I wasn’t expecting the 35-minute Marvel cartoon to make me cry.
But this week’s What If…? is “What If… T’Challa Became Star-Lord?” and somehow, in the midst of some of the funniest scenes and riffs Marvel has ever done, it gave us a lovely meditation on the power of human will.
It also gave us T’Challa back for a half hour, so to be fair I should’ve expected the crying.
Star-Lord walks across Morag to retrieve the Power Stone, but there’s no Redman banger to be heard. When Korath intercepts the Ravager, he’s shocked and delighted to learn he’s facing off with none other than the intergalactically famous Star-Lord. As they fight, Korath asks his hero if he’s taking any new recruits. Star-Lord easily bests him, and decides to bring him along and make him a Ravager even though the crew is full-up. He liked his enthusiasm.
TWENTY YEARS AGO: Even though King T’Chaka keeps assuring his son that there is only danger and violence beyond Wakanda’s walls, young T’Challa yearns to explore. One day he’s playing when he accidentally pierces Wakanda’s shields, and ends up alone on the savannah—directly under a Ravager ship. Kraglin and Taserface bring the boy aboard, and Yondu decides to keep him even though he’s the wrong kid.
BACK IN NOW-TIMES: Yondu is the captain of his crew of Ravagers, but everyone acknowledges that T’Challa is the heart of the group. His unswerving dedication to doing the right thing has nudged the Ravagers to go straight, and they now act as a band of galactic Merry People, with T’Challa as their Robin Hood. They still rob and heist and do all that fun shit, but, as T’Challa says: “No treasure is worth as much as the good that can be done with it.”
When the plot kicks in, and it’s a classic heist with a bunch of twists, double-crosses, and secret plans. The Ravager crew (which now includes an adorably fanboying Korath and a mostly-reformed Thanos) is recruited by Nebula (still dealing with PTSD from living with her dad before T’Challa helped him become a better person, er, Titan) to steal the Embers of Genesis from the Collector so they can distribute it to planets whose ecosystems are failing.
Simple! But of course there are nested plans. Korath and Thanos provide a diversion to distract Ebony Maw and Proxima Midnight so Nebula and Yondu can smuggle T’Challa into the Collection to find the Embers. But Nebula is actually in league with the Collector, who wants to add a Terran to his Collection. But really Nebula and T’Challa are triple-crossing everyone so that the Collector will be so focused on T’Challa that Nebula can actually get the Embers.
But this plan gets slightly borked when T’Challa comes across a Wakandan ship in the Collection, finds a message from his father asking anyone in the universe for information on his son, and realizes that Wakanda was not destroyed in a war like Yondu told him. His father has never stopped looking for him, and his daddy’s a liar.
Fights ensue! Nebula saves Thanos by releasing some of the Embers, and the father and daughter begin to reconcile as enormous plants sprout across Knowhere. Yondu comes back to rescue T’Challa from the Collector, and the two use a move called “sticky fingers” to steal the device that gives the Collector control over his cases. With him safely locked up and powerless, they bid Carina goodbye and leave to rendezvous with Nebula. (The last we see of the Collector, Carina has released all of his prisoners, and he’s surrounded by some very angry former captives in a fun mirror of his brother’s fate in Ragnarok.)
T’Challa and Yondu retrieve the Wakandan ship and bring Cosmo along with them. Yondu apologizes for lying, but T’Challa admits that he wanted the life Yondu gave him. It’s complicated.
And then everyone goes back to Wakanda, T’Challa fudges the truth a little bit to make Yondu sound like less of um, a kidnapper, and T’Chaka throws a giant party. Nothing prepared me for the sight of Thanos attempting to chat up Okoye while Nebula squirms and mutters, “Dad!”
And then…we join Peter Quill, finishing up his shift at the Dairy Queen. Ego walks in and informs the young man he’s his long-lost father. THIS can’t end well.
Let me start with the fact that where last week’s episode of What If…? was rousing and heroic, this one is funny. There were multiple moments when I had to pause to let myself laugh. From the opening scene, where Korath is awestruck by the great Star-Lord, and fights him with a GIANT GRIN on his face, I knew this was going to be fun.
But I didn’t know we were going to get Deadpan Thanos, who’s good now, but still trying to convince everyone his plan would have worked, and it totally isn’t genocide cause it’s random! Or happy, only-slightly-augmented Nebula, who calls T’Challa “Tcha-Tcha” and is trying to forgive her dad so they can have a relationship.
Or a scene with Howard the Duck!
Or Drax taking a selfie with T’Challa to send to his totally alive wife and child! Because T’Challa saved his planet!
Or Cosmo hitching a ride off Knowhere with Yondu and Star-Lord!
And to end it by checking in on Peter Quill as he mops up a Dairy Queen???
But I could just yell scenes at you for a while. What this episode does beautifully—maybe a bit better than last week’s—is re-contextualize themes we’ve already seen.
Yondu lied to young T’Challa, just as he did to young Peter Quill. In this case, he told his young charge/kidnapping victim that Wakanda had been destroyed in war because he loved the kid so much that didn’t want to give him back. And T’Challa is, correctly, FURIOUS with him for lying, and grief-stricken at the idea of his father and mother waiting back home, hoping for any word of their son.
But just as with Quill, there’s another layer to it: Yondu recognized that T’Challa was an explorer just like him, and he felt he owed it to the boy to show him the stars rather than consigning him back to life on only one planet. By bringing him along to space, he changed the course of this timeline for the better, as T’Challa went from planet to planet doing good, helping the oppressed fight oppressors, providing resources to dying planets, talking Thanos out of going after the Infinity Gauntlet—basically, being T’Challa.
This is morally grey at best!
But I loved that in their arguments about it, this very brief episode made room for T’Challa’s anger and Yondu’s guilt, before have T’Challa realize that Yondu was right about him. He did want to go exploring, and he’s become the person he is because of it. Where Yondu’s decision to keep Peter Quill is simply correct in retrospect—Ego’s a monster—here he stole a kid from a loving family, but also T’Challa loves his Ravager family. T’Challa made the universe better, planet by planet—but back on his home planet, his parents have mourned his disappearance for two decades. It’s a LOT.
But the episode is also mostly a blast? I love it when writers can weave so much nuance and complexity into something that is also just fun.
Which leads into the last thing I want to say, which is this: We all know that Chadwick Boseman was a treasure. He was an incredible actor and director. The way that he took on the symbolism of T’Challa, and the importance of that character to so many people, was actually heroic. Real-life heroic. He was also a brilliant comic actor who didn’t get to be funny in too many of his roles. So I want to say that this was especially moving, because here he gets to be heroic, loving T’Challa, who will do anything to help the underdog, but he also gets to be hilarious.
Finally, in the midst of all the MCU’s musings on fate, free will, determinism, alternate timelines, nature/nurture, can I just say how much I dig the fact that T’Challa’s sense of justice seems to be a fixed point in the multiverse?
- The Watcher: “What you call destiny is just an equation—a product of variables.”
- Korath, repeatedly: “Classic Star-Lord!”
- Korath: “My boss, Ronan…super, super intense!”
- T’Challa to Yondu: No treasure is worth as much as the good that can be done with it.”
- T’Challa, on Nebula and Thanos: “It’s a long story. I’ve been trying to get them into counseling”
- Taserface, on T’Challa and Peter Quill being interchangeable: Sure! I don’t know! All humans look alike to me!
- Thanos: “T’Challa here taught me there was more than one way to re-allocate the Universe’s resources.”
T’Challa: “Sometimes the best weapon in your arsenal is just a good argument.”
Thanos: “I still assert my plan was not without its merits.”
Kraglin: “I’m pretty sure it’s still just genocide Big Guy.”
Thanos: “I’m pretty sure it’s efficient.”
- Drax: “We should take another one. You look terrible. I look great.”
- Yondu: “We rob from rich and give to poor, just like that Earth folk hero of yours, Robin Leach.”
- Howard the Duck: “You know what they say: When you’re outta luck, always go duck!”
- T’Challa, to Yondu: “I was the one who told you I wanted to see the world. All you did was show me the universe.”
- Okoye to Thanos: “My friend, that sounds an awful lot like genocide.”
Thanos: “No, no, no… because its random (snaps fingers) and, I might add, efficient!”
Leah Schnelbach just wants to say that if Marvel makes a travel show about Howard the Duck barhopping across the Universe, they would watch the heck out of it. Come talk to them about free will vs. determinism on Twitter!