Like the comic book series that inspired the show, Marvel’s What if…? has provided a fascinating look at how the MCU timeline could have branched out in multiple directions. Making a series like this really makes the world feel more alive, taking an introspective look at some of the protagonists to show how the events of the MCU shaped their characters. In addition to some much-needed time to flesh out characters who have so far been relegated to supporting roles, but who could still play an important role in the future of the series.
For the most part, Marvel has struck the right balance, offering up some alternatives that are so tempting that fans can almost whine that they aren’t true canon. Sometimes, however, What if…? played it a little too safe, and stayed a little too close to the source material of their own movies. Especially considering the premise that essentially gave the writers a free pass to do whatever with these iconic characters. So with that in mind, here are all the episodes from season one ranked from worst to best. Spoilers ahead.
9What if… Thor was an only child?
It’s not always easy to label something as the worst, but in this case it was, as this was by far the weakest and most mind-boggling plot of the nine-episode season. The story is essentially a Ferris Bueller’s Day Off meet generic teen comedy romp hybrid, featuring a spoiled version of Thor first trying to throw a “wild rager” and then hiding it from his mom. Of all the possible multiverse variants, we’re not sure why the creators thought this was a must-see story.
The episode is also bizarrely cartoonish in a way that’s out of step with the rest of the series. Even a promising epic clash between Thor and Captain Marvel is played more for laughter than action that takes away any hope of redemption. Perhaps most mind-boggling is how this version of Thor ends up in the bigger story. Sure, any other surviving version of Thor would have been a better option for the Guardians of the Multiverse, or Captain Marvel for that matter, especially with all existence at stake.
8What if… Captain Carter was the first avenger?
Unfortunately, the opening of the series was also one of the worst with the aforementioned problem of staying too loyal to the movie that inspired it. In this episode, Heinz Kruger shoots Steve Rodgers to prevent him from turning into a super soldier while trying to steal a vial of serum. When time is of the essence, Agent Peggy Carter steps in to take the serum and is transformed into the first super soldier against the wishes of her Commander John Flynn.
The show makes an attempt to empower Captain Carter as she defies Flynn to join the action, but in reality, the series is just as corny and nonsensical as the first time in. Captain America: The First Avenger to explain away his costume. This sets the tone for the rest of the episode, which largely follows the same plot from now on, with a few minor tweaks for the record. In the end it ends up somewhere between a replay and a bizarre Wonder Woman clone. Though it was nice to see Peggy come back into the limelight after being unceremoniously phased out following Agent Carter’s cancellation.
7What if… the world has lost its mightiest heroes?
A promising premise, but again a plot that served as an over-renewal of footage we’d already seen showing the obvious wrinkle of the Avengers dying. Black Widow is initially presented as the person behind the murders before revealing the true attacker, Hank Pym, in microscopic form.
It’s an overall unsatisfactory revelation, and some of the questionably lackluster deaths for Earth’s greatest heroes, particularly Thor and Hulk, feel half-baked to say the least. You could argue that the Avengers haven’t evolved into the heroes we know today, but we’ve still seen them rise much worse in the MCU. The ending is equally disappointing with Loki still showing up and enslaving the Earth, with no effort at all, save a few who are destined to be unfulfilled plagues, to pay this off.
6What if… T’Challa became a Star-Lord?
A much better example than the last to retell a familiar story with a new protagonist at the helm. T’Challa becomes Star-Lord instead of Peter Quill, which affects the entire universe, allowing for a fresh take on some established MCU characters and a story that is more similar to itself. T’Challa’s superior nobility and sense of responsibility lead this universe in a generally more positive direction.
T’Challa’s second act in search of his home world was humbling but less exciting than the sequence that preceded it which hurt a bit. The episode really needed a longer run time to do justice to the more emotionally relevant storyline, but overall it was a good showing.
5What if… Doctor Strange lost his heart instead of his hands?
In this universe, Steven Strange had built a life with his seductive love Christine. One night, the couple is involved in a car accident and Christine dies, sending Strange into a spiral of grief. Strange still travels to Kamar Taj and obtains the Eye of Agamotto, but this time tries to use it to bring Christine back.
What follows is a macabre Groundhog Day with Christine dying again and again no matter what Strange tries. His actions put him at odds with the Ancient One as Strange dives into Dark Dimension to draw power that eventually shatters his universe around him and brings him face to face with The Watcher. This was the first time in the series that The Watcher had served as more than a framing resource and the first hint at a bigger story. Equal parts disturbing and captivating, this also laid the foundation for what was to come.
4What if… Zombies?
The series marketing flagship installment that many fans have been waiting for, a tribute to the cult-favorite comic book series Marvel Zombies. Playing as more of a zombie movie, focused on the survivors, rather than an outright superhero movie, was definitely the way to go. This was the best the MCU has shown from Evangeline Lilly’s Hope Van Dyne, who serves as the heart of this episode and feels the burden of the zombie outbreak fall on her shoulders.
Hopefully, she’ll get her chance to star in Phase 4 with the Antman series still a big part of future plans. The desperation and fear everywhere is fantastic, although the episode does run into a few clichés and it would have been nice to see more of the unique super-powered zombie variants to juxtapose it with traditional fiction. Once again, the running time had to be taken into account, but there were certainly a lot of fans hoping to return to this universe in some medium, so a smashing success.
3What if… the watchman broke his oath?
The series finale was quite captivating, but falls just below the best the series had to offer. Now that Ultron has transitioned to a multiverse-level threat, The Watcher brings together a motley crew of heroes as a last hope for survival, dubbed the Guardians of the Multiverse. While some previous episodes couldn’t quite live up to the climax, this episode is mostly blood-curdling action.
It serves as a nice farewell to the series to tie the universes together and bring a little more character to The Watcher. Showing each of the newly established heroes at their best successfully replicates the episode The Avengers formula to make the series feel truly epic.
2What if… Killmonger saved Tony Stark?
For what the Doctor Strange and T’Challa episodes did well, this story was perfected. Killmonger is already established as one of the most grounded and best-crafted villains in the entire MCU and he’s arguably even better here. Granted, he carries what is otherwise just a decent story, but the villain is really cerebral and most importantly believable.
Killmonger goes back to the beginnings of the MCU and shows up to rescue Tony Stark in Afghanistan, which stops him from becoming Iron Man. Tony remains a self-centered arms dealer and Killmonger positions himself as his leading right-hand man. Playing from all sides Killmonger successfully kills Stark, T’Challa and Rhodes, before rising to become the next Black Panther. The villain’s actions have a significant impact on established MCU characters and the world around him, making him feel consistent. It really felt like a whole new universe, an opportunity missed by other episodes.
1What if… Ultron won?
The penultimate episode set the bar just a little too high for the sequel. As epic as the final battle was, watching Ultron tear down the last of his world and transition to the universe-level threat was made for a better overall story. While the ramifications of Ultron’s killing of the Avengers were huge, the story was reduced to a more intimate one that was more human and poignant.
Natasha and Clint’s struggle to just keep going in the universe was deeper than the MCU is often comfortable going. Rolling back much of the MCU’s signature humor that sometimes falls out of place, the nihilism lingers uncomfortably, especially in Clint who by this point had lost sight of everything worth fighting for. Supporting the thrilling consequences of Ultron collecting the Infinity Stones, shattering the multiverse and setting up the finale, the episode combined the best ideas from the larger series into one packed episode.
Topics: What if?, Disney Plus