While Marvel’s heroes seldom die on-screen (or stay dead for very long) in the studio’s live-action productions, that hasn’t been the case with the Disney+ animated series What If. So far, the show has featured a number of timelines in the MCU’s multiverse where several Avengers have met their ends in horrible ways. Characters’ mortalities are becoming a bigger part of What If as its first season progresses, and the series is becoming markedly more interesting as a result.
Like What If’s other episodes, this week’s “What If... Zombies?!” draws heavily upon certain events and beats from the MCU movies, but the series took a very specific horror turn with this one.
The fifth episode opens with a taste of Avengers: Infinity War as the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) plummets to Earth by way of the Bifrost, and crash lands into Doctor Strange’s Sanctum Sanctorum in New York City. Like his Sacred Timeline counterpart, this universe’s Bruce comes to in a dazed panic having just had his ass handed to him by Thanos in space. But instead of being greeted by the gray-templed sorcerer and Wong (Benedict Wong), this Banner finds Strange’s brownstone and the rest of Manhattan seemingly empty for some reason. As he wanders out in search of other people, his spirits are briefly lifted when the Bifrost touches down to deliver someone else to Earth. That little spark of hope immediately turns to dread, though, when Bruce realizes that the new arrivals are Ebony Maw and Cull Obsidian, presumably sent to finish him off.
What If reasonably condenses elements of Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame all throughout “What If... Zombies?!,” beginning with a nod to the portals scene from Endgame’s final act. Here, though, the portals come much, much earlier, and instead of backup, what emerges from the circular holes in space is a trio of zombified Avengers who immediately proceed to devour half of the Black Order. Were it not for Cloak of Levitation coming to Banner’s aid, he likely wouldn’t have been able to stop Doctor Strange, Iron Man, Wong, and the now-zombified Ebody Maw and Cull Obsidian from eating him (the Hulk is still refusing to resurface). To their credit, the zombies do come close to filling their gullets with Banner’s gamma-irradiated flesh, but their feast is thwarted by a swarm of ants who descend upon the zombies and completely strip them of their flesh.
One could forgive Banner for being confused as hell at the sight of Hope Van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly) suddenly returning to full-size in her Wasp costume alongside a human-sized ant big enough to scarf down a decapitated zombie’s head. One could also forgive Hank Pym for not knowing how his wife Janet accidentally contracted the zombie virus while exploring the quantum realm. What’s somewhat difficult to forgive, though, is the way “What If... Zombies?!” ends up hinging on the idea that this chunk of the MCU descended into a zombie apocalypse because people weren’t familiar enough with horror movie tropes.
Though apocalypses tend to be depressing, What If’s Peter Parker (Hudson Haynes) is an optimist who somehow found the time to cobble together an instructional video explaining how to survive in the zombified plague times. Bruce has a chance to see other survivors like Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau), Ant-Man’s Kurt (David Dastmalchian, aka Polka-Dot Man), Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan), and Sharon Carter (Emily VanCamp) appear in Peter’s video before Okoye (Danai Gurira) reminds him that it’s neither the time nor the place for lightheartedness. In just a few weeks, the zombies were able to completely topple society and leave most of the world’s population infected, save for the handful of heroes hiding out in Peter’s fortress of webbed-up train cars suspended high above New York’s streets.
What’s likely to be something of a sore spot for fans of Marvel’s comics is how little this episode has in common with the comic publisher’s Marvel Zombies franchise—aside from the presence of undead superheroes. For reasons that should be obvious by now, important Marvel Zombies characters like the Fantastic Four and the X-Men simply don’t show up because they’ve yet to be canonically incorporated into the MCU in the wake of Disney’s acquisition of Fox’s cinematic rights to them back in 2019. Instead, “What If... Zombies?!” somewhat successfully uses the creature concept to create another dire, almost hopeless situation in which the odds are stacked against a small, ragtag band of heroes trying to bring the world back to life.
As was the case in Avengers: Endgame, the survivors’ desperation for the slim chance at making things right is really what’s keeping them going, but in this case, it’s hard to imagine how the Avengers might actually be able to pull that off. While the logical solution would simply be to go and ask for help from aliens on another planet, the idea’s never floated, perhaps because the presumption is that the rest of the galaxy’s busy with Thanos’ approach. What does seem like a good idea, however, is for everyone to follow a beacon emanating from New Jersey where Okoye and the others believe there might be other uninfected people. As non-flying heroes stuck in zombified New York City, everyone’s best bet for making it to Jersey is beelining for Grand Central Station and hotwiring an abandoned train car. But because Peter’s the only person who apparently took the time to watch some zombie movies before the world went to hell, no one else apparently realizes how they’re setting themselves up for an attack.
Just moments after everyone splits up before planning to catch their train, infected versions of Hawkeye and the Falcon attack them, and the battle ends with Happy being turned and Okoye being forced to put Falcon down. Falcon’s death not phasing Bucky in the least feels like What If reminding everyone that no matter what The Falcon and the Winter Soldier might have told you, those two men have never seen it for one another. Bucky’s confrontation with zombie Captain America says similar things about his feelings regarding Sharon, who ends up being turned by Steve just moments before Bucky arrives. There are few words exchanged during the fight, but the way Bucky casually pushes Sharon aside before dispatching Steve and taking his shield stands out as the episode’s flashiest (and most inadvertently funny) scenes.
What If pivots back into grimness after Hope lets herself be swallowed by zombie Sharon in order to grow back to normal size and pop the zombie from within. Hope’s plan works, but not without her suit and skin being torn in the process, and after everything they’ve been through, everyone knows what the cut on Hope’s arm will eventually mean for her. Even though they were en route to what might have been a cure for her infection, Hope elects to sacrifice herself in order to get her companions to safety when the train runs out of fuel. By growing massive and carrying them in her hands, Hope’s able to complete the last leg of their journey and set the others down at the old SHIELD base where the beacon’s coming from.
What’s odd about the horde of zombies the heroes are faced with after Hope drops them off is how none of them make any move to rush the uninfected, even though the fence keeping them apart has broken down. No one thinks to ask Vision (Paul Bettany) what the hell is up with the ghouls just standing there when he shows up and invites them into the compound where he’s been working. Aside from a few yelps, everyone takes it pretty well when they’ve learned how Vision “cured” Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) of his infection with a series of experiments that left Scott as a talking head in a jar.
Had anyone had the time or ability to catch a few episodes of WandaVision, they might have seen What If’s final twist coming, or at least had the wherewithal to ask whether Wanda was hanging out on the base as well. Both Vision’s explanation of the tests he ran to see whether the Mind Stone’s energies can be harnessed to destroy the disease, and the way the SHIELD base resembles Baron Von Strucker’s lab from Age of Ultron point to there being an unseen danger the Avengers aren’t aware of until it’s far too late. While Peter and Bruce are busy chatting it up with Vision, Bucky stumbles upon the room where the rest of the “survivors” are being kept and discovers T’Challa who informs him the truth of how Vision’s been keeping them to feed to a zombified Scarlet Witch.
Just as Bucky and T’Challa show up to confront Vision about his deeds, Wanda herself (who hadn’t fed in days) breaks free from her cage in a blast of what we now know to be chaos magic and gets right to trying to satisfy her hunger. While Wanda begins tearing through the humans, Vision accepts the wrongness of what he did in hopes of saving the woman he loved, and he rips the Mind Stone from his own forehead, further underlining the parallels between this reality and the Sacred Timelines. In one of the episode’s few moving moments, zombie Wanda demonstrates how, on some level, she’s retained her sentience, by depicting her falling to the ground in grief and then going into a rage as she realizes that Vision’s “dead.” With no other heavy hitters left standing, Hulk chooses to sacrifice himself in order to keep Wanda busy long enough for T’Challa, Peter, and Scott to make it away in the Quinjet with the Mind Stone in hand and a plan to head to Wakanda. What none of them know as “What If... Zombies” comes to an end is that Thanos has already made it there with the other five Infinity Stones locked into his gauntlet, implying that they’ve got little to no chance of survival when they arrive.
Though the Death from Marvel’s comics has yet to make a proper appearance in What If, death as a concept emerges as the real star of this chapter. The episode’s better for it because of how it opens up the space for plot turns that feel fresher than you’d expect. With four episodes left, What If’s gotten into a pretty solid space in terms of making its stories work despite each episode’s short length. The question going forward is whether the series will be able to maintain its momentum as it builds to its finale.
What If airs Wednesdays on Disney+.
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