After going cosmic for What If…? episode two, the Marvel TV series on streaming service Disney Plus returns to Earth for another re-writing of Marvel Cinematic Universe history. This time, in episode three, we see what might have happened if the original six Avengers, the team that comes together in the 2012 action movie, died before having a chance to defend New York.
The episode takes on familiar ground, and none of the characters are new, but it does put another twist on how the, er, twists are delivered in the sci-fi series. A third act revelation makes the otherwise pretty humdrum exercise in seeing a slightly altered timeline feel more interesting, with one hero coming as a truly warped version of themselves.
Marvel devout may note acknowledgement of a Phase One movie that’s rarely emphasised in the franchise. The overall creative freedom project to project in the MCU tends to vary by degrees, but Bryan Andrews and A.C. Bradley’s anthology seems to have license to go wherever it pleases, adding excitement for the remaining season.
The episode opens just before Nick Fury meets Tony Stark at Randy’s Donuts, where they sit down for coffee to discuss the burgeoning Avengers Initiative. At this point, Tony’s dying from palladium poisoning due to the core in his chest. In Iron Man 2, Natasha Romanoff injects him with something that slows down the palladium. When she does it here, Tony dies.
She’s arrested, and Nick begins to think something’s up, because his best operator just poisoned his star pupil, and that doesn’t add up. Two plots emerge: Natasha goes off in search of evidence to clear her name, and Nick does the same while holding down operations at SHIELD.
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The cast are what’s strongest in this episode, with Lake Bell and Mike Wingert convincingly providing the voices for Natasha and Tony. A hard man to replace in any shape or form, Samuel L Jackson returns for Nick, and it’s his performance that brings the episode together. He’s just a great actor to watch and listen to, and he doesn’t take voice-work as an excuse not to give his all to the character. Throw in Clark Gregg’s agent Coulson, and it’s a grand throwback for long-time fans.
We get an awry greatest hits in Phase One after. Thor going to retrieve Mjolnir, where we meet Clint Barton, ends in slightly more downtrodden terms than 2011’s Thor, and then Natasha visits Culver University to see Betty Ross. With the Abomination in Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, it seems Marvel Studios is slowly rehabilitating The Incredible Hulk’s place in the canon.
An interesting change here is that Mark Ruffalo plays Bruce, replacing Edward Norton. This is the first time Marvel has retroactively redone something from an earlier film or TV show with an actor that’s otherwise taken over the role. A precedent? Probably not, but seeing more of Ruffalo’s Banner become standard is cool, since we’re still unlikely to get a solo Hulk flick.
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The animation takes a step back from the cosmic colours of episode two. The backgrounds are mostly dull browns or greys, and the few action sequences don’t have much zest to them. One clip of Thaddeus ‘Thunderbolt’ Ross shooting at the Hulk seems like an animated gif when it’s used twice in the same scene.
When all parties zero in on the culprit, the reveal is genuinely shocking. No spoilers, however, for this episode, the actual change happens off-screen, some time prior to when it’s relevant to us. A minor thing, really, but it warns us to be one our guard for every episode coming.
Out of these first three episodes, it’s the weirder, more large-scale differences that have made for better storytelling. ‘What If… the World Lost its Mightiest Heroes?’ is intriguing, but not enough to be a hero worth remembering.
What If…? episode 3 review
Samuel L Jackson and a strong reveal do not a good episode make