What a fine time for Marvel fans to be alive. Not only are Disney firing out mountains of superhero movies year-after-year, they’re now scattering tie-in television shows all across the pop culture landscape. While the unfortunate naysayers will probably be pulling their teeth out by this stage, fans are being spoiled to the heavens and back. To add to this era of overindulgence, Marvel aren’t merely content with dishing out further fables to bulk up their already hefty linear timeline, but are also branching sideways in time. Parallel universes are back in vogue baby, and it’s all kicking off over at Disney+.
Now that the MC Multiverse is open for business, largely thanks to this year’s Loki (2021) – which we’re still reviewing at the time of writing – Disney+ are taking viewers on a crash course in the realm of digressing timelines. Welcome to the multiverse, where anything is possible, at least according to the show’s all seeing Watcher (Jeffrey Wright). From the tiniest of tangents to the most detrimental of detours, What If invites us to look at the MCU’s neighbouring realities.
What If isn’t here to whisk us into totally alien realities where Peter Parker is played by that bloke from The Social Network (2010), or where the human torch resembles a certain Steve Rodgers. Instead, What If offers us a more localised and traditional concept of the multiverse, one in which all the events and plot points from the primary MCU timeline are more or less in place, albeit for a couple of minor differences which send it all spiralling out of control. Think Sliding Doors (1998), only this time, it ain’t just Gwyneth Paltrow juggling with fate.
First up on the list of proxy Marvel timelines is What If Captain Carter Were the First Avenger; an episode that’s essentially Captain America: the First Avenger (2011) , only instead of Steve Rodgers dashing about with a Vibranium disc on his back, it’s good ol’ Peggy Carter (Haley Atwell) donning the patriotic drapes this time around.
Much of this opener functions to give viewers a general feel for the concept of the series. It takes the premise of What If and presents it to us in its most basic of forms. A pre-existing story from the MCU, albeit with a substitute protagonist whose distinct personality essentially re-writes various parts the The First Avenger’s screenplay. In this case, Captain Carter’s decision to take on the role that Steve Rodgers occupied during the original movie.
One of the most entertaining characteristics of this episode is the way in which it evokes similar feelings to when you’re playing a video-game with a character you don’t normally play as. A bit like when you mod Sonic the Hedgehog (1991) so you can dash through Green Hill Zone as Doctor Robotnik or Metal Sonic. Or even in Insomniac’s Spider-Man (2018) on the PS4/5, where you can change Parker’s suit so it looks like you’re playing as one of the Spider-Men from the films.
Except instead of simply having a shiny new skin, there’s also an entirely new character driving the plot. As Carter interacts with the various players from the original film, we get to witness how they respond differently due to the fact that Carter isn’t the same character as Rodgers. There’s a thrill in seeing the familiar pan out in a slightly dissimilar fashion due to the shift in lead characters. What’s most entertaining about this switching from Rodgers to Carter, is seeing just how ruthlessly she tackles the obstacles put before her in this story, which is just as well, because she’s going to get a fair few of them to deal with. While this may well be the same world Rodgers lived through in the First Avenger, there are various additional challenges that will undoubtedly impact her on a far greater than they did Steve. Not because Steve was better than her, but because the society of 1942 is going to be much more ruthless toward Carter than to her male peers.
It will be of little surprise to anyone with a shred of intelligence that Peggy Carter has become a superhero in an era in which the patriarchy was allowed to run rampant with very little standing in its way. A female soldier with the brains and brawl Carter possesses is a surefire way to inflame the fragile egos held by the various male colleagues in her ranks; something which the episode doesn’t shy away from. It’s not just nazi’s, Red Skulls and space squids Peggy has to deal with in this episode. There’s also toxic masculinity, fragile egos and unchanged stupidity to grapple with too. Taking on the mantel of Captain Carter is presented as a far more taxing task for Peggy than it was for Rodgers, mainly because she’s a woman living in an immensely patriarchal society; one that hasn’t had the upcoming decades of feminism behind it to challenge any half-witted notions of gender superiority. She sure as heck isn’t going to receive the same level of fanfare Rodgers did. While the episode doesn’t go out of its way to fully explore what it means to be a successful woman in 1940s America, it doesn’t conceal the conflicts Peggy taking on the role of the Cap would generate either.
Fortunately, it would seem Carter is more than equipped to deal with the chauvinists of her world. She blasts through the garbage mindsets of sexist men like they’re mayflies buzzing about her lunch. In fact, she spends quite a hefty portion of this episode blasting through pretty much any kind of problem that presents itself in front of her. This is what’s so great about his character, and is most likely the reason why she was selected for the opening story. Among many of Carter’s defining character traits – as established in her spin off show as well as here – is just how focused a character she is; particularly when she’s surrounded by the company she cherishes. Her intelligence and attentiveness to her surroundings gives her an upper-hand in areas her counterparts lack. The episode makes heavy use of Carter’s ability to focus intently when required, allowing her take control of a given situation when push comes to shove. She may have more obstacles to deal with than Rodgers did, but she’s more than capable of dragging each and every one of those obstacles through the mud.
Carter absolutely fires through this story at a neck-cracking pace, something the televised runtime helps to emphasise. Seeing as this story only has 33 minutes as opposed to 124 given to The First Avenger, it’s forced to retell the story in a much more condensed time period. While the ramped up runtime does impact the story in a few negative ways (we’ll come back to this shortly), it does help to push the idea of Peggy blasting through the events of The First Avenger at lightening-like pace. It’s a nice touch that gives us a feel for this character’s exceptional focus and tenacious determination to get the job done.
What If Captain Carter Were the First Avenger is certainly an entertaining instalment from Marvel’s multiverse cannon, and one that does thrill on occasion. There are a couple of issues with this story, however. This is particularly the case in terms of how little it appears to fully utilise the potential lying at the core of this premise. There is a reason for this, which is because it’s an opening episode primarily designed to get viewers onboard before throwing everything at the screen. It’s pretty standard for pilot episodes of a TV series to play it small and safe while recruiting viewers. What If is no exception to this rule, giving us something a little familiar before going all out later on down the line. Despite this reasoning, however, the episode does fall short in a couple of places as a result of its decision to hold back for the opener.
The core selling point driving this series is its ability to show audiences the ways in which events can unravel when applying dissimilar circumstances to various parts of the MCU. Take one person out or put another in, and suddenly everything leading up to Thanos’ finger-snapping genocide mutates into something else entirely. It’s a defining feature that can help make this show an addictive and unique addition to the MCU canon. One which can weave strange new worlds out of once-familiar landscapes.
Although transitioning the familiar into the unfamiliar appears to be Marvel’s defining mission statement for phase four, it would appear that What If Captain Carter Were the First Avenger is leaving much of this on the wayside for the time being, offering up something a little less game-changing for its opening feature. Sure, we get a new addition to an already-established story, and yes, things do play out a little differently than they did the first time we saw them. Nevertheless, the difference is far from anything substantial, and no matter how much it attempts to bend the original timeline into a new shape, the whole thing just seems to keep snapping back into place at every available opportunity.
The reason for opening with this episode is a no-brainer on Marvel’s part. Peggy Carter is already a relatively popular character within the MCU cannon, and one who’s been closely associated with the Captain America mantel for a handful of years now. In addition to being Steve Roger’s love interest, she has become an established character of her own right. What’s more is she’s gathered a substantial following from her spin-off TV series, Agent Carter, which ran for two seasons between 2015 and 2016. In addition to this, the existence of a Captain Carter has existed through both fandom and other mediums utilised by Marvel for the best part of eight-years now; starting in the 2013 mobile game Marvel Puzzle Quest, then advancing into the comics in 2018’s Caramagna’s Exiles #3. While Carter may not be a mainline player in Marvel’s lineup, she’s a recognisable figure whose image is already well established, even within the minds of those who might not be avid followers of her work. Integrating an already well-established secondary character and fusing her with a mainline feature she already has close ties with is a relatively solid way to get bottoms on living room seats without having to build an entirely new character/situation from the ground up. Shifting character roles in this manner is also an effective way to establish the premise Disney+ are going for with this one; showcasing a series in which pre-existing costumes, identities and character journeys are interchangeable.
Where the problems arise in this episode are down to its failure to use this premise to send the story’s overarching narrative anywhere significantly new. As already mentioned, one of the most exciting aspects to this series is the fact that the concepts driving each episode can essentially disrupt and transform the familiar into the unfamiliar. Sadly, What If’s debut fails to do this in any way that may be considered thrilling or memorable. Instead, what we get is a slightly alternative version of Captain America: the First Avenger, except Carter now carries the shield while Rodgers stands in for Bucky. Most the major plot beats from the original remain, and except for a few superficial shifts (an explosion during the opening conversion sequence, Rodgers sporting an Iron Man-esque suit to make up for his lack of physical prowess, and an interdimensional squid that like to rear its head from time-to-time, the episode doesn’t really spin off into anything we haven’t seen before.
Perhaps the most interesting consequences of this story lie in a yet-to-be-made sequel; one where we see how the absence of Bucky becoming the Winter Soldier and Carter’s place within the Avengers lineup reshapes the events set to take place later on down the line. This is likely where the timeline starts to properly spiral into something considerably new, perhaps even going so far as to prevent the Cap/Stark divide kickstarted during Captain America: Civil War (2016). It’s here where the show can have the most fun with Carter, offering fresh new outcomes in which the team dynamics of the Avengers play out different due to Carter’s inclusion. This in turn would help to emphasise both Carter’s and Rodger’s distinct personalities as well as how their relationships with their neighbouring heroes diverge.
Perhaps one of the main reasons for not being able to take this anywhere substantially unique is down to the fact that The First Avenger’s story takes place during an isolated part of the wider MCU. Seeing as the story takes place in 1942, we are seven decades away from the meat and bones of Marvel’s Cinematic cannon. Stark, Ultron, Thanos, and the battle of New York are so far into the future at this stage, this story has no real way of impacting larger events without throwing time-travel into the mix within the first five minutes of the episode. Therefore, it’s perhaps no fault of its own as to why this particular story fails to experiment with the MCU’s lore.
Or perhaps these claims I’m making about What If existing to reshape pre-existing lore is a big steaming pile of cow splat. After all, isn’t this an anthology show intended to experiment with the Marvel formula in a variety of ways? Just because Captain Carter isn’t out to rewrite the Avengers doesn’t necessary make it a failure. As stated previously, part of the reason why Marvel opted to use Peggy Carter for their opener is because she’s accumulated a sizeable following over the years. Replacing Rodgers with herself for the opening episode is more than likely the whole point of its appeal in the first place.
Overall, What If Captain Carter Were the First Avenger is a fun introduction to the premise of this show, yet it’s one that does occasionally feel as though it’s not being as audacious as it may have been had it not been a pilot episode. While being astray from the larger MCU events may not be any fault of its own, the episode often hints at taking us somewhere new, before reverting to familiar territory. It’s far from a terrible start, and there are some really solid ideas perched amidst all of this. I feel there’s a lot more potential to this one that’s yet to be tapped into. Fortunately, recent news has confirmed that we will indeed be returning to this timeline once again next year.