The following contains spoilers for What If…? Episode 1 on Disney+.
Welcome, dear reader, as we begin to review the Disney+ series What If…? with Episode 1: “What If Captain Carter Were the First Avenger?” “What if” is such a deceptively simple question. Two words, six letters. So small that if it were represented graphically, it would be a point. A point on a timeline (a sacred timeline, perhaps?) where the path diverges. A choice is made, be it a bullet dodged or an opportunity missed. The tiniest of sparks that can set off a big bang of imagination.
The What If…? comic series began in 1977, right when I was at the height of my boyhood comic collecting career, so I remember them well. Some were silly, but most were pretty interesting. The one that sticks in my mind is “What if Gwen Stacy had lived?” because I was big into Spider-Man at that time. There were other similar explorations, such as “What if Spider-Man joined the Fantastic Four?” and “What if Wolverine had killed the Hulk?” It was the “multiverse” before we had that term in hand. Anything was possible.
Now, of course, “Marvel” and “multiverse” are two terms that are practically joined at the hip. We are just coming off of the brilliant Loki television series and the pre-Covid box office bonanza Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (which was also, coincidentally, animated). The title of the upcoming “MCU Phase Four” Doctor Strange movie is Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness. Heck, the MCU itself is a variant universe set apart from the comics, officially designated as Earth-199999. So the multiverse as a narrative hook is here to stay.
In the Room
The Watcher tells us that the moment that created a new universe was when Peggy was asked to leave the room, but chose to stay. In the original timeline, she acquiesces and goes upstairs to the viewing booth, taking the rest of the attendant audience went with her. Here though, she chooses to stand up for herself and stay where the action is. As a result, most everyone else also stays, including the saboteur. This leads to Steve getting shot and being unable to step into the chamber to become the first super soldier.
In a way, that choice is probably more true to Agent Carter than the one she made in the original timeline. In an interview with the Post-Credit Podcast, writer A.C. Bradley says “the serum hasn’t so much changed her, it’s given her the opportunity to show everyone what she’s capable of.” Steve acknowledges this when he tells Peggy that “the outside finally matches the inside.” She’s always been a fighter because, as a woman in the 1940s, she has had to fight to be heard, to be seen, to even be in the room. Steve was rejected, but Peggy couldn’t even be considered for rejection.
That metaphor of being allowed in the room continues through a couple of iterations as Colonel Flynn continues to scoff at Peggy’s presence. As she and Steve (in the “HYDRA Stomper”) begin to rack up successful missions though, the way people view her begins to change. Eventually Captain Carter turns the metaphor around in a satisfying moment when she tells Flynn that he is the one who is “lucky to even be in the room” while they are planning the attack on Castle de Krake. As she heads off to her final mission, she’s even earned Flynn’s respect.
You Owe Me a Dance
The movie Captain America: The First Avenger was not the first of the “MCU Phase One” movies. In many ways though, it’s the one we think of that really established the MCU. Yes, yes, Iron Man was first, and certainly it set a precedent that there was something special happening with these new Marvel movies. Not unlike the two characters though, Iron Man gives us the pieces and parts, the mechanics that put things in motion, but it is Captain America that gives us the heart. That’s why he is “The First Avenger,” after all.
At the heart of the Captain America story is the connection between Steve Rogers and Peggy Carter. As explained in The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, the super soldier serum brings out what is already inside you. In these two, that is the stuff of heroes. They are soul mates in every sense. No matter which one is wielding the shield, their support of each other and their derailed romance remains a constant.
Success or Failure?
It makes some sense that What If…?, the MCU’s first foray into an animated television series, should start out with a story about Captain America. The live-action MCU television series were also supposed to start with a Captain America story, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, but circumstances forced them to release WandaVision first. Both series give us an alternative take on Captain America, handing the mantle to two different minority characters facing various degrees of prejudiced resistance.
As Mark Twain said, history never repeats itself, but it does often rhyme. That thought lies at the foundation of this episode, with its scene-for-scene recreations from the original movie, swapping Steve out and Peggy in. This type of variant universe is fun and all, with a lot of fan service through subtle and not-so-subtle callbacks, but it isn’t really making the most of the What If…? premise. In the Watcher’s own words, it pretty much stayed on the “linear path” rather than churning out a “prism of endless possibilities.”
That’s OK though. We’re just getting our feet wet here. The butterfly has barely flapped its wings. It’s been revealed that Captain Carter will return in an episode next season (more on that later), making some sense of the abrupt, pseudo-cliffhanger ending to this episode. When we pick up Captain Carter’s story 70 years later, hopefully some real changes will have come about. How will the world be changed when the first real superhero was a woman? When Howard Stark introduced the concept of an “iron man” decades ahead of his son? When Peggy’s blood is distilled to produce a new round of super soldier serum instead of Steve’s?
One prediction I’m confident in making is that we for darned sure are going to somehow, some way, see that final dance between them. Perhaps just as that dance closed out “MCU Phase Three,” it will likewise close out Season 2 of What If…?
A couple of quick takes on the rest of the episode:
- “But I do not, cannot, will not interfere.” Sounds like a Chekhov’s Gun if I ever heard one.
- Another Chekhov’s Gun was the vials of Peggy’s blood being taken immediately after her transformation. After The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, we have some idea how Steve’s blood was used in the intervening years, and it wasn’t good.
- So technically, in this universe, Steve Rogers became the first Iron Man. Although that was more Iron Giant than Iron Man, IMHO.
- Ironic that Peggy’s choice is to reject being relegated to being a “watcher” in the observation booth.
Best lines of Episode 1:
- “I’d call this an absolute success.” […] “What an absolute failure!”
- “Not according to Colonel Flynn, that weapons-grade moron!”
- “Flynn’s a moron. Lucky for you, I’m a genius.”
- “Your covert skills need work.”
- “Where have you been all my life?”
- “Then you better promote me. ‘Captain’ has a nice ring to it.”
- “So, a dame and a flying Buick. Okay.”
- “You almost ripped my arm off.”
- “I will tell you nothing!” […] “He told me everything.”
- “Come on, Howard. We might need someone to push a button.”
- “A shield is not a plan.”
- “Red, green, blue… Who paints a button blue?”
In the News
Here I try to point you to a few of the more interesting and informative news items over the last week (or so) related to What If…?:
- What If…? has already been confirmed for a second season, and it has just recently been revealed that Captain Carter will return for another episode in that run (ScreenRant).
- The planned 10-episode season will now only be a 9-episode season, with one episode having been pushed out due to pandemic impacts (Collider). Season 2 will pick up that episode, but it too will be limited to a 9-episode run.
- Head writer A.C. Bradley also revealed in an interview that What If…? will be considered canon in the MCU, which certainly has all sorts of interesting implications for the future of MCU live-action movies (IGN).
That’s all for this week. Please let us know your thoughts and feelings about this week’s episode, and any theories you have on what’s to come, in the comments below. Remember that 25YL will provide continuing coverage of What If…? throughout Season 1 and beyond.
All images courtesy of Disney+