Well, that was fast. After a deeply flawed but mostly enjoyable first episode, What If…? has cranked out one of the worst pieces of “entertainment” the Marvel Cinematic Universe has yet produced, and this is coming from someone who sat through The Falcon and the Winter Soldier. “What If… T’Challa Became a Star-Lord?” has all of the series premiere’s problems – bad animation, a bland voice cast, a story that lacks weight – and gets wrong the crucial things it got right, like the characters and action.
In one of the many different worlds of Marvel’s multiverse, Yondu and his Ravagers abduct T’Challa instead of Peter Quill, leading to the erstwhile Black Panther becoming Star-Lord. After putting together a motley crew of unexpected do-gooders, T’Challa accepts a benevolent heist that’s more than it appears.
Once again, the animation doesn’t work at all. I’d assumed they were trying to recreate the look of Captain America: The First Avenger in the last episode, leading to glossy, flat animation that didn’t properly convey movement. But “What If… T’Challa Became a Star-Lord?” trots out the same style, and it’s still bad; actually, it feels worse because there’s no excuse this time. Nothing about the animation feels like either Black Panther or Guardians of the Galaxy, meaning it was a complete coincidence that it looked like an attempt at something artistic was at least being made last week. So the facial expressions still look creepy, the movements look either too fast or too slow, and the fights are dull.
The voice acting doesn’t fare much better. Most of the actors from the films return again, but they’re in much the same boat as the ones from last week. Nobody is quite as bad as Sebastian Stan and Dominic Cooper were, but they’re all very bland. I suspect part of the problem is the poor animation when they speak, but very little of the dialogue in “What If… T’Challa Became a Star-Lord?” feels alive or interesting; it’s just there, robotically droned out by people who sound like they’d like to collect their paycheck and leave the studio. Karen Gillan is easily the best of the bunch, making Nebula at least sound like she’s experiencing something close to an emotion. But Chadwick Boseman, Michael Rooker, and some others I don’t want to mention before the spoiler warning (not that I advise you watch this) are just going through the motions.
Now that we are in spoiler territory, the characters are abysmally constructed, or reconstructed, as the case may be. At no point in “What If… T’Challa Became a Star-Lord?” does anyone feel like their big-screen counterpart. T’Challa is no longer a flawed but ultimately decent man wrestling with the responsibility with which his lineage burdened him; he’s now a space-faring Jesus who single-handedly makes the entire universe and everyone who dwells within it better. He reforms Yondu and the Ravagers, transforming them into benevolent thieves who help the less fortunate; he turns Thanos into a good guy by explaining to him that killing lots of innocent people is mean; he changes Korath from a murderous nemesis to a drooling fanboy, joining the rest of the galaxy’s denizens because everybody loves T’Challa. It’s ridiculous and stupid, and it makes a formerly interesting character unbearable.
All those characters, the ones T’Challa has made “better,” are ruined. Looking past Thanos losing all of his menace and even relatability as a hero (I get it; it’s What If…?), his reformation makes no sense. How could someone so single-minded, so vain, so convinced that his was the only way, change his beliefs from one conversation with a human? How did T’Challa even come into contact with Thanos? Neither of these things is explained in “What If… T’Challa Became a Star-Lord?” because there is no good explanation for them, and with a distinct lack of fun, there’s no reason to just go with it either. Yondu is similarly reduced to a boring type rather than the complex character he was in the movies; he’s now the ostensible leader who defers to T’Challa almost by default, reformed by the adopted son he took under his wing. (This screamed for a line like, “All this time, T’Challa was the one teaching us.”) None of it has any weight because it’s established through expository dialogue rather than actually seeing it happen, but I guess at least it’s more believable than Good Guy Thanos. And through all of his saintly actions, T’Challa also diminishes Peter Quill, who now seems like an even bigger loser who’d have been better off left on Earth. (The final scene suggests that this would doom the universe, but that doesn’t erase the half-hour of T’Challa’s deification.)
The plot of “What If… T’Challa Became a Star-Lord?” is threadbare enough that it’s barely worth mentioning. The MacGuffin is lifted from The Wrath of Khan, right down to Nebula’s explanation of the potential benefits of liberating it from the Collector. That’s right, the Collector is the villain, and he’s now a ‘roided-up gangster with a pimp jacket who becomes an even more belabored personification of slavery than he was in Guardians of the Galaxy (because in the new phase of Marvel entertainment, black people think about nothing outside of slavery and racial oppression, even if they grew up in space). He’s also got the Black Order as his henchmen; no points for guessing if Thanos will have to fight them or if it will end up in a humiliation for Thanos because he’s a character people like. The story unfolds with the excitement of an unseasoned cracker, with even the twists and double-crosses negating each other until they may as well have never happened. The corny jokes and meaningless references to the movies don’t help either. This episode is a complete waste of time.
“What If… T’Challa Became a Star-Lord?” is a dull episode with bad animation, lifeless voice acting, and a stable of ruined characters buffeted through a snore of a plot. If this is how What If…? is going to be from now on, I can’t imagine anyone wanting to stick around for more. That they dedicated it to the late Chadwick Boseman is more an insult than an honor.