Marvel Studios’ growing interest in animation is heralded by What If…?, the first animated series in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). The first season premieres on Disney+ on Wednesday, and the reviews are in.
Based on the Marvel Comics series of the same name, What If…? presents alternative histories for various superheroes, revisiting important moments in MCU lore and exploring different outcomes.
Many MCU regulars return to voice their characters, including Hayley Atwell, Samuel L. Jackson, Tom Hiddleston, Michael Douglas, and the late Chadwick Boseman. Jeffrey Wright stars as the Watcher, the show’s omniscient narrator.
What If…? is produced by Marvel Studios, not its subsidiary Marvel Animation, which has handled animated Marvel series in the past. Carrie Wassenaar produces, and Brad Winderbaum, Kevin Feige, Louis D’Esposito, Victoria Alonso, Bryan Andrews, and A.C. Bradley executive-produce.
The animation is by Québec’s Squeeze, Australia’s Flying Bark Productions, and France’s Blue Spirit, with Stephan Franck serving as head of animation.
Reviews so far (which are based on the first three episodes) have been mixed. Most critics find the series entertaining, at least in part, but many lament that it doesn’t make the most of its premise. They tend to agree that diehard fans will get more out of it than MCU newcomers.
Sean Keane is effusive in his CNET review, describing the show as “epically fun”:
Given its anthology format, it’s likely What If…? will continue in this vein; solid episodes that’ll feel more or less compelling depending on your attachment to the characters and cleverness of the twist … What If…? is the MCU at its most unashamedly comic book-y, with beautiful animation, sharp writing and a sense of infinite possibility. ‘Nuff said.
Tyler Hersko gives the series a B+ grade in a broadly positive review for Indiewire, in which he praises the animation:
Fortunately, the moment-to-moment happenings are entertaining enough to somewhat offset the unimaginative plot. Every What If…? episode boasts a cel-shaded animation style that is an absolute pleasure to witness in motion, especially during each episode’s more action-packed moments.
Angie Han of The Hollywood Reporter disagrees, finding fault with the animation and design, as well as the voice acting:
Less fortuitously, all episodes also share an animation style that sits awkwardly between hand-drawn 2d and computer-generated 3d, resulting in several scenes that veer too close to the uncanny valley. It doesn’t help that some of the voice performances verge on robotic. Though the cast mostly consists of actors reprising their live-action roles, some apparently need to be seen in order for their charisma to come across.
Ben Travis awards the show three stars out of five in Empire, arguing that it is fun, but no more:
By its very nature, the alternate-universe storytelling makes it hard to care too much about the outcome of each episode. Profundity was never the point here — the series is designed as a playful, imaginative flight of fancy, a bar which it meets but never transcends.
SlashFilm’s Ethan Anderton finds that the series suffers by comparison with the MCU films:
[S]ince each episode is only roughly 30 minutes long, these are abridged stories that often don’t provide enough time to fully engage with new versions of the characters we love from the MCU. Granted, they’re helped by our history with them across 13 years of Marvel Studios movies, but the Marvel movie magic and heart that makes these movies so easy to love is sidelined for a fast-paced story. The humor especially struggles, and some of the cheeky winks and nods to what we know about the primary MCU feel awkwardly contrived.