This week’s What If…? is dark, murderous fun! The show takes us on a speed run through the week that brought us the events of: Iron Man 2, The Incredible Hulk (the Ed Norton one), and Thor. But in this universe, someone is targeting our heroes, killing each of them just as Nick Fury tries to assemble his team. Can he and Widow find the killer before all of Earth’s hope is lost?
We open in media res at the Big Donut! As in Iron Man 2, Fury and Widow ask Tony to exit the donut, but this time when Widow tries to give him a shot to help his paladium poisoning, he drops over dead. She’s taken into custody, but, of course, Nick concocts a secret plan for her to find the real killer. While she asks Betty Ross for research assistance, Fury joins Coulson and Barton out in the desert, just in time for Barton to misfire—a thing he never does!—killing Thor before Fury’s even able to talk to him.
Then Barton dies, in a locked cell, under surveillance.
The show cuts between General Ross sending tanks in after Banner, as Loki descends to Earth seeking vengeance for his brother. Banner gets shot, turns into Hulk, and smashing ensues. Loki unleashes power from the Casket of Ancient Winters. It all gets pretty intense… and then Hulk explodes.
They cut away, but still—he explodes.
Fury convinces Loki to ally with him (at least long enough to find Thor’s murderer), but it’s Widow who makes the breakthrough. After she talks Coulson into telling her his password (more on that below) she discovers that “a woman who’s been dead for two years” was somehow accessing classified Avengers Initiative files. She realizes the truth just as she’s attacked by an invisible assailant, and manages to leave a voicemail for Fury yelling “It’s all about hope!” right before she, too, is murdered.
Fury’s about to beep Carol Danvers when he realizes what Widow’s message meant, and we cut to a San Francisco cemetery. Fury stands over the grave of Hope Van Dyne: “Beloved Daughter, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D.”
Widow meant capital-H hope!
And then there’s Hank Pym, grizzled and furious, ready to murder Fury for allowing his daughter to get killed on assignment. They fight, but Fury’s surprisingly strong and nimble and… wait a minute. That’s not Fury at all, that’s Loki illusioning his pretty head off.
He easily beats Pym, then Fury joins them to try to wrap the episode up with a lesson about how Hope cared about more than herself and was a true he—oh, but wait. Loki’s decided to conquer Earth again. And since there are no Avengers to stop him…
We cut to Loki at the UN, delivering his speech about how much humans love subjugation as his grinning face flashes over TVs and jumbotrons around the world. Fury tries one more speech about human resilience, this time just for Coulson, before leaving to search for one last shot. He finds our beloved Capsicle just as Carol Danvers arrives from space, asking who she has to fight.
I found this one fun as heck? Not quite as joyful as last week’s (but what could be?) but there’s a certain kind of sick humor to be found in watching all the Avengers fall like dominoes. Not to mention seeing how, even in his animated form, Fury just gets steelier in the face of adversity. The more I think about it the more I think Nick is my favorite?
But this to me is the point of a What If…? scenario. This episode mashes three different movies together, retells their stories from a new perspective, and then blows their plots up. Watching Tony Stark die in the donut shop, all cocky and petulant and pre-emotional growth, is unexpectedly hilarious (at least for a second), when you compare this outcome with the decade of epic adventures we got in the main universe.
Where I think the opening episode stuck a little too closely to the events of Captain America: The First Avenger, this episode just throws about seven hours of MCU plot and character development into a blender and then follows each new twist a little past its logical conclusion—and that’s why this episode works so well, I think. While I clocked that Pym was the killer pretty quickly, I didn’t see “Loki has Midgard dropped in his lap, of course he’s going to declare himself God-King” coming.
The other thing I enjoyed in this week’s episode was the way the show leaned into Hank Pym: Murderous Jerk. I loved the way they tapped into the character’s barely-bottled rage, his obsession with his daughter, and his absolute solipsism, and I thought Michael Douglas did a fantastic job of making him unhinged.
As a writer, there are two things I look for when I’m engaging with creative work. Did the creator do more than they needed to? And did they pay attention to detail? If the answer to both of those things is yes, that tends to be when I get excited about something. Like I said, “What If…Captain Carter were the First Avenger?” retold First Avenger from a slightly new perspective, and I would say the episode paid excellent attention to the details of how Peggy Carter would react to having super strength, the ways she and Steve would change, and the ways they’d stay the same. And that aspect was great! But I don’t know if it did more than it needed to, and that’s where this episode really shines. Did the writers need to give us so much time exploring Coulson’s fanboy tendencies? They did not! But they choose to put multiple jokes in the episode that develop this aspect of his character. He has a crush on Thor. His password is an homage to Steve Rogers—who is still frozen in this timeline, so Coulson is honoring his long-dead hero, secretly. Until he reluctantly tells Natasha his password, he’s the only one who knows that every time he logs into his S.H.I.E.L.D. accounts, he’s thinking about Steve Rogers, and the sacrifices he made for the world.
How sweet is that?
And yeah, it’s funny, but it also lends a bit of emotional heft to the end of the episode, when Coulson’s the only one left to hear the rallying speech that Fury essentially delivers to a row of coffins. And then a moment later, when Fury finds Cap after all? I got slightly more emotional than I expected, not just because in this timeline Captains America and Marvel might get to hang out more (yay!) but also because I knew how ecstatic Coulson was going to be. (Maybe he’ll live in this timeline!) And that to me is the point of a show like this. At its best, it’s a celebration of the cores of these characters, and a fandom that likes to reconfigure them and see them from as many angles as possible.
And of course, there’s the other possibility, which is that maybe the show’s hinting at the thing I wanted them to do way back in The Avengers? Coulson isn’t “fanboying out,” he’s actually attracted to Thor, and attracted to Steve, and maybe once Cap is fully thawed the two of them can have an entirely different timeline together, after the Earth is saved? But that would be…another story.
A quick shout out for the voice acting: Samuel Jackson is excellent, but I think gold stars go to Clark Gregg and Mark Ruffalo, who both bring their characters to full quirky life. I am one of those nerds who’s frustrated by celebrities taking over voice acting, so while this is obviously a special case with pre-existing characters, it’s nice to see how much life they can bring to the roles in a new form.
And speaking of that! I’ve been meaning to freak out about Jeffrey Wright each week, and now I’m going to do it. HE’S SO GOOD. I’ve loved him for years, I loved him as Belize in Angels in America and as Jean-Michel Basquiat in, um, Basquiat, and he’s so transcendently GREAT as The Watcher. The Watcher’s narration could be cheesy or stilted, but Wright brings a whisper of deadpan amusement to his delivery, so that when he says a line like: “I believe that in this universe as in every other, hope never dies,” it actually means something. The Watcher isn’t malevolent, and as much as he seems to find these timelines a little bit funny, he also wants stuff to work out for everyone. As omniscient beings go, he seems pretty swell.
- Barton, on Mjolnir: “No one can lift it, not even Jackson. And he does Crossfit.”
- Coulson, on Thor’s beauty: “It’s an accurate description. Sir: he’s gorgeous.”
- Fury, on all the murders: “It’s weird, but I also have a space corpse that looks like a Chippendale’s dancer rotting on the next table over!”
- Coulson, on Thor’s corpse: “Even when rotting, he smells like lavender…”
- Coulson, reluctantly telling Natasha his password: “#stevstevesteveIheartsteve704”
- Fury, on Loki: “Either make a pact with a god or deal with a devil.”
- Pym to Fury/Loki: “Pretty spry for a guy with a corner office!”
- Loki to Pym: “Helloooo, Trickster God, hi!”
- The Watcher, being swell: “I believe that in this universe as in every other, hope never dies—as long as someone keeps their good eye on the bigger picture.”