A few weeks ago, the creators of What If…? talked about their process for breaking stories. They said it involved a big poster of all the Marvel characters they wanted to do something with, and while trying to figure out what kind of Black Panther stories they could tell, they noticed that—courtesy of the prologue scenes in Black Panther and Guardians Of The Galaxy—both Peter Quill and T’Challa are nearly the same age. From there, it must’ve been a pretty easy leap to get to “What if the thing that happened to Peter Quill happened to T’Challa instead,” and so we get the Ravagers abducting T’Challa in the 1980s, Yondu raising him to be a space outlaw, and, finally, T’Challa becoming Star-Lord.
Yes, this is the “Chadwick Boseman is Star-Lord T’Challa” episode of What If…?, and it’s somehow even more fun than that premise would imply. The episode starts just like Guardians Of The Galaxy, with Star-Lord on a desolated planet trying to retrieve a metal ball that we Marvel fans know contains one of the Infinity Stones. Just as he grabs it, though, he’s interrupted by a squad of goons led by Djimon Hounsou’s Korath. Rather than waiting for Star-Lord to introduce himself and getting the great “Who?” gag, though, Korath immediately recognizes his celebrity idol. As it turns out, T’Challa’s Star-Lord isn’t a wannabe Han Solo dirtbag like Peter Quill; he’s a widely beloved Robin Hood-type figure who has single-handedly reformed the Ravagers into a team of space heroes.
Hounsou is a delight as this version of Korath, and I’m convinced that he should get a lot more voice acting jobs and a lot more comedy jobs based on What If…? alone. His utter joy at being able to hang out with Star-Lord and meet his merry band of thieves is infectious, and as good as the “Who?” line is in the movie (plus the payoff when he sees Quill later on), his casual insistence that Star-Lord is his best friend later in this episode might be even better.
Korath joins Star-Lord and the Ravagers just as they’re given a chance to pull one last big heist, which comes courtesy of femme fatale Nebula (Karen Gillan, reprising her role from the movies), and you can tell she’s a femme fatale in this universe because she looks exactly the same but has long blonde hair (pretty funny!). Nebula’s plan: break into the archives of one Taneleer Tivan, a.k.a. The Collector, and steal a supply of extremely powerful, life-giving seeds that can be used to effectively end hunger throughout the entire galaxy.
The heist itself hits all of the main caper highlights, including a predictable double-cross and the equally predictable triple-cross where we find out that any and all treachery was part of the plan. More importantly, T’Challa meets a new friend (Howard The Duck, played by Seth Green, who gets to make Seth Green-style sardonic comments) and finds proof that the people of Wakanda weren’t wiped out by aliens, as Yondu had led him to believe, but are actually totally fine and have been sending messages to space in hopes of finding T’Challa.
Star-Lord fights The Collector (Benicio Del Toro, apparently, though his performance here is nowhere near as deranged as it is in the movies), the Ravagers fight the Black Order, and eventually T’Challa and Yondu have a heart-to-heart about Yondu’s lies. It turns out that T’Challa was just a nice kid who made the Ravagers into better people, and Yondu assumed that he would want to leave them if he knew Wakanda was safe. In the end, T’Challa and his new space family return to Wakanda to meet his Earth family, and everyone lives happily ever after. Well, until Kurt Russell’s Ego shows up to meet his son, regular Dairy Queen employee Peter Quill, so the two of them can destroy the universe. Whoops!
Now, as you may have noticed, this episode has loads of movie actors returning to reprise their movie roles, and save for a handful of exceptions (Hounsou and someone who I won’t mention until later to avoid spoilers), they’re all kind of… not great. Michael Rooker is always a delight in live-action, but his performance as Yondu here feels weirdly stiff. Similarly, Gillan already does a voice for Nebula, and it seems like she doesn’t always hit the right note combining that voice with the extra noir flavoring of this variant. My guess is that the issue has something to do with me being used to seeing these actors in live-action, which allows for a lot more of a physical personality to come through, combined with movie actors not necessarily putting in a full performance for something that amounts to maybe five minutes of animated screen time.
I generally prefer professional voice actors to celebrities just doing their normal voice, and while professional voice actors may have done a better job with some of this parts, I feel like having the actors from the movies reprise their characters is an important part of what What If…? is all about. Without Boseman, for example, I’m not sure there would be any point to this episode existing… which brings me to Boseman. Look, hold your tomatoes and beer bottles and whatever other things you want to throw at the computer, because I’m not going to say anything bad about him, but I think his performance in this episode is missing something: a spark. Chadwick Boseman embodied T’Challa in such a powerful and comprehensive way that his voice performance here is a faint echo of his big-screen portrayal. And while he does a good job making Star-Lord feel different from the Black Panther, his performance doesn’t feel as impactful as it should be.
It all comes back to this disconnect between the animation and the performances, I think. Boseman had so much charisma in live-action, and while the quasi-realistic aesthetic of What If...? is typically good, there are just some actors who don’t click with it. Marvel Studios boss Kevin Feige had nothing but positive things to say about Boseman’s performance recently, describing him as “gung-ho” about it, so clearly something is off in the translation between Chadwick Boseman reading dialogue in a booth and Chadwick Boseman’s voice coming out of Star-Lord’s mouth. The art style seems like a likely culprit, and while I don’t necessarily think it’s a major issue (Boseman certainly isn’t bad in this episode because of it, just not as charismatic), I do wonder if it will be a sticking point going forward. We’ll have a better idea next week, which centers on a character whose movie actor did not provide the voice.
- What’s the What If? What if… Yondu sent Kraglin and Taserface to Earth, resulting in them picking up the wrong kid because all humans look the same to them?
- Did they cheat? Nope, assuming the events of Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2 take place before King T’Chaka is killed in Captain America: Civil War. Everything else is acknowledged as being changed by T’Challa’s presence in space.
- Did The Watcher interfere, even though that’s the one thing he must never, ever do? Nope, that’s two for two!
- Alright, I put it off because I didn’t want to spoil the reveal in the body of the review, but: Thanos! Josh Brolin as Thanos! I full-on cackled when he first showed up, and I love that they turn “this guy wanted to wipe out half of all life” into a running joke. “It’s not genocide, it’s a random and efficient way to cut down on the strain that we put on the galaxy’s finite resources!” Sure, buddy. Like that would ever work.
- Lots of Easter eggs in The Collector’s lair, naturally (always nice to see Cosmo The Space Dog). Some of the things I saw might cheat the What If?, but I’ll let them slide because the Easter eggs in The Collector’s lair have never been strictly canon anyway. If they were, Tobias Fünke and Adam Warlock would be running around together in the MCU, and I refuse to accept that Marvel would allow something that good to exist and not show it.
- After last week’s episode, I wrote about how Marvel’s insistence on convincing everyone that What If…? is a Real Marvel Thing is doing a disservice to both the show itself and cool characters like Captain Carter. You can read it here.
- The episode is dedicated to Chadwick Boseman, as it should be. I don’t know if this will ever be more than a footnote in the Chadwick Boseman canon, but at least the episode is a hell of a lot of fun.