And there came a day unlike any other, when the Earth’s mightiest heroes found themselves united against a common threat… well, it’s the multiverse’s mightiest heroes, and The Watcher weirdly insists on a Guardians Of The Galaxy-inspired team name, but still: Avengers assemble!
I wasn’t sure how to feel about What If…?’s turn toward serialization at first, which I wrote about in last week’s review and expanded on in another piece earlier this week, since it kind of cheapened all of the stories that had been told in this show so far and indicated that we’ll really never ever get one-off superhero adventures out of the MCU (which is just going to put an even bigger strain on the general public’s patience for this stuff). Now, though, I have to admit that I did dig this episode more than I thought I would.
“What If… The Watcher Broke His Oath?” is basically Avengers: Endgame condensed into 30 minutes, with what little fat that movie had excised in favor of largely non-stop fights and quips. It even took time for little emotional beats (though I don’t think they worked), and I have to give Marvel and head writer A.C. Bradley a lot of credit for fitting this all together much more convincingly than I would’ve expected after some of the shakier episodes. I don’t know if it retroactively improves those weaker episodes, but I do at least appreciate that this finale affords the opportunity to do your own version of the “I understood that reference” meme.
The episode starts with The Watcher traveling to various alternate realities to recruit heroes for his Guardians Of The Multiverse: Captain Carter, Star-Lord T’Challa, Party Thor, some kind of complicated Gamora from a reality where she and Tony Stark fought their way off of Thor: Ragnarok’s Sakaar and killed Thanos before he could get the Infinity Stones (the one universe we didn’t get to see, weirdly), and—most suspiciously—the definitely evil Black Panther Killmonger who murdered his Tony Stark. They team up with Bad Strange, and after some disappointingly brief introductions, they make a plan to kill Ultron.
It turns out that Complicated Gamora has a machine called the Infinity Crusher that can destroy the stones, so all they need to do is get it in front of Ultron and it will chop them up into Infinity dust. Party Thor’s thunder powers accidentally attract Ultron’s attention, and he shows up to kill everyone with more uninspired use of the Infinity Stones (all laser blasts and big explosions). This version of Ultron remains very boring, and like last week, the non-James Spader voice acting doesn’t help.
The good guys distract Ultron and T’Challa uses his space-thief abilities to grab the Soul Stone. Then all of the heroes bounce and sneak away to the post-apocalypse reality from last week, while Bad Strange opens up a portal to the zombie world from from episode five and drops all of the zombies on Ultron. Captain Carter, who explains that she’s “BFFs” with her universe’s Black Widow, meets Apocalypse Widow and gets her to help them kill Ultron once he shows up. After that, a significantly cooler and longer fight scene kicks off.
Ultron is still boring, but the good guys have some neat tricks to keep him on the ropes, like Peggy using her shield to hammer him while Apocalypse Widow uses the Red Guardian shield to hit him at the same time, and there’s even a slick “everybody does a cool pose while the camera spins around” moment like in The Avengers. (And yet they’re the Guardians Of The Multiverse for some reason.) It eventually all works out and they deploy Gamora’s Infinity Crusher, but then Ultron comes right back because, apparently, each universe’s Infinity Stones are different. Gamora explains that her Infinity Crusher must only work on her Infinity Stones, which... what?
I already complained last week about how Infinity Ultron’s limitless power broke the Infinity Stone rules seemingly established in Loki, specifically that one universe’s stones are powerless in a different universe, but now the show is saying that, no, that is the rule. It’s like dealing with a little kid who just keeps saying “nuh uh, you didn’t get me!” in order to keep making Ultron an appropriately enormous threat, but it’s unfair.
Anyway, Widow remembers the USB arrow from last week, and she and Peggy rush in while everyone else distracts Ultron, leading to a great slow-motion sequence where Peggy rips open Ultron’s helmet and Widow fires the USB arrow right into his eye (it’s very lucky that they got it going in the right direction on the first try). The Arnim Zola AI then infects Ultron and shuts him down pretty easily.
For the second time in the episode, everything seemingly ends too easily, and also for the second time in the episode, a bad guy then decides to pull out a secret trick: This time it’s Killmonger, who basically hasn’t done anything up until this point. He ends up stealing Ultron’s Infinity Armor and the Stones, but Zola wakes up in Ultron’s body and demands them back. Before the two of them can get into yet another fight, Bad Strange realizes that The Watcher never intended for them to win, he just needed them to find a way to get the Stones out of play, so he uses his evil magic to construct a new pocket dimension to trap Infinity Killmonger and Ultron Zola in. Good guys win, for real this time.
That beat is a nice nod to Strange’s “there’s only one way we win” stuff from Infinity War, and when he saves the day there are even little hints of the excellent score from the Doctor Strange movie. The Watcher then pulls everyone out of that universe and ushers them back to their own realities—except for Bad Strange, whose penance for ruining his reality is to stand watch over the pocket dimension. Apocalypse Widow refuses to go back to her world, though, because literally everyone in it is dead.
“We’re just stories to you,” she says, putting a finer point on some meta-commentary by asking The Watcher if he made popcorn while Ultron murdered all of her friends. But The Watcher says he’s not just some casual MCU fan. “Your worlds, your stories, are everything to me,” he explains, conceding that Apocalypse Widow does deserve to live on. Rather than returning her to her universe, he drops her off in the reality from episode three where all of the Avengers were murdered so she can join Captain America and Captain Marvel in their fight against Loki’s army, finally tying up every episode of the season (and pretty directly breaking his rule about not interfering).
The Watcher ends with a little monologue that basically amounts to him saying “I’m going to keep watching the multiverse, see you next season,” and then there’s a post-credits stinger (fiiiinally) where Black Widow leads Captain Carter to a shipping container carrying Steve Rogers’ Hydra Stomper from episode one, which has someone inside it. Cut to black. Sappy, emotional music. As someone who is on the record as absolutely loving the Peggy Carter/Steve Rogers stuff: meh. If Steve is in the Hydra Stomper, he’s going to be a very old man, right? Not to rewrite the episode, but a better twist would’ve been a Winter Soldier version of Steve Rogers showing up… maybe with metal legs or something instead of a metal arm? That’s a free idea for next year, Marvel.
- What’s the What If? What if… the whole season was setting up one big fight scene rather than telling anthology stories? I guess?
- Did they cheat? It’s very weird that one of the main characters in this episode is an alternate Gamora from a reality we’ve never seen before, especially a reality that seems like a bunch of unrelated things getting mashed together. The creators of What If…? have said that they had initially planned for 10 episodes but had to cut it down to nine because of the pandemic, and I’m going to assume that’s what happened here. Another cheat: Captain Carter, coming from the timeline of Winter Soldier, knows the name of Black Widow’s father, but in Endgame, Widow makes a point to say that she didn’t know her father’s name until Red Skull told her. Total magic xylophone.
- Did The Watcher interfere, even though that’s the one thing he must never, ever do? Uh, YEAH. That’s, like, all he did. I think the episode wants to argue that he stayed hands-off during the fight, but the fight only happened because he assembled his Guardians Of The Multiverse. Ergo, he interfered. (To say nothing of letting Apocalypse Widow move to the “Everyone got murdered” universe.)
- Like I said up above, I don’t think it fixes the weaker episodes from the season by revealing that they were all building toward something, but I do appreciate that they touched on all of them in some way. There was a plan, even if the plan wasn’t entirely successful.
- I really would’ve liked to see more interactions from these characters. Imagine Star-Lord T’Challa, who is friends with Thanos, talking to a Gamora who killed Thanos! Or Black Panther Killmonger, who murdered his T’Challa, talking to a T’Challa who didn’t even grow up in Wakanda! (Especially since they’re actually voiced by Michael B. Jordan and Chadwick Boseman, a thing that we will now never happen again.)
- Season grade: B-.