Marvel’s ‘What If…?’ Transforms Chadwick Boseman’s Black Panther into Star-Lord and Turns the MCU Upside Down
The new animated series, available to stream on Disney+, remixes the MCU and features the final performance of the late Chadwick Boseman as a hybrid T’Challa/Star-Lord.
Nothing’s ever set in stone in superhero fiction, and now that the Marvel Cinematic Universe has, with Loki, fully introduced and embraced the concept of the multiverse, the ability to revive and/or retcon the past is easier than ever. It’s in that new MCU reality that What If…? makes its entrance, promising endless possibilities for alternate realities. Based on the long-running comics title of the same name, the studio’s latest Disney+ effort reimagines many of the franchise’s key events and characters in novel ways. In the process, it suggests the malleability of these popular sagas, while affording the studio the handy option of partaking in resurrection-style do-overs—which, in this case, occurs most poignantly via the final performance of Chadwick Boseman.
What If…? (Aug. 11) is narrated by The Watcher (Jeffrey Wright), a passive omnipotent deity who serves as the Rod Serling of this The Twilight Zone-ish collection of fresh takes on familiar material. With the multiverse defined as infinite, the Watcher gazes upon Earths that are ever-so-slightly different from the one already established by the MCU, courtesy of small but crucial choices or actions that spawned entirely new timelines. It’s a clever conceit for mixing and matching the Avengers and their adversaries into unique configurations, and since the show is technically part of the MCU canon, these wild tales boast the potential to impact the official series of events going forward, be it on the small or big screen.
Nonetheless, such interconnected concerns are secondary in What If…?, given that in its first three episodes (which were all that was provided to press), it offers up stand-alone narratives built around some of the MCU’s most momentous moments. Creator A.C. Bradley’s animated series kicks things off in high fashion with a variation on the scientific birth of Captain America, aka Steve Rogers (Josh Keaton). Here, the U.S. government’s experiment is rudely interrupted by a Hydra operative, thus forcing Steve’s love interest Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) to take his place in the trial, receive a full dose of supersoldier serum, and emerge transformed as the Union Jack-decorated Captain Carter. Relying on a woman to defeat Hitler’s Third Reich isn’t what sexist Colonel Flynn (Bradley Whitford) has in mind, but fortunately, the rest of Carter’s compatriots have greater faith in her--including Steve, now relegated to being her scrawny but stout sidekick and would-be paramour.
I won’t spoil the various role-reversal surprises of What If…?, but suffice it to say that Captain Carter’s emergence as the Allies’ great hope against Red Skull and his Hydra minions isn’t the only one delivered by the premiere. The same holds true for the show’s sophomore outing, which takes off from the premise that, when intergalactic ravager Yondu (Michael Rooker) went to Earth to retrieve Peter Quill (i.e. the inception point for the Guardians of the Galaxy movies), his minions accidentally snatched a young T’Challa (Boseman). Thus, rather than growing up to assume the mantle of Black Panther, T’Challa became Star-Lord. Moreover, instead of Quill’s oft-mocked version of the character, this Star-Lord is a revered Robin Hood-ish mercenary, as illustrated by a riff on the Guardians of the Galaxy opener in which Ronan’s minion Korath the Pursuer (Djimon Hounsou) gushes fawningly over his legendary adversary—admiration which ultimately nets him a position in T’Challa and Yondu’s crew, which also includes one seriously unanticipated member.
Boseman’s final turn as T’Challa will undoubtedly be a big initial selling point of What If…?, especially because the late actor sounds as vibrant and gallant as ever; even as a ravager, T’Challa’s nobility shines through thanks to Boseman’s commanding presence. Nonetheless, the material’s heart and soul is its central gimmick, and it works just as well when episodes choose to more boldly stray from conventional MCU lore. The series’ third installment is a breath of fresh air, since it almost immediately veers off in its own creative direction. In it, Nick Fury’s (Samuel L. Jackson) attempts to assemble the Avengers are thwarted when his chosen heroes begin dropping like flies, the victims of baffling assassinations apparently carried out by his own SHIELD operatives. That scenario allows the show to revisit a few prominent incidents, notably a clash from The Incredible Hulk which implies that the MCU is ready to re-embrace that maligned film. And what ensues is a rollicking mystery that’s significantly divorced from the actual Avengers films, and whose freshness overshadows the somewhat tacked-on and anticlimactic conclusion to its whodunit.
What If…? energizes its proceedings with voice work from many franchise luminaries; while Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans and Scarlett Johansson don’t participate—and, in the latter’s case, probably won’t in the future, due to her ongoing Disney lawsuit—numerous others do, even if for brief stints, which makes the entire affair feel tethered to the overarching MCU (expect to hear the likes of Michael B. Jordan, Chris Hemsworth, Natalie Portman, and Jeff Goldblum in upcoming chapters). Moreover, the show’s cel-shaded animation is lively and colorful, providing stylized visions of characters who resemble their big-screen actor counterparts, and who move with a spry, swift muscularity that’s in keeping with their larger-than-life natures. It’s too bad that there aren’t more nods to the old-school artwork that initially defined the What If…? comics, but considering the dictate that these proceedings function as cogs in the cosmic MCU wheel, the series’ form is more than adequate.
With Marvel having already announced a second nine-episode season to follow this one, What If…? will undoubtedly reinvent a wide variety of well-known stories, as well as find a way to integrate at least a couple of them into their forthcoming cinematic features, two of which—Spider Man: No Way Home and Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness—will further exploit the opportunities provided by the sprawling multiverse. The irony of the studio’s newest Disney+ venture, however, is that it’s best when operating in self-contained fashion. Of course, there wouldn’t be a What If…? without the grander MCU. But these tales are strongest when they chart new courses and establish new narrative threads that are distinct from their predecessors—an unexpected twist that reveals both the benefits, and limitations, of the MCU’s serialized format.