“What If… Zombies!?” takes one of the most played-out ideas in all of fiction and turns it into one of the best What If…? episodes yet.
This recap of What If…? season 1, episode 5, “What If… Zombies!?”, contains spoilers.
Zombies are the lowest hanging fruit of on-screen bad guys, right up there with Nazis on the scale of easy, morally unambiguous prepackaged villainy. For the writers of Marvel’s What If…? to simply throw up their hands and say, “Yeah, they’re all zombies,” feels a bit too easy. But it’s a surprisingly decent idea in this context. Marvel isn’t exactly known for horror — or anything, really, that might be even vaguely considered unfriendly to the entire family. As it turns out, turning all of Earth’s Mightiest Heroes into flesh-eating monstrosities is a good excuse to rope in a ton of characters, including some unexpected ones, play with a few different styles and tones, and lop off the head of Tony Stark in a way that you’d never get away with in live-action.
What If…? season 1, episode 5 recap
The inciting incident of “What If… Zombies!?” is Hank Pym traveling to the Quantum Realm to rescue Janet Van Dyne and discovering she has picked up a nasty virus. Before long it’s back in the full-scale world and running rampant, thanks in large part to the infected seemingly maintaining all their powers and suits and such. The Avengers fall, and then so does everyone else. Everyone, that is, except for Bruce Banner, who falls right through the staircase of the Sanctum Sanctorum with a warning about Thanos, Hope Van Dyne, aka Wasp, Agent Sharon Carter, Spider-Man, who is vlogging survival videos from New York rooftops with the help of Bucky Barnes and Happy Hogan, and Okoye, since Wakanda predictably might have word on a cure. That’s… an odd bunch, to say the least.
There’s a peculiar pleasure in seeing familiar faces being contorted into undead horrors — and in seeing iconic heroes being cleanly bisected, weirdly enough. Okoye cleaves Undead Falcon neatly in half; Agent Carter turns Undead Happy’s Iron Man Repulsor back on him with a sad, head-squishing “Blam”. The bloody physical consequences of the action here lend it something new for the MCU, a sense of the gloves coming off, a bit like how Logan was R-rated when the rest of the X-Men movies weren’t. Bucky launching Captain America’s shield straight through his midriff, and Wasp enlarging out of Sharon Carter’s undead body, give a similar feeling.
But there’s drama too! When Hope gets infected, Spider-Man delivers a surprisingly poignant speech about loss, and we get an obligatory heroic self-sacrifice scene when Hope goes super-sized and stomps a path through a troublesome horde, holding the others in her giant hands. There’s also humor. Vision, who is working on a Mind Stone-related cure, is keeping Scott Lang’s severed head in a jar, and he can’t stop making jokes about it. Spider-Man, too, thanks to the AV Club, is constantly calling back to zombie movie tropes and staples. But the late-game “twist”, that Vision is luring people to his lair to feed an infected Wanda Maximoff, is such a grim contortion of one of the MCU’s most essential love stories that you can’t help but respect the decision.
“What If… Zombies!?” actually pairs quite well with WandaVision; it has the same essential premise of grief driving someone to reckless and dangerous actions, though in this case Vision trying to “save” Wanda, rather than vice versa. (Hope’s eagerness to save her mother is also the root cause of the entire infection.) It all amounts to a pretty bonkers but satisfying payoff in which Banner is finally able to transform into Hulk, a giant, zombified Wasp gets blasted in the face by the thrusters of a Quadjet, and Black Panther — who was being held captive by Vision to provide meat for Wanda — gets another go at his “in my culture, death is not the end” speech, which hits a little different these days. A final shot of a zombie Thanos preparing to click his fingers in the Infinity Gauntlet is the icing on a surprisingly satisfying cake.