ultron’s aptitude for universal slaughter leaves him in the same situation as Strange Supreme, alone in all of creation with only The Watcher to keep him company. But a complete set of Infinity Stones is the only key Ultron needs to open the door to the multiverse, and the confrontation between the two beings sends the episode into mind-bending territory.
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The Watcher’s choice to abandon passivity and actively engage in the story he’s narrating has been telegraphed since the very start of What If, and it was a little disappointing to see that decision was driven not by a moral resolution, but by self-preservation after Ultron broke his door in and waved the Infinity Stones at him threateningly. The Watcher and Ultron’s multiverse-traversing battle calls to mind Doctor Strange and Kaecilius’ Mirror Dimension duel and goes for broke on gonzo visuals (including a killer Galactus nod!), but does suffer from the show not establishing what The Watcher is capable of in a fight. Because we have no way to know how strong The Watcher is, especially relative to a complete set of Infinity Stones, we spend most of the fight asking “what can The Watcher do?” rather than “how will The Watcher win?” The answer to both appears to be “whatever the writers need.”
This sequence ends up being less effective than moments where Ultron drones are closing in on Clint and Natasha, as the cost and likelihood of their failure is clear and easy to connect to. Balancing action and plot, and understanding which stories benefit from that focus shifting one way or the other, has been one of What If’s biggest challenges and this week is no different. While the Ultron/Watcher fight works overall, the Ultron/Captain Marvel showdown on Xandar felt like a diversion engineered to add one more fight scene. Age of Ultron works best in its quiet moments pondering heady existential questions. The same goes for Episode 8, which aside from occasional stumbles, does a decent job balancing big ideas and big brawls.