The Marvel Cinematic Universe began some new expansions this year: special series made for the Disney+ channel. WandaVision, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, and Loki have all been excellent in somewhat different ways in my opinion. Now, they add an entirely new series, bringing back a classic, long-running Marvel Comics title. What If?… explores alternate worlds, things that could have happened if something had been just a bit different. The first episode, “What If… Captain Carter Were the First Avenger?” has a fairly self-explanatory concept. The stories are introduced and wrapped up by the Watcher, a powerful cosmic being that documents major events but is sworn not to interfere. For those in the know, just the appearance of a Watcher means something significant, and probably really bad for at least someone, is going to happen.
This series is animated, half-hour glimpses of things that might have been. The Watcher, voiced by Jeffery Wright, provides some commentary as we see the MCU that we know skitter off in another direction based on a single decision or action. In this case, something in the process that was supposed to turn Steve Rogers into Captain America plays out differently, and the Super Soldier Serum ends up going to Peggy Carter.
Given attitudes back then, the military isn’t exactly thrilled that their new Super-Soldier is a woman, and Peggy has a lot of work to do in order to combat various sexist attitudes and people. There’s a familiar training scene that is a bit different than the one we remember, and Peggy ends up taking an interest in some captured soldiers, including Bucky Barnes and the assorted Howling Commandos. After talking with Howard Stark, she ends up going on a mission to Berlin, retrieving the Tesseract that Johann Schmidt has gotten his hands on, just like in the original timeline. One of the best things about this sequence is the absolute joy Carter takes in her new-found powers. After being told so often she can’t do something because she’s a woman, she takes positive delight in showing that yes, in fact, she can.
Howard Stark, never done tinkering, turns his attention to something else, and does something decades ahead of the MCU as we know it. When Captain Carter (there is a Captain Britain in Marvel Comics, but I presume there were some legal issues with the name) goes to rescue the Howling Commandos, she gets some very unexpected backup. This leads to a new pairing of heroes in this timeline, fighting Hydra and making headlines. The obnoxious Colonel Flynn, one of Peggy’s biggest detractors to this point, suddenly is more than happy to take credit for her successes. Colonel Phillips, played so memorably by Tommy Lee Jones in the movie, sadly didn’t make it to this point.
The next familiar-yet-different incident is the infamous mission in the mountains to attack the Hydra train. Once again, things are similar to what we remember, yet have some very different outcomes. At least one significant character in the future MCU has his life entirely changed here. The aftermath hits a lot of people hard, and fires up the Captain to mount a raid on Hydra’s main base. Even a reluctant Howard Stark is talked into coming along.
There’s one major story glitch that is never explained, and it doesn’t have anything to do with events being different. It really does seem like either the writers screwed up or an important scene got cut. However this happened, Schmidt, who has gone through the same metamorphosis he did in the movie, starts doing something new, different, and horrifying. There are a few smartass comments, at least one of which I think is anachronistic, and a major fight ensues. Finally, it’s down to Peggy, Stark, and their closest ally. A sacrifice has to be made, and there’s an echo of a tragic separation we’ve seen before, albeit different in detail here. Finally, at the end, there’s a rescue that is very different from the “real” MCU. The returned hero is with two familiar faces, and learns what they lost by taking the heroic action they did. There’s a few closing comments by the Watcher, and we get another week to ponder “What If…?”
What I liked: I think it’s fantastic they got the actors to return to do the voiceovers for their characters. Hayley Atwell as Peggy Carter, Dominic Cooper as Howard Stark, Sebastian Stan as Bucky, and the two big names near the end. The writing was great but for one odd error, and I loved the way they showed Peggy adapting to her new situation in life. Her enjoyment reminded me of most of the versions of Peter Parker when he first gets his powers. I’ve always liked the concept of one event knocking things off course, and they did it well here.
What I didn’t: There was that one major glitch involving something Red Skull/Schmidt was up to that really needed to be explained. Carter seemed like she was more powerful than Steve right off the bat, but I suppose you could make the argument that Peggy was in better shape than Steve to start, so maybe that works. I’m not convinced though.
I really enjoyed this, and thought it was a high quality addition to the Marvel Multiverse. I’m giving this a 4 out of 5, which would be higher if not for that one odd glitch.
What Changed: Spoilers abound here, so don’t read past this point if you haven’t seen the episode. And if you haven’t, why are you reading this? Go see it, it was a lot of fun. Really.
Obviously, we get Peggy instead of Steve as “Captain America.” Iron Man’s history should be a lot different now, too. Bucky never becomes the Winter Soldier, or at least, what led to that doesn’t happen. With these changes, I wonder if there are Avengers in this world or not. Steve presumably is dead by “now,” and I would guess Bucky is, too. With no Captain America, it seems likely we don’t get a Falcon, and at the very least, Phil Coulson lost a lot of his inspiration that led to him joining SHIELD.
But that’s the fun of these stories. You can debate and wonder about all the repercussions, and there’s no way of telling if you’re right or not.