Unless you count the Ultimate universe, is there a “What If?”-style concept in Marvel Comics with more legs than Marvel Zombies? Originally introduced as an alternate reality in Mark Millar’s Ultimate Fantastic Four, Marvel Zombies later became a full-on spin-off storyline drawn by Sean Phillips and written by a guy named Robert Kirkman (who apparently has some experience with The Walking Dead). The zombies in Marvel Zombies retained their personalities and their powers; they just had an insatiable hunger for flesh. Over the course of the series, all non-superhumans are killed, Galactus comes to Earth and gets eaten, and the zombies go into space to eat other planets. They even met Ash from Evil Dead!
Now, thanks to What If…?, Marvel Zombies has come to the MCU, with all of the violence, black humor, and brain-chomping that you’d expect. Also: Chadwick Boseman is in this episode, which is quite a surprise, since Disney and Marvel made such a big deal about his starring role in the T’Challa episode earlier this season. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for Tom Holland, who skipped this What If…? despite Spider-Man’s prominence in the storyline—much like Scarlett Johansson skipping the other What If…? episode where everyone dies. (Hudson Thames, Holland’s replacement, does a fine job.)
The episode kicks off with Bruce Banner being dropped into the Sanctum Sanctorum to warn everyone about the coming of Thanos, but unlike in Avengers: Infinity War, there are no wizards there to greet him. There’s no one anywhere, for that matter, so it seems like he’s about to get his green butt kicked by Thanos’ Black Order when they show up outside. Luckily, Doctor Strange, Wong, and Iron Man arrive to fight them… and then stop fighting them and start brutally murdering them… and then eat them. So yeah, Earth has been overrun by zombies, and the only survivors are a ragtag group of heroes including Peter Parker, Hope van Dyne, Sharon Carter, Bucky Barnes, Happy Hogan, Okoye, Doctor Strange’s Cloak Of Levitation, and David Dastmalchian’s Kurt from the Ant-Man movies (probably the least useful David Dastmalchian character to have in a crisis).
A fun conceit of the episode is that, like in the movies, Spider-Man has a tendency to frame everything with pop culture references, and there’s nobody left to stop him now that Tony Stark is dead. The survivors are introduced with a very Zombieland-inspired video that Peter has made to teach them about the rules for surviving a zombie apocalypse, establishing that this outbreak follows the traditional zombie rules. Throughout the episode, he regularly chimes in with little reminders not to split up and not to jinx themselves by saying “what could go wrong?” or whatever. It’s cute, if a little played-out these days (again: Zombieland), and it does a nice job undercutting the otherwise rampant misery and misanthropy of this kind of horror story.
I should say at this point that I’m not a fan of the Marvel Zombies concept. Like Warren Ellis’ dystopian Ruins miniseries from the ’90s, I find the whole thing to be unnecessarily mean and judgmental about superheroes and those who like superhero stories. I get that there’s some winky satire involved, and a genre mash-up like “zombies/superheroes” introduces storytelling possibilities that you can’t get anywhere else, but it still doesn’t always sit right with me. As a one-off episode, though, this one managed to be fun enough that it didn’t bother me.
Anyway, the survivors eventually get a distress call from Camp LeHigh, the place where Captain America was trained and where that underground S.H.I.E.L.D. base from Captain America: The Winter Soldier is located, and even though it’s an obvious trap, the gang heads to Grand Central Station to find a ride out to New Jersey. Zombie versions of Falcon and Hawkeye attack, killing Happy Hogan (who says “blam blam blam” while firing his Civil War-era mini Iron Man gauntlet like Laura Dern in Star Wars).
Zombie Captain America shows up, shrouded in ominous darkness as he devours Sharon, and at this point the episode’s violence goes up several notches. Bucky chops Cap in half with the shield and Wasp shrinks herself, gets eaten by Zombie Sharon, and then grows big and blows her up. It’s gross, but in order to maintain the momentum and tone of the episode, everyone just has to shrug it off and keep going. The move ends up infecting Hope, though, leaving her to slowly turn into a zombie just as the group nears their destination. To keep morale up, Peter talks about how he’s lost a lot of people, name-dropping Uncle Ben for (maybe) the first time in the MCU, and he explains that he consciously tries to be upbeat to give everyone the hope they need to keep surviving.
At the camp, the survivors discover that Vision had sent out the distress call. Apparently, the zombie virus does something to a victim’s brain, and the Infinity Stone in Vision’s forehead allows him to reverse the process—even on somebody who should be dead. That’s where we get the other big comedic conceit of the episode: Paul Rudd’s Scott Lang as a talking head in a jar. Paul Rudd is extremely Paul Rudd in this episode, dropping so many little quips that I wonder if Marvel just put him in front of a mic and let him do whatever he wanted to do, but it’s worth it for the gag of Strange’s Cloak flying the jar around.
But back to that obvious trap: It turns out that Vision is luring humans to the camp so they can be used as food for Zombie Wanda, whose magic powers are too strong for the cure to work (sure, whatever). One would-be victim is none other than T’Challa, voiced by Boseman again, who helps Vision see the error of his ways. He rips out the Mind Stone and gives it Spider-Man to atone for however many people he killed to feed Zombie Wanda, and Peter, T’Challa, and Scott Lang’s floating head fly off in a jet to Wakanda so they can use the country’s superior technology to create a large-scale zombie cure.
Of course, this is all happening concurrently with the events of Infinity War, and a certain someone else also shows up in Wakanda during Infinity War. Cue Zombie Thanos, with five of the six Infinity Stones. For those keeping score at home, this episode ends with the fourth “well, everyone is screwed now” cliffhanger in a row, and it’s also the third “everyone is dead now” episode in a row.
- What’s the What If? What if… being trapped in the Quantum Realm for so many years turned Janet van Dyne into a zombie?
- Did they cheat? I guess not, assuming that all the zombies are in league with each other and Zombie Strange gave up the Time Stone willingly off-screen.
- Did The Watcher interfere, even though that’s the one thing he must never, ever do? No, but he moves when he talks now. There’s a trend happening here of him becoming more active.
- When Hope asks Spidey how he’s seen so many movies, his response is “A.V. club.” I don’t believe high school A.V. clubs are really about watching movies, so I’m going to assume he’s talking about us. You’re welcome, Spidey.
- Okoye slices zombie Falcon in half and apologizes to Bucky. His response: “I should be sad, but I’m not.” This does all take place before The Falcon And The Winter Soldier, so they’re not begrudging BFFs yet.
- Spider-Man’s training video includes a little drawing of a zombie walking across the screen while Peter makes zombie noises, and I would be stunned if that’s not a conscious reference to the production card for Joss Whedon’s Mutant Enemy. If it is, though, I’m stunned for different reasons.
- What If...?Screenshot: Disney+
- Spider-Man is devastated by how many friends he loses in the episode, including all of the Avengers (though Scott helpfully reminds him that he’s sort of an Avenger), prompting T’Challa to respond: “In my culture, death is not the end. They’re still with us, as long as we do not forget them.” Damn.