Skip to main content

What if Marvel’s What If…? wasn't derivative?

marvel's what if
(Image credit: Disney Plus/Marvel Studios)

What If…? Is the latest installment of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s TV content, and the first one to tell its stories in animated form. The premise of the show is to tell stories of what could have been, if different decisions had been made, and how that impacted the Marvel movies.

We’ve only seen two episodes of the series so far, but even this early it’s apparent that What If…? should be trying to tell its own stories — and not just adapt existing MCU movies.

The first two episodes of What If…? Show us how things would be different if characters were swapped around. The first dealt with what happened if Peggy Carter got the Super Soldier serum instead of Steve Rogers, and the other focuses on what happens if T’Challa was abducted and became Star Lord instead of Peter Quill.

And these two episodes could not have presented themselves more differently. 

What If…?’s first two episodes are polar opposites

The first episode of What If…? Was, essentially, a remake of the very first Captain America movie — albeit one that had a different ending. Meanwhile, the second episode takes a lot of inspiration from Guardians of the Galaxy, but tells its own original story.

Needless to say, episode one felt very derivative and rushed. Which is what happens when you try to condense an adaptation of a two-hour movie into a 32-minute TV episode. The story of Captain Carter jumped around from plot point to plot point, trying to get from Peggy’s infusion of super soldier serum to the point where she’d sacrifice herself and wind up in the modern day.

It’s almost like South Park’s ‘Member Berries made an adaptation of the first Captain America movie. ‘Member when Captain America saved the POWs from Hydra? Yeah I ‘member! ‘Member the train sequence? Ooh yeah, I ‘member that. 

And so on, for a solid half an hour.

What If…?’s second episode is guilty of this too, but not to the same extent. There are frivolous callbacks to the first Guardians movie and the wider MCU, but they’re mostly kept to the background as easter eggs. The actual plot is an original story, and just happens to be one that features characters similar to those we already knew. 

Even the inclusion of Thanos made some sort of sense, because it showed just how different things could have been if T’Challa was Star Lord. Whereas with Captain Carter, things played out pretty much the same way as they did with Captain America. The details changed, but the journey did not. With T’Challa, the entire cosmic end of the MCU was turned on its head, simply because T’Challa is not Peter Quill.

What If…? Needs to be its own thing if it wants to be a success

The whole premise of What If..? is that it’s supposed to be the story you know, but slightly different. A simple “what if this happened instead?” and exploring the world that came about because of it. 

The problem is that the concept is only interesting if things play out differently. Otherwise, you’re just telling the same story in a different way, and that’s boring. What If...?’s first episode was incredibly linear and predictable, or at least it was to anyone who’s seen the first Captain America movie. 

You knew Peggy was going to have a showdown with the Red Skull, and would somehow wind up in the modern day. The fact the final sequence was tweaked slightly didn’t make that much of a difference.

The same couldn’t be said about the second episode, because it deviated from Guardians of the Galaxy so easily and quickly. And the fact the series is totally non-canon had me wondering whether Marvel would kill off either T’Challa or key members of his crew before the episode was over.

We can’t make a judgement on the series as a whole, because there are still seven episodes to go. Some of those episodes are going to be completely different from the movies (like Marvel Zombies) while others might fall into the same trap as Captain Carter (like Tony Stark taking Hulk’s place on Sakaar).

Bottom line

There’s absolutely no way to completely disconnect What If…? from the movies, because these stories are based on the MCU tales everyone knows and loves. That link is its core appeal, and is the only reason why the show exists in the first place. 

But What If…? still needs to dissociate the stories it tells from the stories already told in the movies. Because constantly rebooting the movies into a 30-minute TV show is going to get really boring really quickly.

Tom Pritchard

Tom is the Tom's Guide's Automotive Editor, which means he can usually be found knee deep in stats the latest and best electric cars, or checking out some sort of driving gadget. It's long way from his days as editor of Gizmodo UK, when pretty much everything was on the table. He’s usually found trying to squeeze another giant Lego set onto the shelf, draining very large cups of coffee, or complaining that Ikea won’t let him buy the stuff he really needs online.