After giving us a month to regain our sanity and gastrointestinal fortitude following the merciful end of Loki, Marvel has released its first animated series set in the MCU, What If…? Based on the comic series, What If…? takes us on a tour of the multiverse with Uatu the Watcher as our guide, showing us how the events we know from the movie series unfurl when a tiny change creates a butterfly effect. It’s a neat idea – and would have been neater if Marvel and Disney weren’t doing something similar with the MCU proper – and executing it in animation makes it feel even more like a glimpse into other worlds.
Despite the intriguing setup, though, I wasn’t looking forward to What If…? You see, I’d watched Loki and The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, and the MCU’s newfound devotion to identity politics threatened to derail another great idea. Based on this first episode, I needn’t have feared. “What If… Captain Carter Were the First Avenger?” is a fun alternate-universe adventure that eschews all the preachy nonsense and gives us what made the movies so beloved in the first place: likable characters, exciting action, and some good laughs. It stumbles here and there, sometimes in big ways, but it’s got the Marvel heart at which its Disney+ predecessors thumbed their noses.
What if, on the day Steve Rogers was given the super-soldier serum, Peggy Carter had elected to stay on the floor with him instead of moving to the observation room with the rest of the brass? Well, a bunch of things would have gone wrong, with the end result of Peggy taking the serum instead of Steve and becoming the Allies’ perfect soldier.
The most striking thing about “What If… Captain Carter Were the First Avenger?” is the animation. It’s clearly meant to emulate the glossy sheen of Captain America: The First Avenger to give it an antiquated adventure-serial look. Unfortunately, this effect works much better in live-action than it does in animation, at least here. “What If… Captain Carter Were the First Avenger?” looks off; the characters aren’t expressive enough, and the facial tics they make are weird and unnatural, like they’re robots trying to blend in with humans. The action suffers too, with character movements feeling stiff, like action figures are being posed by invisible hands rather than people running and jumping. I appreciate what they were going for, but it’s a bust.
It’s a good thing the characters suck you in, then. “What If… Captain Carter Were the First Avenger?” presents Peggy Carter and Steve Rogers exactly as they are in the movies. Peggy offering herself up as the recipient of the serum feels right; it’s what she would do if Steve weren’t able, because it’s what a hero would do. And Steve, without the benefit of the serum, would remain at her side, helping her as she helped him in the main Marvel world. Though they’ve switched places in the hero/love interest dynamic, they’re still each other’s constants, bringing out the best in one another no matter the circumstances. Like Peggy in the MCU, Steve even finds a way to join her under fire, making the most with what he’s got in the same way Peggy did. Unlike The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, What If…? doesn’t for one moment diminish Steve Rogers while placing Peggy in the hero role. See what good writing by people who actually care about these characters can do?
In fact, “What If… Captain Carter Were the First Avenger?” fleshes out Peggy in ways she hadn’t been previously, even on Agent Carter (which was great and should still be running, dammit!). Peggy’s been a lot of things, but she’s never been a superhero, and giving her the position that was meant for Steve subtly shows more sides of her. For instance, while she wears the Union Jack on her costume and shield, she doesn’t become Captain Britain or anything like that; she’s just Captain Carter. She’s not the patriot that Steve Rogers is, and while she is dedicated to doing good and helping people, it’s more a personal journey for her than it is an embodiment of a nation’s spirit. This also stems from her doubts and fears, which the show isn’t afraid to display; she worries that she won’t be able to live up to the responsibility of being a hero, and that worry is exacerbated by her commander berating her. Again, she’s different from Steve; she rises to the occasion as he did, but for different reasons and in different ways.
It’s a good thing the characterizations of Peggy and Steve are so strong, because the plot is a bit lacking. “What If… Captain Carter Were the First Avenger?” is essentially the first Captain America movie pared down to a half-hour, and as a result, it feels rushed. Remember how people criticized The First Avenger for reducing the bulk of Cap’s World War II exploits to a montage? The show does this too, but to an even greater degree, because there isn’t enough time to let some of these action scenes play out like there was in the movie. There are fun moments, for sure, like Peggy taking down a Hydra caravan or the final battle in a Nazi castle, but it can’t help feeling like a Clift’s Notes version of a longer story. Similar to the action, the Red Skull is present even less than he was in the film, here functioning almost like an afterthought as opposed to the arch-villain. Even the finale, with that Lovecraftian monster he unleashes with the Tesseract, doesn’t have long enough to breathe to become the nightmare scenario it’s supposed to be.
The voice acting is a mixed bag. Most of the characters in “What If… Captain Carter Were the First Avenger?” are voiced by the actors who played them in the movies, and while it’s great to hear them all again, some of them just weren’t built for voice work. Hayley Atwell is perfect, and Ross Marquand – who played the Red Skull in Infinity War and Endgame – sounds even more like Hugo Weaving here than he did in the films, to spectacular effect. Bradley Whitford is also good as the jerkface military guy who replaces Colonel Phillips. (Is this the same character he played in that Peggy Carter short film? I mean, if he isn’t, then he is in all but name.) And Jeffrey Wright makes for a terrific Uatu. But some of the others, most notably Sebastian Stan and Dominic Cooper, don’t fare as well. Stan is stiff as a board as Bucky, seeming to read his lines instead of acting them out, and the character has no energy. And Cooper goes in the opposite direction, exaggerating Howard’s speech too much, making an already flamboyant character feel like a performer at a kid’s birthday party. It’s a shame, but it highlights the differences in the acting styles and how not everyone can make the jump easily.
Also, and this is personal, but I was ecstatic when they referenced Where Eagles Dare, one of my favorite men-on-a-mission movies.
“What If… Captain Carter Were the First Avenger?” is a pleasant surprise, a fun Marvel story that cares more about character than a sociology lesson and strives to entertain instead of lecture. The animation isn’t very good, some of the voice acting is subpar, and the story is rushed – though partly out of necessity – but the good stuff makes it well worth a watch.