Written By: François-Noël Vanasse
What If…The World Lost Its Mightiest Heroes?
Marvel comics have never actually been afraid to get pretty dark with some of these alternate realities. Old Man Logan is infamously bleak and gruesome and the main comics have only gotten bloodier and grittier throughout their runs. Yet the MCU has maintained as best as it can a consistent somewhat lighthearted tone throughout with its special blend of melodrama and humor. Episode 3 is our first What If…? that deals directly with death and murder. Unbeknownst to us until the episode is nearly over, this one takes place in an alternate universe where Janet Van Dyne and Hope Van Dyne, wife and daughter to one incredible shrinking Henry “Hank” Pym, were Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. lost in the line of duty years ago. Driven mad by the loss, and possibly the negative effects of repeated shrinking, Pym vowed revenge against Nick Fury and sought to destroy The Avengers Initiative while still in the crib. One by one Tony Stark, Thor, Clint Barton, Bruce Banner, and Natasha Romanoff die under unusual and mysterious circumstances. Once he realizes the truth, Fury goes to confront Pym at his daughter’s grave. After making a deal with Loki, out for revenge after the sudden death of his brother. Fury makes quick work of putting a stop to Pym’s rampage. Loki, still on the throne of Asgard without his brother’s interference, decides to invade Earth and rule it as god-king. A glimmer of hope for humanity towards the end as Fury and Captain Marvel unearth Captain America’s shield buried beneath the ice.
In the old days there was a cosmic arc to these stories where even when they deviated from what we knew the alternate realities always seemed to seek redress and wormed their way back to something familiar. We’ve lost that in later years where I suppose the idea of a universe that cares is old-fashioned. Episode 3 takes us to a couple pivotal moments from the early days of the MCU. It even recasts Mark Ruffalo into Edward Norton’s shoes for the famous “Culver University” fight from The Incredible Hulk (2008). It’s nice to see a bit more behind the scenes of Fury interacting with his closest confidants and more Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg) is always a fun little gift. The formation of the Avengers is mythologized in the comics proper as well where The Avengers themselves aren’t even that big of a deal. In a comics universe with loads of superhero team-ups, The Avengers were just a dumping ground for whoever couldn’t muster enough sales solo or drifters on the outs with their teammates and reformed villains like Hawkeye and Swordsman. As the story goes, the mischievous god Loki, in an attempt to sow chaos on Earth, plants a bomb on a bridge over some train tracks which is happened upon by the mindless hulk who destroys the bomb and much of the bridge in the process. A train crash later and Ant-Man, Wasp, Iron Man, and Thor all join forces to put an end to the Hulk’s apparent rampage. After discovering and putting a stop to Loki’s hand in the events, the Hulk joins their ranks and The Avengers are born just in time for a thawed out Captain America to step in as their leader. In the What If…? issue I mentioned in a previous episode, wherein Bruce Banner maintains his intelligence while transformed, The Hulk disarms Loki’s trap effortlessly and The Avengers simply never assemble
These movies we’ve been enjoying and subjected to for the past decade and change have since successfully invaded our TVs and computers and in this version The Avengers are the biggest deal of all. Fury in this episode waxes poetic about humanity’s need for heroes in times of crisis while Loki gives his speech about choice being a burden and humans’ desire to be ruled for the third or fourth time. The notion that folks getting dressed up in halloween costumes to punch bad guys are part of something bigger than themselves has rankled the brains of plenty of commentators and quite frankly the whole idea of being a superhero is a bit silly. And if you squint the idea of sublimating our needs and concerns to a group of impossibly powerful superbeing is a little bit fascistic. But there’s nothing wrong with being entertained by Summer blockbusters or inspired by heroic grit in the face of overwhelming odds. We eat that shit up around here and it tastes great.