Written By: François-Noël Vanasse
What If… Captain Carter Were the First Avenger?
What If…? is a long-running series published by Marvel Comics since the late 1970s which takes a look at particular character and creative decisions within the Marvel canon and explores alternative possibilities. The format was an anthology where several questions would be answered within a single issue. One of the hallmarks of What If..? has been the inherently tragic nature of these alternate eventualities. Marvel comics derives a lot of its popularity from the pathos of its superheroes. What Ifs that seek to redress that suffering are often written to have equally tragic unintended consequences. This serves as both a “watch out what you wish for” warning against messing with the canon as it stands and leaves the reader accepting that as bad as things are in the standard universe, the characters there have all largely made peace with their lot in life over the course of hundreds of issues and dozens of publications. Why burden them or others with a whole host of new problems just to right one wrong?
Episode 1 of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s take on What If..? (2021), now an animated television series on Disney+, seems to follow in those footsteps by asking us to ponder what would have happened if Peggy Carter had taken the supersoldier serum instead of Steve Rogers. The condensed nature of What If…? ‘s anthology format requires them to cover ground that would have been covered in several hours in a quarter of that time. The Captain Carter episode brazenly borrows from The First Avenger (2011) by the use of montage sequences portraying supersoldier Captain Carter’s wartime victories.
Divorced from having to worry about the safety of stunt actors, the episode is surprisingly violent as the camera remains absolutely fixated on the smooth clean images of animation extras having their faces smashed in by a dozen pounds of vibranium before bursting into flames. If “that looks like it hurts” or “I think they just died” is what I’m concerned about when watching it might be a testament to how well the animation is supporting the action-heavy sequences the show demands. There’s something a little hinky about watching someone who looks not quite like Bradley Whitford but sounds just like him yell at the camera but I believe every second of Peggy Carter flipping a speeding truck over her head. If this is the kind of quality we can expect from future episodes then this series is off to a great start. Captain America’s infamous origin story is tailor-made for this kind of storytelling with its star-cross’d lovers, heroic sacrifice, and world-ending stakes. The trick will be keeping it up.
My deepest concern is the rumblings I hear of these episodes being not as contained as they appear. With a thread running through them all leading to an ultimate conclusion. While tempting, such a prospect seems to me to undermine the very nature of the What If..? series. The highly episodic nature is the highlight of shows like these and when we are done with questions like “What If the Hulk Had the Brain of Bruce Banner?” (1977 Volume 1, Issue 2) or “What If Silver Surfer possessed the Infinity Gauntlet” (1993 Volume 2, Issue 49) we put it down as the final word on the subject and never address it again. What Ifs are not the place for spinning off alternate continuities or backdoor pilots for new shows.
The premise of these weekly reviews is to tackle each What If as it comes on its own merits without concern for how it relates to any other. If indeed they are all connected then it will undermine the reviews of this series. That being said, Captain Carter ended this episode with the vibranium shield in one hand and a great big sword in the other which is, frankly, a damn cool look to have.
What If… T’Challa Became a Star-Lord?
Like we explored in the last article, What If’s often present us with unacceptable consequences to the changed timeline. Episode 2 presents us with a potentially huge one (the destruction of Wakanda) before revealing it to be entirely a ruse. Instead we merely get hints pointing at things not quite working out in ways we’d like them to.
In this episode, we are asked to ponder the question of what would have happened had Prince T’Challa been abducted as a child by Yondu’s Ravagers instead of Peter Quill. At first things seem to go basically the same but it is quickly revealed that T’Challa is every bit as wise, empathetic, and graceful as Peter isn’t. In this version of Marvel’s cosmic affairs Star-Lord’s name is known far and wide as a hero for the downtrodden. The Kree and Skrull have been thwarted at every turn, Drax’s family is still alive, the Ravagers are happy and healthy, even mighty Thanos has been convinced to redistribute wealth the old-fashioned way in a heel-face turn for Josh Brolin that finally takes his character’s idiotic plan to task.
In the place of all this good fortune Taneleer Tivan (Benicio del Toro) has beefed up his Collection. He has hired the Black Hand, Thanos’ old enforcers, as his security and expanded his collection to include a number of surprising artifacts. In a scene right out of the comics he proudly displays a wall of weapons taken as trophies from fallen heroes including Captain America’s shield and Thor’s hammer. Is peace in the galaxy worth these heroes presumed dead? The episode closes, of course, with Ego (Kurt Russell) travelling himself to fetch his estranged son in a bid to convince him to wield his celestial powers and destroy millions of worlds seeded with Ego’s spores. A chilling way for so happy an episode to end. Even Carina, the Collector’s pink slave girl, gets to live happily ever after in this version of events.
While it’s great to hear Chadwick Boseman again in perhaps his final role the question remains what this episode is really accomplishing. Contrasting Peter, a scared child running away from confronting his mother’s death and ultimately an emotionally stunted misfit who saves the galaxy multiple times with this hyper-competent version of T’Challa is amusing but little more than that. Canon T’Challa is a haunted man who lives in the shadow of his father’s legacy. He was prevented as a child from leaving Wakanda and his sense of responsibility forced him to uphold his father’s policies until challenged by the return of his bloodthirsty cousin and rebellion within Wakanda to systematically reform his country. Star Lord T’Challa is poised and cheerful and has not hesitated to reform the Galaxy to conform to his sense of righteousness. He has armed rebellions, chased away invaders, and robbed banks to give to the poor. Along the way he has warmly accepted former enemies into his ranks including Thanos, Nebula, and even Korath (Djimon Honsou) with zero reservations. Forgiveness and mercy were lessons canon T’Challa learned the hard way but that seems to come naturally to Star Lord T’Challa.
With Thanos converted and Tivan defeated this universe seems by far superior to the canon events. Of course we know little of what has transpired outside of isolationist Wakanda and even The Watcher (Jeffrey Wright) warns us that Ego’s movements may spell doom for this timeline but by and large this appears to be a happy and prosperous turn of events.