The nicest surprise of the Daft Days between Christmas and New Year’s: nine separate animated gems from – of all people – Marvel Studios and Disney+: the new and complete season 2 of What If… ?, Take them together, and you the best bit of superhero stuff on TV in months, right up there with Loki and Gen V … and not much else.
We don’t need to go into agonizing detail about how bad a year it’s been for Marvel. Yes, Secret Wars was not good at all, and The Marvels got the shaft because of the writers and actors strike and some terrible timing, but still… the last thing anyone expected from The Mouse of Evil was a late December Hail Mary, parceled out one a day until December 30.
Most likely you know the premise of What If…? by now: take some aspect of Marvel continuity and give it a parallel universe twist – “What if Thor was permanently turned into a frog?” … “What if Peter Parker was transgender?” It worked very well in the first season’s transformation of Steve Rogers’ perennial girlfriend Peggy into the superheroic Captain Carter, and – on other episodes – the villianizing of a grief-stricked Stephen Strange, which showed us all how great a bad guy the Sorcerer Supreme would have been. Could have been. Whatever.
This second season is even better. The standout character is yet again Hayley Atwill’s Captain Carter, who had since made a live-action appearance in Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness. But Cate Blanchett’s return as Hela, Goddess of Death, in a couple of really wonderful episodes, as well as the newcomer Devery Jacobs as the new Mohawk hero Kahorri are just as impressive, and the participation of all three women in the final battle against an evil Doctor Strange is really as good as any of the live-action … stuff… that Marvel has cranked out in the last couple of years. And that is both ironic and a welcome relief.
The animation – a style that’s midway between the overly smooth and ghostly 3-D animation of video gaming and the super-flat cartoony approach of the 2-D of the past, is remarkably subtle – especially much of the face work – and the action sequences take full advantage of the dizzying and impossible camera work that computer animation offers. The voice acting is damn near perfect, and not just the three women already mentioned – who are wonderful – but also Cumberbatch, as reliably incredible as ever, and Mick Wingert who does a Robert Downey, Jr. impression so good that Downey couldn’t have done it better.
It’s interesting that the showrunners made the clearly conscious decision to focus on Avengers-based and movie-centric heroes throughout the season, almost entirely excluding Spider-Man and his entourage – among others. So we see Iron Man and Cap – Steve Rogers and Peggy Carter – and Thor and even Shang Chi’s Ten Rings … but there’s nary a hint of Peter Parker or Spider-Gwen or the X-Men or even Venom to be seen. Which is fine by me, but it does make you wonder about the near future of the franchise.
Best of all, in some ways, is that you really don’t have to be a Marvel junkie or even a comic book fiend to enjoy these episodes. They are just great action-adventure stories – some deadly serious, most treading a line between comedy and craziness, and only one – the Iron Man/Grandmaster version of Death Race 2000 that just might have jumped a teeny-tiny shark. The fact is, anyone with only a passing understanding or recollection of the Marvel Universe – you know, like anybody who’s seen a couple of Marvel movies in the last decade or so – could have a great time here, every day for a week and a half. And though the ever-greedy Disney machine is no longer offering even one-week free trials, you can buy a month for $7.99 with ads, spend 30 days watching both seasons of What If… AND Loki and even some of that Star Wars stuff, then cancel out before Month Two rolls around. All that content for the price of a double vanilla latte with almond milk and a double-pump. Cheap at the price!
So we should be grateful! The SAG/AFTRA and writer’s strikes have triggered an extended dry spell of new content – all for a good reason, I know, and I’m not complaining – but still … it’s going to mean slim pickn’s content-wise, at least until Echo sounds off in February, and who knows if that will go Loki-wise or Secret Invasionary? Until then, think about parceling out episodes of What If…? once a week for a couple of months, just to ease the pain a little bit. So at least until The Traitors or Battlebots comes back … you’re covered!