In the same way that Marvel’s “What If... Captain Carter Were the First Avenger?” borrowed beats from Captain America: The First Avenger, the second episode of the animated Disney+ series, “What If... T’Challa Became a Star-Lord?,” samples some of James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy. The tale brings T’Challa back to the MCU for the first time since his last appearance in Avengers: Endgame.
Here, we meet T’Challa (voiced by the late Chadwick Boseman) in his timeline just as he is preparing to steal the orb containing the Power Stone, and Korath (Djimon Hounsou) is excitedly preparing to take it from T’Challa. Korath’s one-sided excitement at getting a chance to fight the famous Star-Lord is one of the first big ways that What If shows you how this universe differs from the one we know. More than just inverting Peter Quill’s “Who?” status from the first Guardians film, What If turns T’Challa into an interesting centerpiece for the larger universe to move around.
As T’Challa patiently spars with Korath and gives him notes about his fighting form, it’s clear that even though he’s not the Black Panther, he’s still very much the same kind of person who the panther goddess Bast would want to be her champion, had things played out a little differently. Even as he flies around in space, there’s a groundedness and resolute certainty to the way T’Challa approaches challenges that make it easy for him to convince others to see his way of thinking. In any other universe, getting his ass kicked would likely cause the Kree warrior to go on a murderous rampage, but here, T’Challa’s trouncing inspires him to join the Ravagers on their latest mission.
Formidable a fighter as T’Challa is, the influence he and the Ravagers have comes from how they’ve made a career out of redistributing some of the ill-gotten wealth they collect on various jobs. They’re all still pirates who look at the world around them like an infinite number of cons waiting to be pulled off, but from T’Challa’s perspective, the lives they lead are meant to be spent helping the less fortunate. Odd as it sounds, T’Challa becoming a humanitarian space pirate completely works on a character level, and lends itself to the episode’s fast-paced heist story that puts together a slightly different team of “Guardians.” Along with Yondu (Michael Rooker) and Korath, this T’Challa also frequently collaborates with a slightly different, blonde version of Nebula (Karen Gillan) and her mad, but not “crazy” father Thanos (Josh Brolin).
In small details about the people around T’Challa, you can see just how profound an impact he’s seemingly had on all of them. Nebula’s as treacherous as ever, and Gillan’s clearly having fun playing the character as a classic femme fatale rather than a single-minded killer. Thanos’ role in the grand scheme of things is rather small as he’s really just the muscle, but at multiple points in the episode, the topic of his former desire to commit universal genocide does come up. It’s never all that clear whether Thanos has fully absorbed the idea that mass murder is wrong, but the episode’s jokes all serve to remind you that T’Challa was the only person in the universe capable of convincing him to do kill less and garden more.
Simply by having Yondu’s goons mistake T’Challa for Peter Quill when arriving on Earth—because the boys are basically the same age, and all humans look alike to the aliens—What If starts digging into one of the most fascinating aspects of T’Challa’s identity in Marvel’s comics. Though he’s always embraced his role as Wakanda’s king and its Black Panther, his inherent love of superheroics and adventuring beyond the nation’s border has often been a source of conflict. That conflict has also been a significant part of T’Challa’s other appearances throughout the MCU, but in Boseman’s performance, you can hear how the burdens of the Black Panther have not fallen on this T’Challa’s shoulders.
There’s a freeness and optimism to T’Challa that shapes his perspectives and makes things like stealing the Embers of Genesis from the Collector (Benicio del Toro) on Knowhere seem like a good idea to him. As Nebula tells it, just a few particles from the Embers are enough to bring entire ecosystems back to life—yes, just like Star Trek—and T’Challa immediately sees the substance as a means of eradicating hunger throughout the galaxy. While his direct influence on Thanos, Nebula, and the others is pretty clear, what’s less obvious is how this universe’s Collector became such a deadly figure with the Black Order acting as his protectors. The Ravagers’ plan to infiltrate the Collectors’ base to steal the Embers right from under his nose is simple enough in theory. In practice, though, things go a little sideways after T’Challa winds up freeing Howard the Duck (Seth Green) from one of the Collector’s containment units and comes across another unexpected find.
Throughout the episode there are multiple moments between Yondu and T’Challa that illustrate how much genuine love exists between the two of them, and how Yondu very much sees T’Challa as his adoptive son. This was also the case in Guardians of the Galaxy, but the affection between Yondu and T’Challa is much more explicit and another reflection of how the hero changes people. Like in the premiere episode, the emotional beats here could do with a bit more time to land with their full weight, but the chemistry Boseman and Rooker have completely sells the idea of Yondu and T’Challa’s emotional intimacy.
When T’Challa’s necklace suddenly reacts to the presence of a Wakandan ship located in the Collector’s storage facility, he’s not sure what to make of it because Yondu led him to believe Wakanda was obliterated not long after he was abducted. As T’Challa walks into the Wakandan starship, though, he learns the devastating truth via a recording. A hologram of his father T’Chaka (John Kani) explains how he and the rest of Wakanda poured their collective energies and considerable resources into searching for the lost prince. What If manages to refashion Yondu’s betrayal of Quill in Guardians of the Galaxy into a genuinely poignant reframing of the loss that usually shapes T’Challa’s relationship to father figures in Marvel’s comics.
Before the full significance of Wakandans in space really gets to settle in, the episode’s plot picks back up, and T’Challa finds himself captured by the collecting fanatic he’d been trying to avoid. The Collector’s desire to own and control people and things makes him exactly the kind of opponent T’Challa would normally thrash with enthusiasm. Because this Collector delights in actually playing with a number of his limited edition “toys”—like Korg’s arm and Hela’s headdress—it’s impossible for T’Challa to defeat him on his own. Tense as things become between T’Challa and Yondu after the deception is revealed, the two men are family to one another, and Yondu can’t simply stand by as T’Challa fights for his life. Working together, they’re able to lock the Collector in one of his own cages and leave him to his former slave Carina (Ophelia Lovibond). After Nebula and Thanos dispatch the Black Order with a few well-placed Ember particles, they and the other Ravagers have only moments to escape before Knowhere is overtaken by an explosion of plant life, and from the Ravagers’ perspectives, their mission is a resounding success.
In its final moments, “What If ...T’Challa Became a Star-Lord?,” like the premiere episode, wraps up almost too quickly as T’Challa and Yondu patch things up and prepare to return to Earth for a proper family reunion. Little explanation’s necessary, apparently, when T’Challa’s reunited with the Wakandan royal family and welcomed back by his birth country with open arms. There’s an understanding between his alien family and his human one that their shared love of the man is all they need to forge an indelible bond with one another. But Wakanda presumably opening its borders to the rest of the galaxy is one of the unexpected ways the series manages to work another component of T’Challa’s mythos into a story where it doesn’t seem like it should fit.
What’s interesting to consider in this episode’s final moments—as we see how this arc for T’Challa and the Ravagers means that a very alive Ego (Kurt Russell) is able to reunite with his son, Peter—is how What If may begin weaving each of its episodes together. Trailers for the series have already shown us Captain Carter and Star-Lord T’Challa both end up becoming part of a new team of Avengers who battle to save New York City at some point, but it’s unclear when or how it’s all going to play out.
What If airs Wednesdays on Disney+.
Wondering where our RSS feed went? You can pick the new up one here.