This post contains spoilers for episode eight of Marvel's 'What If…?'
In physics there’s what’s known as the “observer effect,” wherein an object or system is changed merely by observing it. On Marvel’s What If…? each episode has been witnessed by an apparently omniscient narrator known as The Watcher, who seemingly believes himself to be above this simple rule. He’s seen the Avengers murdered, zombies overrun the galaxy and Steven Strange completely destroying his own universe, but the Watcher has always refrained from doing anything that would change the outcome — until now.
The twist in this episode is that in Age of Ultron, the titular villain managed to get control of the Vision body before it awakened as the hero we all know and love, taking it over and then, the world and even gaining the Infinity Stones. Somewhere in all this the Avengers are killed, with the exception of Natasha and Clint, finally giving us that Black Widow and Hawkeye adventure we should have had years ago. I haven’t been the biggest fan of either character, but here they’re a lot of fun despite the grim circumstances.
The real star here, however, is Jeffrey Wright’s Watcher character. We still know little about him, or the faction he serves. The Watchers, as a group, have only appeared in live-action during a brief scene in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. What If…? has been our first proper introduction to the concept and, after eight episodes, we’re still mostly in the dark about them.
But this week’s installment did shed some light, at least. We know that our Watcher has taken an oath to never interfere with the things he sees, though to whom we still don’t know, nor are we made aware of possible consequences of breaking that vow. And we now know he’s emotionally invested in the universes he observes, if only based on his reaction to Clint not finding the folder they need in the KGB archives (luckily, Natasha is there to save the day).
However, that observer effect comes into play regardless of the Watcher’s intentions, as his omniscient narration is overheard by the powered-up Ultron, who seeks him out and attacks. In the process Ultron becomes aware of the multiverse, which explains his sudden appearance at the end of last week’s episode. Previews for the finale hint at some sort of multiversal team-up, one involving Captain Carter, Party Thor and the other altered characters we’ve met over the first eight episodes.
While it’s certainly a fun concept — there’s an entire comic series called Exiles about a multi-reality team such as this — it raises questions about what, exactly, season two will be about. It’s already been confirmed, but Marvel has shown it’s not really interested in running What If…? as an anthology series like the comic it’s based on. The instance on making it part of the larger canon has led to the show having its own internal continuity, though it’s unlikely it will be needed to understand the larger Marvel Cinematic Universe.
At least we hope it remains a side-story of the MCU: the power levels in the battle between The Watcher and Infinity Ultron puts even the massive conflicts shown in the last two Avengers films to shame. (Especially after Thanos is offed rather unceremoniously.) It’s a weird escalation in scale given that the teased villain of Phase IV, Kang the Conqueror, hasn’t even made a proper appearance yet.
Marvel Comics has a deep, expansive mythology and it’s nice to see the MCU finally explore some of those outer reaches. But right now the current approach to continuity feels a little cramped, and in danger of getting in its own way. Hopefully, next week’s finale will see the Watcher fully break free of his oath, and maybe help What If…? shed its remaining ties to its live-action counterparts to do something truly new.