By Courtney Thomas
Marvel’s What If…?, a new animated series available on Disney Plus, began last week with a twist on the Captain America story. The series, based on a comic book series of the same name, expands the Marvel Cinematic Universe, offering alternative versions of familiar superhero stories.
Episode 1 is titled “What If… Captain Carter Were the First Avenger?” and it explores the major plot points of the 2011 film Captain America: The First Avenger in a world where Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) was injected with the super soldier serum instead of Steve Rogers (Josh Keaton).
Unlike Captain America, Captain Carter is not sent on a USO tour, but early on, her commanders hesitate to use a woman in a combat role. Frustrated by the sexism and lack of action, she goes after the tesseract and recovers it. This powerful object allows Howard Stark to build a proto- Iron Man suit for Steve Rogers called the Hydra Stomper. Captain Carter and Steve Rogers then rescue Bucky Barnes, and they form a Hydra fighting team. Unlike in the Captain America film, Barnes doesn’t fall off a train during one of the missions (the plot line that leads him to become the Winter Soldier), but Steve Rogers is captured, allowing Hydra to recover the tesseract. When Hydra tries to use it to summon a monster, Carter and company beat it back into the void, but Captain Carter is sucked in with the monster, only emerging 70 years later to be greeted by Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson).
The female empowerment themes in Episode 1 of What If…? start early in the episode. As Rogers is about to be injected, Carter is invited to leave the room, but she says she’d prefer to stay. The narrator (an omniscient observer called Uatu The Watcher, voiced by Jeffrey Wright), notes that this decision, Carter’s insistence that she be allowed in the room, is responsible for the events that follow. Between missions, Carter confides to Steve Rogers that the main difference she feels now that she’s become Captain Carter is that she is respected, whereas previously, she had to shout to be heard. Throughout the show, male soldiers on both sides express shock, with lines like “Since when do dames fight?” but Carter is nonetheless a success. The anti-sexism moral feels simplistic and overstated, but as the animation is presumably directed towards children, it gets a pass. Even so, it’s slightly disappointing, as it is more reductive than the 2015-16 series Agent Carter on ABC (now available on Disney Plus), which explored Carter’s career as a spy and looked more in-depth at the ways women contributed to both sides of World War II.
The show’s animation style clearly nods to the series’ comic book roots, but it also looks unique. The color palette reflects the time period, and there are plenty of explosions and Nazi-bashing action sequences.
In the endlessly interconnected Marvel Cinematic Universe, What If…? has a rare freedom. It expands the multiverse, but the plots it builds will not have an influence on upcoming film projects. For a “What If” scenario, the events of the Captain Carter timeline stick very close to the movie plots. This may disappoint hard core Marvel multiverse fans, but for the casual viewer, it increases the show’s accessibility. Opening with a Peggy Carter storyline allows the show to begin its explorations in the 1940s, at the beginning of the Avengers, which will perhaps give the series a sense of organization.
The most fun element of What If..? Episode 1 is that it gives us more story within the playground that is the M.C.U.’s take on the 1940s. Mega-rich playboy and inventor Howard Stark is a delightful riff on the infamous Howard Hughes. Stark’s flying robotic armour for Steve Rogers is pure Marvel, but it is also one way to imagine what it might look like if Hughes had actually delivered on his World War II aircraft contract. The Nazi scientific experiments on which Hydra is based continue to be a source of horror, and while the Allies’ collaboration did not result in a Captain America style super soldier, the wartime sharing of resources did lead to technological improvements.
The first episode suggests that the remainder of What If …? will respect the universe Marvel has built around its characters while exploring interesting storylines from outside the canon.