The end of Loki brought about the beginning of the Marvel multiverse — infinite timelines in which familiar characters inhabit strange new worlds. In another reality, a single choice made differently could alter entire destinies. Doctor Strange could be an evil sorcerer, a radioactive spider could decide to bite Steve Rogers and Thanos could abandon his plan to snap away half of Earth’s population. The possibilities are endless, and the first of What If‘s nine weekly episodes, with its fun premise of Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) receiving the super soldier serum instead of Steve Rogers (Josh Keaton), gets that. Unfortunately, the short does little to build on its intriguing idea, rehashing the script of Captain America: The First Avenger (2011) with only minor tweaks, instead of opting for bigger, bolder swings.
While the opening narration by Jeffrey Wright feels plucked right out of a Twilight Zone episode, there’s not much that’s as dark or macabre here. When Steve is shot within the opening few minutes of the short, there’s the enticing prospect that death could be a finality in MCU animation, an option that the live-action films and shows don’t have. But, soon enough, Steve recovers and the episode defaults to MCU lightness, its quippy humour indistinguishable from any other installment in the franchise.
When Peggy takes the serum, what the episode does well is capture the sexist, dismissive atmosphere a character like her would have to work against in the 1940s, while also adding depth to her brief romance with Steve. The restrictions of a 31-minute-long runtime work against the short when it comes to depicting the friendship between Steve and Bucky (Sebastian Stan), a pale, superficial imitation of the enduring bond the two developed across the live-action Captain America trilogy. At one point, Bucky, reduced to comic relief, is barely fazed when it appears as though his best friend is buried under an avalanche. (Spoiler alert: he’s fine. The first rule of the MCU is that no one really dies in the MCU).
The episode continues to adhere to classic MCU movie structure, instead of taking the opportunity to deviate from it, by staging one major climactic battle. The final twist is that it’s Peggy, not Steve, who emerges 70 years into the future and meets Nick Fury. The implications of this alternate timeline are that the Allied armies win World War II, Bucky is never tortured into becoming the Winter Soldier, he and Steve get to live out the rest of their lives in peace, without Hydra or the Sokovia accords or Thanos tearing them apart, Howard Stark is never assassinated and Peggy presumably joins the Avengers initiative. This sums up the biggest disappointment with What If — that what’s imagined is infinitely more exciting than what’s explored.