Written By: François-Noël Vanasse
What If… Thor Were an Only Child?
These episodes have been on a bummer kick lately so we’re rounding them out with a full-blown farce. Instead of being adopted by Odin, baby Loki is reunited with Laufey and raised as an ice giant. Young Thor experiences a childhood without tribulation and his happy-go-lucky arrogance has been cranked to 11. A game Chris Hemsworth reprises the role with all the shit-eating cheese he can muster. There’s not much to say about this one; it’s as delightful as it is insubstantial. Thor and his galactic cohorts invade Las Vegas to party all night while Odin sleeps and Frigga (Josette Eales) goes on vacation. He falls in love with Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), some mild intrigue results in fisticuffs with Captain Marvel (Alexandra Daniels), and in the end all’s well that ends well, mostly.
These later episodes seem a bit more polished than the earlier ones in a number of areas. The facial animations are more confident. The Watcher has lip-sync and skin color now, for instance. In earlier episodes he only appeared as part of the backdrop; the giant matte painting in the sky. Now he feels like a real character. The balance between talky talk and punchy punch feels a lot more natural here as well than it does in more lopsided or clunkier early episodes. Part of this may simply be how low-stakes the episode feels. Very few decisions here will leave the audience scratching their heads or pouting.
The ending tease is pretty spectacular though. Thor and Jane are saying their goodbyes in the desert while Thor prepares to return to Asgard when the duo, and the Watcher, are suddenly surprised by the arrival of a teleporting intruder. An army of Ultron drones emerge from a portal followed by Ultron himself bedecked with the infinity stones fused to his chest. His face opens to reveal inside Vision, the soul gem in his head. Who knows what has happened here, Vision was built to be Ultron’s body, presumably something along those lines has occurred here. But this sort of destabilizing of the timeline is exactly how What If…?s end.
I’ve heard some rumblings that folks are dissatisfied with these so-called cliffhangers or rumours that later episodes or Season 2 will tie-up these loose ends. It’s certainly possible that Marvel will choose to move in that direction with these little episodes but so far this has been entirely in keeping with the premise of What If…?. Much to my surprise, in fact, has Marvel managed to fulfill these bite-sized looks at doomed alternate timelines. In my humble opinion they’re on a roll here. What If..?s aren’t spin-offs or Easter eggs they’re affirmations that though we are troubled in many ways we can take comfort in the familiarity of what ails us. In the alternate timelines the enemies are strange, blindside us, and the sting is fresh and biting. In the main timeline these are largely all things we have overcome, and made peace with, despite the sometimes hefty sacrifice. What If..?s are not fantasies, they’re little fables to make us appreciate the things we have, the status quo of the MCU.
What If… Ultron Won?
Looks like we’ve got ourselves a two-parter. After The Watcher’s surprise at the arrival of infinity-stone Ultron at the end of episode 7, episode 8 reveals to us Ultron’s origins in another universe. After taking over his world, his universe, Ultron uncovers the existence of The Watcher and the multiverse and takes aim at those as well, with violent and chaotic results.
The Watcher’s slow transition to corporeal throughout the run of this series now feels like it’s leading up to these moments. Where before The Watcher was stolid and ethereal he is now very much a character with skin and emotions and lips that move when he talks. It’s an interesting evolution of the character that is backed up entirely by the changes in the way he’s been animated all series long. There’s also a bit of a classic play “Who watches the watchers?” going on. Where we get to see The Watcher in his crystalline multiverse habitat and wonder what he’s doing up there. Are there infinite Watchers? Are we The Watchers who despite our social media campaigns and dollar bill votes are nevertheless forbidden from interfering with the media we consume? Or is it these destroyers of doomed universes, such as Demonic Dr. Strange or Infinity Stone Ultron, who gain awareness of his presence and watch him?
In the nuclear wasteland of what is left of Moscow, Natasha Romanoff (Lake Bell) and Clint Barton (Jeremy Renner) outrun Ultron (Ross Marquand) drones in an effort to uncover the final resting place of Arnim Zola (Toby Jones) in his computerized Siberian bunker. They plan to upload the Zola program into Ultron itself and take it down from the inside. Meanwhile Ultron, after killing Thanos and Captain Marvel (Alexandra Daniels) is left with no more worlds to conquer, until he uncovers the multiverse. Apparently The Watcher’s running commentary is live, given that Ultron interrupts The Watcher mid-speech. It is unusual considering The Watcher typically displays a great deal of foresight and foreshadowing in his speeches. Perhaps he has merely got the experience of having watched it play out so many times.
What If…?s cannot really be said to “end” since they usually quit on us before everything is destroyed forever. There’s always technically more to do in these alternate realities even though we cease paying attention. The connection between the end of Episode 7 and Episode 8 seems to suggest Episode 9, the purported finale, will be an epic crossover event featuring Ultron, The Watcher, Zola, and Dr Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) duking it out for multiversal supremacy. It was very nice to see Kirby krackles throughout Ultron’s battle with The Watcher and I look forward to the cosmic shenanigans these unlikely enemies allies get up to in Episode 9.
It must be said, however, this is most unusual for an anthology to have many of the episodes suddenly collapse together like this. I can accept it as the burden of a television show that hopes to go out with a bang and reward its audience for following along and paying attention. Nevertheless, it’s very unorthodox. They’ve earned some goodwill from me this season so as long as they don’t make a habit of it, I look forward to seeing them pull it off next week.