The second episode of What If imagined a universe in which T’Challa never grew up to become Wakanda’s Black Panther because he was abducted by aliens as a child. T’Challa’s journey to becoming the Star-Lord brings him into the lives of countless people from throughout the galaxy, and his mere presence has a profound impact on every single one of them.
Though the galaxy’s still a dangerous place where outlaws commit heinous crimes against humanity and other life forms in “What If... T’Challa Became a Star-Lord?,” T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) and his fellow Ravagers inspire hope and optimism as they journey through space around in search of big ticket bounties. By redistributing some of the riches the acquire to impoverished people, T’Challa and the Ravagers are able to fundamentally alter the course of history in ways big and small.
One of the smaller reflections of T’Challa’s impact that’s immediately apparent as the second episode kicks into gear is that his universe’s variant of Nebula (Karen Gillan) is a far less murderous woman who wears prefers to wear her platinum blonde hair down over her eye for style reasons. In the now-destroyed Sacred Timeline, Nebula’s striking appearance was the result of having spent her life being tortured and experimented on by her adoptive father Thanos (Josh Brolin), who took it upon himself to alter her body for combat. When io9 spoke with What If’s executive producer A.C. Bradley and director Bryan Andrews, the duo explained how Nebula’s hair—which is not a wig—was both a fun aesthetic choice and their way of hinting at how this Nebula and Thanos’ relationship played out much differently.
“We just wanted to show a happier, but still mildly violent version of Nebula,” Bradley recalled. “The idea being that while her childhood was still imperfect, her dad mellowed out early enough that she was able to keep most of her body.”
Throughout “What If... T’Challa Became a Star-Lord?,” different characters offhandedly mention how, before encountering T’Challa at some point in the not-too-distant past, his outlook and ideas about how to bring balance to the universe were quite similar to his Sacred Timeline counterpart. Everybody knows that Thanos’ plan with the Infinity Gauntlet and Gems amounted to mass genocide, and they can all joke about him having turned over a new leaf specifically because of how T’Challa somehow opened his eyes to the truth. There’s a touch of romance between Nebula and T’Challa (or “Cha-Cha,” as she likes to call him) that’s just present enough to make it clear that the pair have history, which Andrews said was a facet of the story that both Gillen and Boseman latched on to.
“[Gillen] was into it, and so was Chadwick—he loved that that was the twist,
Andrews said. “That somehow, somewhere in his galactic youth, T’Challa was able to turn Thanos around, which then led to Nebula having a different life, and then [T’Challa and Nebula] have this on-again, off-again, wonderful thing.”
Conspicuously missing from this pseudo-Guardians episode was Thanos’ other adoptive daughter, Gamora, with whom he’s always been depicted as having a bit more of a stable relationship. From the looks of the Thanos-like armor Gamora’s been seen wearing in What If’s trailers she seems to have inherited all the rage that we tend to associate with her family members, meaning that when she and T’Challa meet, they might be the kinds of enemies who can’t simply talk away their differences.
What If airs Wednesdays on Disney+.
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