Do you have a zombocalypse plan? Do you note possible entry points when you walk into rooms, think through escape scenarios, have at least a vague idea of where you could hole up until the whole thing blows over?
The world in this week’s What If…? really needed a zombocalypse plan.
We open on the Hulk, hurtling to Earth. He’s just watched Thanos tear through what’s left of the Asgardians. He has to warn the world! But alas, as The Watcher tells us, the world he’s coming back to is not the one he left.
Ebony Maw and Cull Obsidian arrive, just as they do in Infinity War. but this time, when Tony, Strange, and Wong show up to deal with them, something’s wrong. They defeat them handily enough, but why are they biting them? Why are they… eating them???
As the reality sets in, we see that Tony, Strange, and Wong are all ZOMBIES. One zombie in a super suit, and two who can use magic and zip through portals. Bruce is doooomed. Except! Cape isn’t infected!
Yes, after their excellent fight scene in last week’s What If…? Cape once again gets a chance to shine, holding Strange and Wong back until Hope Van Dyne’s army of ants can, um, skeletonize three of my favorite characters. Then Spiderman swoops in to scoop Bruce up and websling him to safety.
How did this happen?
Once again, this is technically Hank Pym’s fault. Or to be more poetic and Watcher-y about it, this tragedy “sprang from a place of love and hope.” Er, Hope. When Hank went into the Quantum Realm to retrieve Janet Van Dyne and finally restore his family, he found that his beloved wife had contracted a “quantum virus” that turned her into a flesh-eating monster. He comes back infected, attacks Scott, Hope barely gets out in time, and within days the Bay Area is finally affordable again because everyone is a fucking zombie. Naturally, the Avengers spring into action, which is great except for the part where Hank shrinks down to ant size and bites Cap about a minute after they land. Once the Avengers are infected, the rest of humanity falls like dominoes.
We cut to Peter Parker’s video on how to avoid being zombified, with performances by Happy (in a shirt that says “I’m not single I’m saving myself for Thor”), Kurt (playing a zombie), Sharon Carter (who gamely tolerates being shot in the head), and Bucky (who is naked in the shower, and not happy about being interrupted).
Our uninfected team is: Spidey! Happy Hogan! Bucky Barnes! Okoye! Sharon Carter! Hope Van Dyne! Kurt! Wait… Kurt? Oh, the Baba Yaga enthusiast from the Ant-Man films, yes, okay. And Cape! And now Bruce.
This ragtag crew figures out that there’s a weird signal coming from Camp Lehigh in New Jersey, and decides to travel there to gather more survivors. They go to Grand Central Terminal to rig a train, split into two groups, and are quickly attacked by Zombie Falcon and Zombie Hawkeye. Spidey, Kurt, Bruce, and Hope get the train going—Hope shrinks and goes inside to fix the wiring; Spidey creates a web slingshot to get it moving—but before they can all escape Happy falls to Hawkeye and Sharon has to kill him, and Okoye has to slice Falcon in half to save Bucky. (Bucky: “I should be sad… but I’m not.”) They’re barely moving when Zombie Cap attacks, turning Sharon before Bucky slices him in half with his Shield. (Bucky: “Sorry pal. I guess this is the end of the line.” He’s got jokes!) And then Hope flies inside Sharon and goes Big, covering the inside of the train with bits of Sharon.
And… Hope got scratched, which means she’s infected. Spidey, who’s been basing his response to this crisis entirely on zombie movies, does the thing where the infected person’s friend insists there’s still a chance. (There’s never a chance.) The remaining crew has a heartfelt conversation about Hope, and hope, and we learn that Aunt May’s gone, and Peter’s literally lost everyone he’s ever loved, and, come on, show! You’re a zombie cartoon and I’m watching you at 6:30am!
The train runs out of fuel, and there’s still a whole field of zombies between our heroes and their destination. Hope goes big and walks them across the field of zombies, depositing them safely in the military complex before collapsing back among the undead. (But she doesn’t shrink first, because, again, no one but Peter has watched enough horror movies to understand that every action you take yields horrible consequences.) Still, for the moment, our heroes are safe. But…why won’t the zombies come in?
OH. It’s VISION.
The Mind Stone creates a field the zombies don’t like, and it keeps them out, which is why he’s been able to diagnose the zombie plague as a form of encephelopathy and work quietly to develop a cure like the hero he is. In fact, he was able to cure Scott! And sure, Scott’s just a head in a jar now, but that’s better than no Scott at all. And since, as Okoye helpfully informs them, Wakanda is safe from the zombies, all they need is transport and they can create a worldwide cure in no time.
Vision hasn’t just been working on a cure! He’s also been luring people here to FEED WANDA.
And his first victim is T’Challa, who was kidnapped and locked in a room and has lost half of one leg to Ms. Maximoff??? This is a lot to take in.
There’s a brief back-and-forth about logic versus love, and then Vision rips his Mind Stone out and sends them off to Wakanda to work on a cure. But only four of them make it—Bucky hangs back to defend them from Wanda, and then Bruce finally gets The Big Guy to make an appearance to clear enough of a path for T’Challa to pilot Peter, Cape, and Scott’s head to Wakanda.
They’re gonna make it!
Except… remember how Hope stayed Big? She grabs the plane, and almost pulls them down, but no! They’re free! Humanity will be okay after all!
Except… oh. Right.
My favorite thing about What If…? is the way it can remix relationships between the characters and explore new angles and opportunities for chemistry and humor. And holy Zombie Thanos does this episode play with that element. Kurt’s crush on Hope? Okoye zinging Peter? Cape settling on Peter’s shoulders? Bruce interacting with, um, everyone? T’Challa having to deal with Scott’s quippy head?
I know I’ve described most of these episodes as “fun” but this is like, FUN.
But the real joy in this episode is seeing the pure, sparkling nihilism of the zombie genre applied to Marvel. The point of a zombie story is that you go into it knowing that no one is safe, that you will probably see every character die in a genuinely horrifying way. And you’re kind of supposed to laugh, at least up to a point. It’s supposed to be so over-the-top that it allows us all to laugh and cheer at death—in both directions, really! We can laugh and gasp when a hapless human is torn limb from limb or swarmed by a horde, and we can cheer each decapitation and headshot. For a few minutes, we are both victorious over death as a concept, and celebrating its inevitability in a gross, fun way. This is why there are upticks in zombie stories during times of social upheaval, yes?
And in this case, seeing the Avengers, Earth’s Mightiest Heroes, turned into flesh-craving ghouls is subversive glee. Captain America wants to eat Bucky! Ztucky is canon, bitches! Danai Gurira gets to fight the undead as Okoye instead of as Michonne, and she slices Falcon in half! Scott Lang is just a head now, and he’s kinda fine with that! Zombie Hope chucks a guy at the plane as they fly away! We get to see T’Challa be heroic again! (Except in the meta-narrative, listening to Chadwick Boseman muse on death is maybe a little much?) And because the episode included Peter Parker, it’s able to use him to play with the postmodern conceit of “what happens when a horror movie fan finds themselves in a horror movie?” Since Homecoming established that Peter is active on YouTube, it makes sense that he’s making videos to try to help people survive. He’s able to call out the mistake of splitting the group, but also, because he’s the youngest and has, in some ways, suffered the most loss of all of them, he’s also able to fully become the person who wants to keep (H)ope alive. He can be the throughline of the story, the one we hope doesn’t get bitten, and still be culturally aware enough to yell at Scott for jinxing their escape. And of course he’s right, because Big Hope is still out there, and even after that, though Peter doesn’t know this, there’s the inevitability of Thanos. LOL.
I am so happy the episode followed through on the initial scene. Bruce was understandably distracted by zombies, never told anyone that Thanos was coming, and now we and the Watcher know that about a minute after they cure the world, Thanos is going to Snap it anyway.
If Bruce had remembered to tell everyone, they probably could have decapitated Thanos in his zombie state, or at least sliced his Gauntlet arm off, but… no.
This is HILARIOUS.
- Happy: “Just when you thought things couldn’t get any worse…we gotta go to Jersey.” (Kidding! I’ve had wonderful times in New Jersey. There are way fewer zombies than you’d expect.)
- Okoye, on why Wakandans don’t watch horror movies: “We have American reality TV.”
Kurt: “Boom goes the dynamite!”
- Hope (having just exploded out of Sharon): “Guys, I’m covered in Sharon!”
Okoye: “The kid has hand sanitizer.”
- Peter (repeating Aunt May’s advice on mourning and loss): “If we don’t keep smiling when they can’t, we might as well be gone, too.”
- Peter: “Ahhh, I totally just jumpscared you! I didn’t mean to do that!”
- Scott: “I process my trauma through dad jokes.”
- T’Challa: “In my culture, death is not the end. They are still with us, as long as we do not forget them.” (Thanks, Marvel, what I needed was to tear up at the end of this, once again, zombie cartoon.)