Marvel has often been taken to task for poor pacing on its shows. The Netflix programs were always said to be padded out, with more installments than they really needed per season. The Disney+ era has given us shows with fewer episodes, but that hasn’t deterred complaints about slow pacing. What If…?, premiering this week on the service, has a different problem: It’s frantic and rushed, like a podcast episode played at 1.5x speed.
The concept behind What If…? is simple. Take a pivotal moment from the Marvel Cinematic Universe, change one thing, see what happens. In the premiere episode, set during the events of Captain America: The First Avenger, Peggy Carter chooses to stay in the room where Steve is receiving the super soldier serum. Steve gets shot, forcing Peggy to jump into the machine and get bulked up in his place.
You’d need to be intimately familiar with the original movie to spot the difference, which is why the omniscient narrator is there to point it out. It’s probably the only time the episode stops to catch its breath.
The problem is that this is a half-hour show attempting to present an alternate version of a two-hour movie. It isn’t even enough to just say that Captain Carter has super powers; they feel the need to show how the events of the entire movie play out, down to the final battle with the Red Skull. There isn’t a lot of time for character development, because they assume you already know the characters well from seeing them on the silver screen. (Also, why is she Captain Carter and not Captain Britain?)
It runs from plot point to plot point, a highlight reel of the film with some small and a lot of big changes. You’ll probably want to rewatch the original movie either before or after, just because there are so many winks and nudges to it that the episode simply cannot stand alone. It’s like a DVD extra and fan fiction had a baby — which, to be fair, is what the original comic felt like.
The difference here is that this is a version of What If...? that gets to play in the MCU sandbox, with the voices and likenesses to boot (except for Hugo Weaving, who is once again replaced by Ross Marquand as the Red Skull). Animation is the only way to pull it off, given that the cast and setting changes with every episode so a live action production would be prohibitively expensive.
But, despite being owned by one of the most famous animation studios in the world, Marvel Studios went with third-party animators. It’s a cel shaded style, which is more often used in video games and here looks a lot like rotoscoping. It’s sort of stiff and awkward, with more attention paid to making characters look like their actors instead of being more fluid or expressive. It’s a shame, given that Disney’s 2012 short film Paperman utilized a hybrid 2D/3D style which looks similar to this, but with a lot more personality.
Future episodes will explore other divergences from the MCU, like T’Challa becoming Star Lord or Tony Stark getting saved by Killmonger. So it’s likely some episodes will be far more enjoyable than others based on their conceit alone, though Captain Carter is still a solid start. But a good concept can’t completely overcome animation and pacing issues.