This article contains spoilers for What If...?.
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Two months ago, if you'd told me that Marvel's What If...? series was not actually an anthology (like in the comics), but actually had a season-long story arc that culminated in the formation of another superhero team, I'd have been a lot more forgiving about its initial episodes and realised that the series pushed the envelope further than its comic book counterpart ever did. It wasn't until the eighth episode that most of us realised that the series would tie all of its previous stories together in a finale that promised to be like nothing we've ever seen — and indeed, that's what it was.
What If...? is a nine-episode anthology that explores alternate versions of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), in which pivotal events occurred differently. A mysterious being called the Watcher observes these different realities in the multiverse and ponders the significance of them. He has sworn an oath never to interfere, not realising that the very act of observing may actually be a form of interference itself.
For the first eight episodes of What If...?, we've been seeing tales from different universes, all with the same, almost conclusion-less ending — the protagonists of each universe go on to continue the good fight, as if eight different sequels were imminent for those episodes. We saw stories where T'Challa became Star-Lord instead of Black Panther, where Thor was a frat boy instead of a noble prince, where Doctor Strange became a master of the dark arts instead. Intriguing as these stories were, there was never a sense of an overarching storyline, and this being the MCU... it felt a little annoying that we might not see sequels to the seemingly stand-alone episodes.
But it wasn't until the end of the eighth episode (What If... Ultron Won?) that we got a sense that there was actually a purpose to all these eight episodes and their structure, when the Watcher realised that he would have to solicit the help of other heroes to undo the damage he had inadvertently wrought. In that episode, Ultron actually managed to acquire the body of the android that became Vision in our world, and then went on to assemble all the Infinity Stones — while vanquishing Thanos rather easily. But his newfound omnipotence made him realise that the Watcher exists, and hence, a multiverse as well. The Watcher is overpowered by this version of Ultron, and is forced to retreat, revisiting the universes to recruit their heroes, forming the Guardians of the Multiverse (a team that isn't found in the comics).
If you've been keenly observing the What If...? poster and wondering when the Gamora variant (decked in Thanos' armour) would appear, then yes, this is where that image finally pays off... which raises more questions than it answers. The show treats Gamora like she's already had her episode and her story has already been told, so you can be forgiven if you suddenly paused to check if you missed an episode somewhere. No, you didn't. This is her first episode. So what happened?
The truth is a little more mundane — there was supposed to be a Gamora-centric episode in Season 1. However, due to pandemic production problems, that episode wasn't completed on time, but will instead appear in Season 2.
But its omission is rather glaring in the finale, because you constantly feel as if there's quite a bit of exposition that's missing. Gamora arrives with a device called the Infinity Crusher (we're getting to that stage where everything important needs the word "Infinity" tagged on before it, it seems) that can destroy Infinity Stones. But who made it? What part did it play in the Gamora episode? How was it built? All these questions remind us that, as amazing as the What If...? finale is, we humans are living in a universe that has a pandemic (and presumably, there's a variant Earth out there where COVID-19 never wreaked the havoc that it did).
Still, if you close one eye to it, Gamora's backstory-less inclusion can make sense in the grand scheme of things — the Watcher observes infinite realities after all, so who's to say that we have seen every universe he's observed? It also broadens the scope of the multiverse a little, reminding us that events can take place off screen regardless of whether we're observing it or not.
And the Watcher's actions are also a classic example of the observer effect — in physics, it refers to how even just observing will disturb a closed system, simply through the act of observation itself. The Watcher's observations of the multiverse (coupled with his constant narration and commentary) are what draws Ultron's notice in the first place, leading to the events of the finale. It's a subtle irony that pays off the Watcher's hubris that we've seen (although it's a benign hubris, it's still hubris nevertheless).
The finale itself is magnificent. The Guardians of the Multiverse are, effectively, a multiversal team of Avengers, and they engage in a massive brawl against an Ultron decked with Infinity Stones. The battle is furious, but it manages to incorporate elements from each of the members recruited, reminding us how each of them has a unique part to play in the battle (rather than being assembled for the sake of looking cool). Being an animated series, it can afford to give us more lavish action than a live-action version can, and the battle lasts for almost half the episode.
Of course, Ultron is defeated, but there are still a few more twists to be had after his defeat. As can be expected, the heroes are sent back to their respective universes later — with the exception of the Black Widow variant. In a bittersweet scene, she's sent to a universe to replace the Black Widow that has died there. For a moment, I thought that it meant that the mainstream MCU's Black Widow had been replaced — but no, she's sent to the universe in episode three (What If... The World Lost Its Mightiest Heroes?). It's fitting, since that's the only What If...? universe that wasn't referenced earlier in the episode.
There are the usual thoughts that come along with any series that takes place in a multiverse, though. If the Watcher could recruit any heroes, why didn't he recruit an infinite number of Captain Marvels to defeat Ultron? Or why didn't Ultron go around acquiring an infinite number of Infinity Stones, since losing one Infinity Stone clearly diminishes his power by quite a bit? Of course, this sort of circular thinking can go on forever, and the episode is engaging enough that these thoughts don't come until after the requisite mid-credits scene (yes, watch out for that during the credits).
What If...? took its comic book premise and made something even better than the original, giving us a storyline that spanned the season. In keeping with its premise, it branches off the mainstream MCU to tell a brand new story that's still familiar in feel. In doing so, it has raised the bar for subsequent seasons. And given how it subverted expectations, it's safe to say that its also upped the game for all future MCU series to come.
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