After an extended run of episodes that were all about people dying and universes dying and the Marvel universe going down a dark path, What If…? goes in the completely opposite direction with an episode that’s all about having a good time—even if it potentially comes at the expense of some established characterization and sidesteps an opportunity to offer some thoughtful meta-commentary on the MCU. “What If… Thor Were An Only Child?” is the kind of episode I assumed we’d be getting more of in this series, which is to say that it’s basically an excuse to have some goofy fun with cameos and movie storylines, but now I’m glad that the show has aimed a little higher with its aspirations.
The episode isn’t bad, but I do feel like something that is trying to just be funny should maybe be… a little more funny. There are good gags here (basically everything Darcy does or says, because Kat Dennings is always a delight), but not enough of them feel like specifically crafted MCU-centric gags. You could swap out Chris Hemsworth in this episode with Paul from the movie Paul and it would still kind of work—not that he could hold his own in a fight with Captain Marvel, as far as I know. That’s part of the central joke of the episode, which is that Thor is like a teenager staying home alone without his parents for the first time, but a lot of this feels like it’s bending MCU characters to fit that joke rather than really seeing how this would all play out with what we know about this world and these people.
The setup for the episode is that Odin, rather than “adopting” (read: kidnapping) baby Loki after his battle with the Frost Giants, returns the little blue boy to his rightful kin and goes back to Asgard to focus on raising Thor. However, without Loki’s influence, there’s nobody around to ever challenge Thor and he grows up to be a responsibility-shirking party dude with even less concern about how he’s someday going to be the king of Asgard. It’s sort of like that Rugrats episode where Chuckie was never born and Angelica becomes a tyrant who ruins the lives of all the other babies because there’s no voice of reason (a classic “What If” premise from a different universe).
The story begins like the first Thor movie, with Jane Foster (Natalie Portman reprises the role, though she underplays the performance by too much) and her intern Darcy Lewis (Dennings) hanging out in a van in the desert as they search for cosmic signals of some sort. Thor eventually shows up, but rather than crashing right into the van, the Bifrost carries him to Las Vegas and he invites all of Midgard to join him in the greatest party of all time.
Using her knowledge of cosmic signals, Jane determines that a party just like this one destroyed another planet somewhere out in the universe, but when she confronts Thor and asks him to, you know, turn it down a little (some of us have work in the morning), she ends up falling for his charms and joining the party. There are fun cameos here, like pretty much every side character from the Guardians Of The Galaxy movies, a bunch of Skrulls, and even Jeff Goldblum returning for a couple of lines as the Grandmaster, but Jane eventually passes out and wakes up the next morning to find that Thor has moved on to a different continent and S.H.I.E.L.D. is very interested in forcing her to help kick the aliens off of the planet.
It turns out that Korg (Taika Waititi with maaaybe one line) knocked out Nick Fury while trying to do a cannon ball, leaving a very pissed-off Maria Hill (Cobie Smudlers, hitting the right tone) in charge. The episode becomes completely silly at this point, with Agent Coulson popping in for a moment to declare in a panic that “the party atmosphere is spreading,” and Hill decides to deploy S.H.I.E.L.D.’s secret weapon: the Captain Marvel beeper.
Carol isn’t played by Brie Larson here, despite the amount of screen time the character gets, and I can’t help but notice that there’s now a puzzling trend of female leads from the MCU not showing up on What If…? (previous episodes had Black Widow and Pepper Potts played by different actors). I don’t know what that means, if anything, but I maintain my stance that some of these stories only work if you have the movie actors involved. Anyway, the ensuing fight scene between Carol and Thor is pretty great, and while I’ve used comparisons to Dragon Ball as a criticism in the past, the homage seems more purposeful here. Carol and Thor fight all around the world (there’s a nice joke where countries seen from space have their names printed on like a map, which is a surprisingly goofy joke to leave completely unaddressed), eventually ending up in a desert where their every punch leaves craters and sends enormous clouds of dust into the air.
Thor wins, though, pinning Carol down with his hammer and giving him a chance to call her by a bad word he learned on Midgard: party pooper. (This joke is less good, since it relies on the viewer assuming that he’s going to call her something else, and I don’t come to the MCU to hear Thor potentially throwing around sexist insults.) With Carol sidelined, the party gets more and more out of control, spreading across more of the planet and kicking off a montage of worldwide vandalism.
That’s when Jane gets an idea: How do you stop someone from throwing a party? You tell on them. She uses her knowledge of Norse myths to assume that, if Thor exists, then Heimdall must also exist and there must be some way to get him to contact Thor’s mom Frigga. It works, and Frigga uses magic to call Thor and ask what he’s doing. He explains that he’s on Earth to study Midgard culture and is definitely not throwing a party, but she doesn’t buy it and decides to join him on Earth to ask about what he’s learned.
Thor tells everyone that his mom is coming, convincing them to help him clean up the planet, and they manage to fix everything in the world right at the last minute. Carol even comes back to give Thor an iPad full of educational software, PBS specials, and NPR podcasts, and it seems like the whole scheme has worked out… until Thor summons Mjolnir and its covered in spray paint, Mardi Gras beads, and someone’s underwear (the most obvious evidence that a party has happened). The episode ends with Thor asking Jane out on a date, and Jeffrey Wright’s Watcher appears in the sky to say that “together, they lived happily ever after.” But wait! This is What If…?, the show where every episode must have a last-minute dark twist, and this one arrives in the form of Ultron stepping out of some kind of portal with the Infinity Stones. Marvel has already spoiled that some serialization is coming to What If…?, and with this completely out-of-nowhere twist, I think it just got here.
- What’s the What If? What if… Odin decided not to steal a baby. (A rare instance of the Allfather behaving like a normal person.)
- Did they cheat? This is another episode that’s operating on a different kind of level than anything approaching a normal reality. I would say yes, but it doesn’t matter.
- Did The Watcher interfere, even though that’s the one thing he must never, ever do? No, but his shock at the arrival of Infinity Stone Ultron implies that he’s not as omniscient as he likes everyone to think he is. Why, it’s almost like the show has been quietly setting up some kind of arc for its narrator, but would could have possibly seen that coming?!
- There’s no sign of Dr. Erik Selvig, everyone’s favorite Marvel hero, but (like I said) everything with Darcy was great. Her excitement over learning that Carol has a cat named Goose was good, though the show missed an opportunity by having her explain the reference rather than just saying “I understood that reference.” It would be a meme folding in on itself!
- Darcy’s largely off-screen relationship with Howard The Duck was also fun, if only because he refers to her as “Mrs. The Duck” at one point.
- I assumed this episode would have a… more normal plot, so when Loki showed up as a Frost Giant, I expected there to eventually be a reveal that he’s been tricking Thor into partying so hard that planets get destroyed. But no, he and Thor just get along really well when they don’t grow up competing with each other. That’s nice, I guess?
- Earlier this week, I wrote about how What If…? has been leaning really hard on “dark” storylines that are kind of limited in scope. I guess Marvel made this episode just to undercut my point?