What If…? has been an entertaining if slightly dour TV series so far. It’s been fun watching Earth’s mightiest heroes suffer in ways they never would in the big screen Marvel Cinematic Universe, but watching you can’t shake the notion that when A.C. Bradley and her writers were given the toy box, they couldn’t resist breaking them. Almost every episode so far has ended with either the apocalypse or an ominous note teasing tragedy to come.
What If… Thor was an only child? comes as a welcome break then from this apocalyptic formulae. As the title implies, the nexus point in this universe came very early in the timeline when Odin invaded Jotunheim. In our timeline, Odin discovered the infant frost giant Loki and adopted him as his son, raising him as an Asgardian. In this world, though, Odin returned Loki to his father Laufey and never took him to Asgard.
Consequently, Thor was raised as an only child (Hela is still locked up because even with infinite possibilities, Odin is still a bad dad) and grew up to be a very different god of thunder. This version of Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is far more hedonistic than his sacred timeline counterpart, preferring partying to war. At the start of the episode, we see him shirk his royal duties to sneak away to Midgard (Earth) to throw the biggest party ever, and everyone from across the nine realms is invited. The only person who can stop him, Jane Foster (Natalie Portman).
As mentioned earlier, one of the issues What If…? has run into is its dark tone. The intro promises infinite realities and endless possibilities, but every episode so far has followed the same grim formulae. We’re introduced to the change in the timeline; we see events play out; things turn out worse than in the Sacred Timeline. To be honest, it’s been frustrating to be promised the infinite and get the same thing each week, so it was delightful to see an episode break the cycle.
What If… Thor was an only child? is a pretty lighthearted mash-up of a Marvel movie and comedy movie The Hangover. It’s knowingly silly, and all the better for it. We get to see a party so raucous it convinces SHIELD that the Earth’s being invaded by aliens, two of the strongest Avengers go toe to toe, and an ending so daft you wouldn’t believe us if we told you what happened. All in all, it’s a fun and entertaining episode, but there’s more to it than that.
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So far, the best What If…? episodes have worked on two levels. They’ve been entertaining stories in their own right but also character studies that get to the heart of who our Marvel heroes really are. Despite its overtly comedic tone, What If… Thor was an only child? takes Thor on a journey similar to Thor: Ragnarok.
During this episode, we see that under the bravado and superficial charm, Thor is actually quite an insecure person (Asgardian? God?) who has frequent battles with his own self-esteem. It’s only when he takes the time to step back and examine his life choices that he realises the mistakes he’s making and betters himself as a person, stepping up to be the heir Odin knows he could be.
A big part of why this works is Hemsworth’s voice performance. We’ve moved past the point with What If…? where simply having the MCU cast in your episode is impressive now we need the voice acting to be, well, good. Thankfully Hemsworth is more than good. He’s excellent, delivering a wonderfully entertaining performance that manages to be both charming and off-putting at the same time. The rest of the voice cast continue to be a mixed bag, but it was nice to hear Natalie Portman back in the MCU, and it has whet our appetite for Thor: Love and Thunder.
Unfortunately, all of this will probably be overshadowed by the episode’s dramatic ending. While we won’t spoil the exact details here, it seems the overarching story of What If…? has finally started to play out, and we’re excited to see what happens next in the multiverse.