“What If… Captain Carter Were The First Avenger?” is a fun if risk-averse opening to Marvel’s new speculative anthology series.
This recap of What If…? season 1, episode 1,”What If… Captain Carter Were The First Avenger?”, contains spoilers.
At this point, the Marvel Cinematic Universe isn’t just a universe. Thanks to the finale of Loki, which introduced not only the Big Bad of the next phase but also ushered in the long-awaited multiverse, it’s a writhing mass of possibilities, of alternates and parallels and, indeed, speculative “what-ifs”. Disney+’s newest animated series is fitting, then, even if it takes the concept further still. If the multiverse concept will define the franchise’s future, What If…? will rework its past, taking various established characters and details and upending them with the simple question of how they might look had things played out slightly differently.
Readers of comic books have always loved this sort of thing since impermanence has always been integral to the medium. It only ever takes a changed writer or artist, or a continuity-spanning event, or a new publishing initiative, to completely renew decades of canon and character development. The print version of What If…? has been running since 1977. But as old as the idea is, there’s something fresh and exciting about it now that Marvel’s heroes and their interconnected stories have risen to a previously unimaginable level of cultural prominence. For many – perhaps even most – viewers, these versions of the characters are the only ones they’ve ever known. And it’s these versions, the familiar ones with the faces and voices of big-name actors, that the series wants to play with.
What If…? season 1, episode 1 recap
“What If… Captain Carter Were The First Avenger” goes back to the beginning. Steve Rogers (Josh Keaton rather than Chris Evans here) ingesting Dr. Erskine’s super-soldier serum wasn’t just the beginning of Captain America but of the storytelling saga that has defined pop culture since 2008; it’s the earliest point in the narrative, the literal and figurative birth of one of the MCU’s most iconic figures. But the story of Steve Rogers has always been intimately tied to the story of Peggy Carter (Haley Atwell), a no-nonsense British agent who would eventually go on to star in two seasons of a depressingly overlooked TV show and form S.H.I.E.L.D. Here, though, she’s given an even tougher task, which is becoming Captain American in Steve’s place after Hydra’s attempts to sabotage the experiment leaves him too injured to participate.
This is a smart story to start with for several reasons. It being right at the start of the established canon allows for some fun deviations without having to delve too much into outlandish temporal shenanigans. The story actually mimics the structure of The First Avenger quite closely, despite several crucial changes. And it obviously gets more mileage out of Agent Carter, who – ironically considering institutional sexism is integral to her character – has been largely forgotten about and overlooked in the grand scheme of things. Atwell is audibly pleased to be here, and while you can’t always be as complimentary towards Sebastian Stan, Dominic Cooper, and Bradley Whitford, who all also reprise roles, the familiarity of the voices and character designs does help to give the alternate-universe scenario some heft that it might not have otherwise.
And it isn’t just facile surface-level stuff, but deeper character contours that are preserved. Steve Rogers isn’t just excised from this story but kept around in his puny asthmatic form, and Keaton, who actually does quite a remarkable job of mimicking Evans’s earnest big-heartedness, is able to retain his essential qualities even when he’s encased in a prototype Iron Man suit courtesy of Howard Stark. That’s a delicate needle for What If…? to thread and proves that building these stories out of the established continuity is a gamble deserving of some respect. You know how Marvel fans can be.
Admittedly it doesn’t always pay off. Frequent large-scale action scenes are blocked and choreographed in much the same way as their live-action counterparts, so anyone tired of the MCU’s largely samey action cinematography isn’t going to feel like this is a breath of fresh air in that regard. The style also, given its tendency towards “realism”, lacks the exaggerated big-eyed emotional expression of looser animation, which leaches some of the personality from more static dialogue scenes. “What If… Captain Carter Were The First Avenger” suits this action-heavy style, but if subsequent episodes don’t want to rely on recreating iconic shots and scenes from their cinematic counterparts, then this might become a bit of an issue.
Anthologies are never predictable – it’s rare that they’re even consistent. For now, What If…? has proved it has the potential to do interesting things with recognizable material in a mostly risk-averse way, but its long-term value as a storytelling project is going to require more daring ideas and execution. It’s easy to understand why the first episode would play things a bit safe. Let’s hope that subsequent ones don’t.