The first season of What If…? premiered on Disney+ over the summer of 2021. While the previous MCU shows on Disney+ were live action and ran close to an hour, What If…? went in a different direction. Still relying heavily on movie continuity, it was animated in mostly self-contained half hour adventures. Each episode ranged in tone and quality and only some MCU actors were brought in to voice their characters. It took a bigger chance than the other Marvel shows in the Disney+ stable, but it was successful enough to get a second season.
Premiering on December 22nd, Disney+ decided to air a new episode of What If…? every day for nine days straight. The show’s first season touched upon many corners of the MCU and proved how much potential the concept of the show had. It concluded with a reality-rocking threat that directly involved the Watcher himself. Season two had pretty big shoes to fill for fans who came back for more.
Despite two years and a handful of MCU movies having come out since the first season, season two is more of a follow-up to the first season than it needed to be. Rather than start fresh with new characters or base episodes around events from more recent movies, What If…? settled comfortably on the same movies season one did. The Guardians of the Galaxy plots don’t involve anything after their second movie, and the Avengers characters almost never stray past the events of Captain America: Civil War. The show does throw in nods to a couple newer movies, such as having the backstory in Black Widow come into play in one episode and the titular rings of Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings are the basis of a major episode, but there is virtually nothing post-End Game that’s touched upon. The boldest thing the show does is introduce a completely new character in episode six, but considering how vast the concept of What If…? is, it feels like the show played it too safe. While episodes are still relatively strong with solid re-imaginings, What If…? Season 2 ends up suffering a bit of a sophomore slump.
The season opened with “What If…Nebula Joined the Nova Corps?”, noir-inspired episode where Nebula played a detective on Xandar. It was a strong, self-contained character focused episode. The following episode, “What If…Peter Quill Attacked Earth’s Mightiest Heroes?” introduced the concept of a proto-Avengers team forming in the 1980’s to battle a Peter Quill who was raised by Ego. It was a great concept that explored many characters in different situations. Following that was the comedic “What If…Happy Hogan Saved Christmas?” where Happy had to repel Justin Hammer’s attack on the Avengers with the antics of Happy Hogan and Darcy Lewis being played for laughs. “What If…Iron Man Crashed Into the Grandmaster?” explained the backstory of the Gamora from last season’s finale and put Iron Man into the Sakaar plot of Thor: Ragnarok. “What If…Captain Carter Fought the Hydra Stomper?” continued the adventures of the super soldier version of Peggy Carter introduced last season and her quest to save Steve Rogers. In the most ambitious and risky episode of the season, “What If…Kahhori Reshaped the World?”, Odin sent Tesseract/Space Stone to Earth and wove an entirely new story starring a Mohawk woman. “What If…Hela Found the Ten Rings?” had Hela humbled by Odin much like Thor in his first movie and she went to Earth, met Wenwe, and went through a life altering journey. “What if…The Avengers Assembled in 1602?” sent Captain Carter to a version of 1602 England which imagined the Avengers and company in a fun adventure with a strong twist that lead into the finale. “What If…Strange Supreme Intervened?” reunited Captain Carpter with Strange Supreme, brought Kahhori back, and put together an epic finale that didn’t quite reach the scale of last season’s.
The animation this time around is just as solid as season one. What If…? evokes the mood of the movies but doesn’t try to copy the kinds of action sequences that are seen in live action. It has its own style, and it works for this kind of show. Captain Carter’s fight scenes in particular are fluid and exciting.
The voice cast is just as effective as they were in the first season. Even without the likes of Robert Downey Jr. or Scarlet Johannson, Mick Wingert and Lake Bell are capable of filling their roles. The real standouts this time around are Cate Blanchett giving more dimension to Hela and Jeff Goldblum continuing to bring an unparalleled presence as the Grandmaster. There are a couple surprise actors reprising their roles from the movies, and even though some of them only get a couple lines, it’s always a treat.
Much like the first season, season two’s episodes were a mixed bag. The strength of this show is that it can change in tone from episode to episode and appeal to a wider range of fans. The ones who tune in for comedy are going to enjoy Justin Hammer as a wannabe Avengers villain and Iron Man’s snark-off with the Grandmaster while those who watch for character studies will enjoy what the show did with Hela. Not every episode is going to appeal to everyone, but that’s not surprising considering how vast the MCU fanbase is. Despite the use of alternate realities of What If…?, it’s easy to dismiss the show as not mattering or having real consequences, but that’s far from true. A moment of a still brainwashed Winter Soldier debating on putting down a young Peter Quill is an incredible tense scene. Captain Carter has appeared often enough that she’s just as real as any hero in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and it’s easy to get emotionally attached to her journey.
The real weakness of the show is that it’s never going to completely fulfill its potential. A What If…? can be about anything or anyone, which means lots of great ideas will never be explored. Chadwick Boseman lent his voice to season one, but because of his passing, there was no Black Panther and very little Wakanda. The Scarlet Witch felt like she was only there because they needed a magic user, and nothing from WandaVision or Dr. Strange in the Mulitverse of Madness came into play. There was no Spider-Man this time around. It was great to see a follow-up to Captain Carter and to learn about the Gamora from the last season, but overall, this season felt smaller than the first.
Another thing What If…? seems to miss the mark on is the fact that these episodes can have any kind of ending. Just like the comics they’re based on, a What If…? can run the gamut of showing the hero achieving great success, meeting a truly horrifying ending, or anything in between. Season one had some truly dark endings, but this season mostly stayed away from that. Captain Carter has her tragic romance with Steve Rogers, which is the true heart of the season, but there were no real self-contained tragedies.
The season’s finale was less ambitious than the first. Season one ended with a problem so gigantic that even the Watcher was unprepared for it. This season has the Watcher interact again in the last couple episodes, but the story just wasn’t rand enough. Alternate versions of heroes and villains show up in a huge battle, but those characters don’t get fleshed out. When you know which actors are going to be in an episode, there’s no surprise when many characters show up and have no lines.
The lackluster finale, unfortunately, didn’t do any favors to the season’s most noteworthy decision: the creation of a new character. Neither an MCU character nor a character from the comics, Kahhori had to do a lot to win fans over. Her power was derived from the same source as Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver’s, which was a good tie in to the wider universe, and she had a strong debut episode. However, her subsequent appearances didn’t add more intrigue to her, and her arc ended up being a bit of a letdown.
Season two is just as enjoyable as season one, but it’s not stronger. The uncertainty and possibility the viewer felt watching the first season is gone and, instead, replaced by something more reliable and comforting. The show now seems to cater more towards those that will stick around for an additional season rather than the wider net season one cast. What If…? does appreciate its audience, and there are some interesting lines repeated from the movies, but in different circumstances and said by different characters. The show hasn’t lost any of its potential. While it may have missed the mark with the finale, there are always more stories to tell. A third season is going to need to go bigger and wilder if it wants to get the show back on track.