While talking about the voice performances in What If…? in last week’s review, I mentioned that I think the celebrity voice actors are so important to the appeal of the show—regardless of whether or not they do a good job—that it would be hard to see the point of an episode dedicated to a character whose movie actor didn’t reprise their role. Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury is all over this episode, which is a saving grace, but so is a Black Widow who isn’t voiced by Scarlett Johansson (it’s Lake Bell, who really is not a bad choice). That’s probably the least of the episode’s problems, but the fact that it does have other problems makes that one stand out more.
It’s not a disaster, as there is good stuff here, but it is certainly the weakest of the three episodes Disney+ has shown so far—and it also happens to have the loosest What If? premise. There’s less of a clean break from the main MCU reality in this episode, or at least the show obfuscates the clean break for the sake of its central mystery, and that makes it all more frustrating than it needs to be.
The hook this time around is that the story takes place over the course of one single week in the lives of Nick Fury and Natasha Romanoff (a.k.a. the Black Widow) where everything goes unimaginably, disastrously wrong. The episode starts with the doughnut shop scene from Iron Man 2, when Black Widow reveals that she’s working with S.H.I.E.L.D. and injects Tony Stark with a concoction that will treat that metal poison thing that was happening to him in that movie. Unfortunately, the injection doesn’t save Tony’s life—in fact, it makes him drop dead right there.
Black Widow’s reaction makes it clear that she didn’t murder him on purpose, but her alibi becomes airtight when a buff blonde guy trying to pick up a weird space hammer is inexplicably killed the next day by one of Hawkeye’s arrows—an arrow that Clint swears he didn’t fire. The day after that, Hawkeye is found murdered in a locked cell that no one was seen entering or exiting. Clearly, someone is executing the Avengers before they become Avengers, meaning it’s someone who knows about Nick Fury’s “there was an idea” idea.
At this point, any aspiring Benoit Blancs with knowledge of the MCU should at least have a working theory: Do we know of anyone in this world who can turn invisible? Or maybe some alternative to being invisible that makes you hard to see? But Black Widow at least recognizes the pattern and goes to the next person on Fury’s list of potential Avengers: Bruce Banner. The Hulk sequence is where the episode starts to get sweaty for me, since I can maybe buy that Iron Man 2 and Thor happen within one day of each other, but the Edward Norton Hulk movie? It all happens in the same week?
Everything in What If…? is silly, that’s the point, but there’s a difference between fun silly and silly silly. Too much of the whodunnit? in this episode is silly silly, tweaking little things about the universe to streamline its story, and it just pulls me straight out. Why make a fan service-heavy tribute to the Marvel Cinematic Universe if you don’t assume that certain audience members (like me) will catch these little cheats?
Back to the Hulk scene for a second: I’m not sure if this is a selling point or not, but him getting overly irradiated and ballooning out like a smooth, green Tetsuo might be one of the most grotesque things Disney has ever put its name on. Truly revolting. Whoever was in charge of that should be ashamed and/or proud.
While Widow does some S.H.I.E.L.D. googling to figure out who would be able to access the Avengers’ files and also would want them dead, Nick Fury deals with the arrival of Loki, whose involvement in this mystery is one of the episode’s most inspired choices. Despite hating his brother and masterminding his banishment to Earth in the first place, Loki is pissed that some Earth man murdered Thor and he wants Nick Fury to answer for it. Fury offers a compromise, suggesting that Loki helps them solve the mystery and then go back to Asgard in peace. Loki agrees, because he’s nothing if not a reasonable and trustworthy god (ha ha ha), while Widow discovers that all of the murders have something to do with… dramatic pause… Hope Van Dyne?
The episode was already pushing it for me, but this reveal was where it really started crumble. The killer is eventually revealed to be Hank Pym, Hope’s father, who is murdering the Avengers with the Yellowjacket suit from Ant-Man to get revenge against S.H.I.E.L.D. and Nick Fury for the death of his daughter. In this reality, she joined S.H.I.E.L.D. and died on a mission, which pushed Hank over the edge and turned him into a murderer. I like that as a plot point, because Hank Pym was a real bastard for an extended period of time in the comics and this seems like the only way to get something like that into the MCU, but I almost wish Pym took a beat to properly lay out how and why he became a serial killer (maybe with some flashbacks of how things happened differently in this reality) to explain it better.
Everything after the reveal, though? Goddamn great. The fight between Pym and “Nick Fury” (I caught on pretty quick, but I still liked the surprise) is really good, Michael Douglas should be Termite-Man based on how brilliantly he chewed the scenery, and Loki’s last-minute… well, it’s not a heel turn if he was always bad, but it’s always nice to see Loki being Loki. Fury basically says “thanks for your help, feel free to leave whenever,” and then there’s a hard cut to Loki and the armies of Asgard marching into the United Nations building. Like last week’s Ego reveal: Whoops!
- What’s the What If? What if… Hope Van Dyne joined S.H.I.E.L.D. and also died?
- Did they cheat? The “and also” right up above is a cheat, as far as I’m concerned. That’s not to mention the “every Marvel movie is happening at the same time as every other Marvel movie thing.”
- Did The Watcher interfere, even though that’s the one thing he must never, ever do? Nope! Triple score multiplier. He sure does hang around in the background a lot, though.
- As I keep saying, Disney hasn’t been releasing cast lists for these episodes ahead of time, so I wasn’t sure if that was really Michael Douglas, but I wrote in my notes that I thought whoever was playing Hank Pym was really good. If Michael Douglas reads this, I’d be happy to send him my note that says “Guy playing Hank Pym is good” so he can frame it and put it next to his Oscar.
- The Black Widow stuff in this episode wasn’t entirely impressive, but her fight scene in the car was awesome. Another very cool thing that they couldn’t really do in live-action without moving the camera in impossible ways.
- I love Captain America, so the epilogue sequence of Nick Fury going into the ice and finding him after Loki takes over the world was great. Even better? Fury saying “Welcome back, Captain” as the camera pans over to reveal… Captain Marvel, in her What If…? debut! There’s something to be said for the fact that I would kill to see what happens next in any one of these episodes so far.
- I wrote about how much I loved the Thanos stuff in last week’s episode over here. Go read it!