Much like the comic book run that inspired the show, Marvel’s What If…? has offered a fascinating look at how the MCU timeline could have branched out in multiple directions. Creating a series like this can really help the world feel more alive, giving an introspective look at some of the protagonists to show how the events of the MCU have shaped their characters. As well as allowing some much needed time to flesh out characters who’ve been relegated to supporting roles thus far, but who still may have a significant role to play in the series’ future.
For the most part, Marvel got the balance right and offered some alternatives so tempting that fans may almost lament that they are not actual canon. At times though, What If…? played it a little too safe, and stuck a little too close to the source material of their own movies. Especially considering the premise essentially gave the writers a free pass to do whatever with these iconic characters. So with that in mind, here are all the episodes from season one ranked from worst to best. Spoilers ahead.
9What If… Thor Were an Only Child?
It’s not always easy to single something out as the worst but in this case, it was, as this was easily the weakest and most baffling plot of the nine-episode season. The story is essentially a Ferris Bueller’s Day Off meets generic teen comedy romp hybrid, with a spoilt version of Thor attempting to at first throw a ‘wild rager’ and then hide it from his mother. Of all the possible multiverse variants we’re not sure why the creators felt this to be a must-see story.
The episode is also bizarrely cartoony in a way that’s out of step with the rest of the series. Even a promisingly epic clash between Thor and Captain Marvel is played more for laughs than action removing any hope of redemption. Perhaps most baffling is how this version of Thor ends up shoehorned into the larger narrative. Surely any other surviving version of Thor would have been a better option for the Guardians of the Multiverse, or Captain Marvel again for that matter, especially with all of existence on the line.
8What If… Captain Carter Were the First Avenger?
Unfortunately, the opening to the series was also one of the worst with the aforementioned issue of staying too loyal to the film that inspired it. In this episode Heinz Kruger shoots Steve Rodgers, preventing him from being turned into a super-soldier whilst attempting to steal a vial of the serum. With time of the essence, agent Peggy Carter steps in to take the serum, being transformed into the first super-soldier against the wishes of her commanding officer John Flynn.
The show makes an effort to empower Captain Carter as she defies Flynn to join the action but in truth, the sequence is just as hackneyed and non-sensical as it was the first time around in Captain America: The First Avenger to explain away his costume. This sets the tone for the remainder of the episode which largely follows the same plot from here on out, with a few minor tweaks for good measure. In the end, it lands somewhere between a rehash and a bizarre Wonder Woman clone. Although it was nice to see Peggy retake the limelight after she was unceremoniously phased out following the cancellation of Agent Carter.
7What If… The World Lost its Mightiest Heroes?
A promising premise but again a plot that served as too much of a retread of footage we’d already seen with the obvious wrinkle of the Avengers dying. Black Widow is initially framed as the person behind the murders before uncovering the true assailant to be Hank Pym in microscopic form.
It’s an overall unsatisfying reveal and some of the questionably lacklustre deaths for Earth’s greatest heroes most notably Thor and Hulk feel half-baked, to say the least. You could argue the Avengers weren’t developed into the heroes we know yet but we’ve still seen them stand up to far worse in the MCU. The ending is equally disappointing with Loki still showing up and enslaving the Earth, with no effort, beyond a few destined to be unfulfilled teases, to pay this off.
6What If… T’Challa Became a Star-Lord?
A much better example than the previous to retell a familiar story with a new protagonist at the helm. T’Challa becoming Star-Lord instead of Peter Quill has rippling consequences throughout this universe, allowing for fresh takes on a number of established MCU characters and a story that feels more of its own. T’Challa’s superior nobility and sense of responsibility guide this universe in an overall more positive direction.
The second act of T’Challa searching for his homeworld was humble but less exciting than the sequence that preceded it which hurt it a little. The episode really needed a longer runtime to do justice to the more emotionally relevant plotline but overall it was a good showing.
5What If… Doctor Strange Lost His Heart Instead of His Hands?
In this universe, Steven Strange had set up a life with his beguiling love Christine. One night the pair are involved in a car crash and Christine dies sending Strange into a spiral of grief. Strange still travels to Kamar Taj and obtains the Eye of Agamotto only this time he attempts to use it to bring back Christine.
What follows is a macabre Groundhog Day with Christine dying, again and again, no matter what Strange tries. His actions bring him to odds with the Ancient One as Strange delves into Dark Dimension to draw power which ultimately shatters his universe around him and brings him face to face with The Watcher. This was the first time in the series The Watcher had served as more than a framing device and the first hint at a larger narrative. Equal parts distressing and engaging, this also laid the groundwork for what was to come.
4What If… Zombies?
The flagship episode for the series’ marketing that many fans would have been looking forward to, paying homage to the cult favourite comic run Marvel Zombies. Playing out as more of a zombie movie, focusing on the survivors, rather than an outright superhero flick was absolutely the right choice. This was the best the MCU has shown of Evangeline Lilly’s Hope Van Dyne who serves as the heart of this episode feeling the burden for the zombie outbreak fall on her shoulders.
Hopefully, she’ll get her chance to shine in phase 4 with the Antman series still very much a part of future plans. The despair and angst throughout are fantastic although the episode does slip into a few cliches and it would have been nice to see more of the uniquely super-powered zombie variants to set it aside from traditional fiction. Again run time had to be considered but surely many fans were left hoping to return to this universe in some medium, so a rousing success.
3What If… The Watcher Broke His Oath?
The series finale was suitably enthralling but falls just short of the best the series had to offer. With Ultron having transitioned to a multiverse level threat The Watcher throws together a motley crew of heroes as one last hope for survival dubbed the Guardians of the Multiverse. Where some previous episodes couldn’t quite deliver on the climax this episode is predominantly pulse-pounding action.
It serves as a nice send off to the series to tie the universes together and offer a little more character to The Watcher. Showcasing each of the newly established heroes at their finest the episode successfully replicates The Avengers formula to truly make the series feel epic.
2What If… Killmonger Rescued Tony Stark?
For what the Doctor Strange and T’Challa centric episodes got right, this was story retelling perfected. Killmonger is already established as one of the most grounded and best-crafted villains in the entire MCU and he’s arguably even better here. Granted he carries what is otherwise simply a decent story but the villain is truly cerebral and more importantly believable.
Going right back to the inception of the MCU, Killmonger shows up to save Tony Stark in Afghanistan which prevents him from becoming Iron Man. Tony remains a self-centred arms dealer and Killmonger positions himself as his guiding right-hand. Playing off all sides Killmonger successfully kills Stark, T’Challa and Rhodes, before rising to become the new Black Panther. The villain’s actions have a significant impact on well established MCU characters and the world around him making him feel consequential. It really felt like a whole new universe, an opportunity missed by other episodes.
1What If… Ultron Won?
The penultimate episode set the standards just a little too high for the follow up to match. Epic though the final battle was, watching Ultron tear down the last of his world and transition into the universe level threat he became made for a better overall story. Even though the ramifications of Ultron killing the Avengers were huge the story scaled back to an intimate one that was more human and poignant.
Natasha and Clint’s struggle just to go on in the universe was deeper than the MCU is often comfortable to go. Dialling back a lot of the MCU’s trademark humour that sometimes lands out of place let the nihilism uncomfortably hang, particularly in Clint who by this point had lost all sight of anything worth fighting. Underpinning the exciting consequences of Ultron gathering the Infinity Stones, shattering the multiverse and setting up the finale, the episode combined the best ideas of the larger series into one packed episode.