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'What If...' there's still value to stories that aren't tied directly to continuity?

A new Star-Lord in 'What If...?'
A new Star-Lord in 'What If...?' (Image credit: Marvel Studios)

This post contains spoilers for What If...? 

I offer an alternate interpretation for those who’ve deemed Marvel’s Disney+ series What If…? inferior because it “doesn’t matter” or lacks grander connectivity. What If…? precisely matters because it’s a Marvel diversion that allows audiences a franchise breather for two, maybe even three seconds. Episodics like Falcon And The Winter Soldier or Loki carry implications that will forever influence the greater theatrical MCU, so we’ve now reached a point where anything branded under Marvel’s cinematic umbrella—streaming or in-theaters, feature format or broken into chapters—requires attention to greater interwoven detail. What If..?, on the other hand, posits a question that MCU properties are rarely afforded if at all—what if we played in a schoolyard sandbox for thirty-ish minutes with action figures and shed the weight of timeline continuation pressures?

These episodes are a chance for showrunners to mine source material—What If…? is indeed a robust comic series—to create dream scenarios that let their hair down. Even better, impossible team-ups present voice actors a chance to collaborate in ways that make no logical sense because narratives serve a moment, their wow-factors, and not how the seventh Dr. Strange sequel might reference Ant-Man’s signature Subway sandwich order from their fourth Avengers initiative. I was sold on the idea from initial announcements but wasn’t ready for the first season's second episode to hit me with the force of Hulk-chucked Vibranium chunk. “What If...T'Challa Became a Star-Lord?” is an exquisite example of the concept’s ability to play pretend with meaning while permitting characters the chance to relive their glory and say goodbye on their terms—whether or not we knew their exit was imminent.

At the time of vocal recording sessions—shortly after wrapping Ma Rainey's Black Bottom—no one could fathom this would be Chadwick Boseman’s last portrayal of T'Challa. The episode is a gift for its posthumous implications alone. Emotions swell as Boseman toys with Star-Lord’s interstellar swagger from a place of T'Challa’s humble tribunal upbringing (tiny details like renaming the “Milano” the “Mandela” after Nelson Mandela). Should this standalone heist mockup where T'Challa is accidentally kidnapped by Taserface (Chris Sullivan) and Kraglin (Sean Gunn), becomes a ravager, and replaces Peter Quill not exist? We’d be robbed of the Guy Ritchie-esque space operation that is an emotional sendoff to Boseman’s Wakandan legacy—one that’s jovial and cartoonishly cosmic but never detracts from or downplays Boseman’s previous performances and why he’ll forever mean too much to Marvel’s cinematic universe.

Teaming T'Challa up with Yondu returns another fan-favorite from James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy run, as Michael Rooker once again whistles his marauder's tune (sans Mary Poppins references). The father figure that Yondu represents seamlessly connects with T'Challa to expose new wounds in characters that faced different challenges during their theatrical arcs. T'Challa presumes he’s a boy forgotten by his home clan; Yondu wrestles with “family is who you choose” monologues from a different angle. Yondu isn’t undersung as a theatrical character—Gunn empowers one of the richest MCU personalities given only two appearances—but his presence is comparatively short-lived, which again makes this idea of What If…? being nothing but fluff absurd. Characters can take a victory lap that leaves their existing accomplishments untouched, yet as displayed by Rooker, still add another layer to fanbase appreciation that emboldens existing praise.

Marvel’s way of playing all the hits in “What If...T'Challa Became a Star-Lord?” succeeds on a higher level than the other episodes I’ve digested thus far. Are there throwaway callbacks like Kraglin talking about hyper jump facial disfigurement or Howard the Duck cameos? Of course, this is still a Disney product meant to please viewers who crave callouts that stimulate nostalgic warmth. Do I believe the show capitalizes on what could have been through something as implausible as Thanos (welcome back Josh Brolin) admitting his snap plan is genocide and turning a new leaf as Robin Hood meets the Mad Titan? Absolutely. Djimon Hounsou’s return as Korath is a recurring joke as Ronan’s officer defects to join his idol Star-Lord, which can become overbearing but given the circumstances? I found myself excusing non-stop fanboy gags via the reverence those comments pay to Boseman in a way that becomes unintentionally meta.

It’s easy for Yondu or the Collector (Benicio Del Toro) to fall through the MCU cracks into the vast nothingness of bottomless supporting character buckets, but What If…? offers a chance for the sidekicks and vagabonds to shine. As the break-in, breakout episode played its narrative, I found myself engaged by the idea that Marvel could acknowledge its properties without worrying about corrupting multiverse continuity. It’s an unavoidable feeling that the MCU is overstuffed with heroes and villains or that time is a commodity not afforded equally across cast rosters. The idea that Yondu could spread more of that grumbly but gracious fatherhood wisdom or how the Collector could become his fullest, more muscularly chiseled baddie form is the reason “What If...T'Challa Became a Star-Lord?” drives to the core of why not mattering kinda matters in such an overwhelming mega-franchise.

Whether we’re conscious of the illusion or not, Marvel’s expansive MCU blueprint has conditioned audiences to believe content only retains value if it’s building to something three years later—What If…? debugs that programming. What matters here is allowing Michael Rooker the chance to cement Yondu’s status as an uprising champion of that galaxy because a character this complex, this forthcoming in the MCU deserves spinoff justice. What matters is hearing Chadwick Boseman’s voice one last time, whether he’s Black Panther or a more reverent and traditionally renegade Star-Lord. What matters is an episode calling out Thanos as the tyrant he is with an unexpected message of self-awareness that says otherwise implied words out loud. One of those reasons comes as a tragic surprise but only happened because of a bizarro show that dares to break guideline rules in a way I’d never have previously thought Marvel Studios might allow.

It’s not groundbreaking, nor would I consider the animation flawless—but What If…? proves itself to be a worthwhile distraction that shakes flakes of formulaic rust off the MCU. Stories deliver what the title promises: bites of randomness that require no further investigation. We’ve fallen victim to after-credits sequences and dazzling crossover assemblies that’ve weakened our ability to appreciate singular moments, but that’s what “What If...T'Challa Became a Star-Lord?” nails. We’re more attentive given this is the last we’ll see of T'Challa, which unlocks an appreciation for something that could be considered “meaningless” when stacked against the ripple effects of every single Marvel Studios release prior (outside a few basic cable runs). What If…? allows imaginations to run wild and Wakandan princes to exchange their clawed suits for leather dusters, if only as a reminder that there’s an art to not taking ourselves seriously now and again.

Matt Donato

Matt Donato is a Rotten Tomatoes approved film critic who stays up too late typing words for such outlets as What To Watch, Bloody Disgusting, Fangoria, Shudder, Ebert Voices, and countless other publications. He is a member of the Hollywood Critics Association and co-hosts a weekly livestream with Perri Nemiroff called the Merri Hour. You probably shouldn't feed him after midnight, just to be safe.