For all the fuss there is to be made about the multiversal implications of Disney+ and Marvel’s What If, the animated series is also an anthology of self-contained stories about the infinite number of people actually living within the now-branching timelines that make up Marvel’s Cinematic Universe. At some point, the larger significance of it all will become clearer.
But in its premiere episode, What If’s rhetorical question was answered through the re-examination of Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) both as an individual person and a figure whose decisions had a powerful cascading effect on the arc of history. As The Watcher (Jeffrey Wright) welcomes you into his courtside view of the multiverse, the series establishes how its universes have seemingly sprung forth fully-formed, all marked by specific moments that led to the events of their respective timelines branching from what we know. Simply by choosing to stay within the chamber where Steve Rogers (Josh Keaton) was meant to receive an experimental dose of the super-soldier serum rather than witness the procedure from a distance in another room, Peggy put herself on the path to becoming her reality’s first Avenger.
Though much of the first episode—titled “What If... Captain Carter Were The First Avenger?”—plays out similar to the events of Captain America: The First Avenger and other comics where Steve initially becomes Captain America, the story pivots in a number of new directions to make Captain Carter’s origins feel distinctly her own. After making the split-second decision to volunteer herself for Howard Stark’s (Dominic Cooper) experiment lest the whole thing go up in flames, Peggy is left physically transformed into every bit the strapping super soldier the American government sought to create. But because Peggy is a woman, she’s immediately met with an almost comical level of overt sexist hostility from senior strategic scientific reserve agent John Flynn (Bradley Whitford) who refuses to recognize the invaluable asset she is against the Nazis and Hydra.
With World War II fully in swing and rumors of Hydra developing technologies meant to truly devastate the world, the Allied forces need all the help they can get to prevent the planet from going to hell. In Flynn’s eyes, though, none of that’s enough for him to even consider putting Peggy in the field, even as it becomes increasingly clear that the army might need her superpowered assistance taking on the enemy. As she flexes her glorious delts and easily hurls plate weights into the wall as if they’re nothing, the episode falls into the familiar rhythms of a story about a Strong Female Character™ who rises up to take sexism down while also saving the day. What If isn’t trying to reinvent the wheel, here, and the show doesn’t exactly have the runtime to do it.
What this episode does manage to do, however, is create the perfect circumstance to highlight the elements of Peggy’s personality that have always made her a compelling character, and present them in a new context that hammers home the idea that she, like other Marvel figures, are mythic ideas more than people. Powers aside, Captain Carter isn’t exactly all that different from her original MCU counterpart. Powerful though she may be, Peggy’s talents for espionage and quick-thinking actually make her a quite the force to be dealt with in combat, and it’s hard not to see her as the ideal soldier.
Of the episode’s performances, Atwell’s stands out as feeling the most comfortable and familiar in a way that sets Peggy apart from some of the episode’s supporting characters, like Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan). What If’s take on a scrawny Steve—who ends up becoming his universe’s answer to an early Iron Man—takes on something of a Steve Trevor kind of a role in this first episode. While Steve’s there to serve as a guinea pig for Howard Stark’s early powered armor tech, he’s also there to embody the things Peggy’s fighting for back on the home front. What If’s reminder of Peggy and Steve’s canonical romance feels like the episode’s way of reminding you where the cinematic versions of these characters started out, but also a bit like Marvel making sure that audiences don’t get any wild ideas like “What if Peggy teamed up with a lesbian Becky Barnes?”
Though the episode does try to make it seem as if this universe’s Steve is also destined to end up encased in ice (or at least presumed dead like Bucky usually is after falling in battle), that fate—or at least one like it—ultimately belongs to Peggy. To be more accurate, though, that fate seems to be inextricably tied to whoever rises up, vibranium shield in hand, to fight against Hydra and the Red Skull (Ross Marquand).
As tends to be the case, the supernazi’s plan for world domination once again involves the Tesseract, which he means to use as a key to open a portal allowing for Hydra’s “true” champion to emerge from another dimension. As “What If... Captain Carter Were The First Avenger?” builds to its final scenes, some of what makes the series promising ends up sort of working against the episode’s favor. Once the Tesseract is in play, you’re meant to understand that it’s important, but it’s passed back between the heroes and villains with a quickness that telegraphs where the story’s going long before it gets there. Rather than taking place on a Hydra aircraft, Captain Carter’s standoff against Hydra takes place in a bunker where she and the other heroes are dismayed to see that the Red Skull’s champion, a massive, many-tentacled monster, is already trying to tear its way through a dimensional portal. As Peggy slices through Hydra’s beast—which they certainly have no control over—with her sword and shield, it feels very much like What If is setting her up to be the centerpiece of a new decades-spanning arc building to the formation of a different group of Avengers in the future.
All of the beats of the classic Captain America story are there, right down to Peggy being lost to time, though here it’s because she sacrifices herself to push the hydra back into its home dimension. Captain Carter’s return to Earth in the present day also echoes Cap’s emerging from the ice, but as we’ve seen from the trailers, the world she’s stepped into isn’t quite like anything we’ve seen before. This episode’s title alone already suggested that this Peggy was merely the first of her timeline’s Avengers in a historical sense, and there will be others who we’ll see more of as What If progresses. But after debuting with a slightly revamped retelling of an MCU classic, now the show has to prove whether it’s bold enough to truly wander off the beaten path and give viewers something both fresh and unexpected to watch.
What If airs Wednesdays on Disney+.
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