Marvel Studios will never be able to tell a stand-alone story
There are a few things about Avengers: Endgame that sets it apart from the rest of the canon of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and one of them is the fact that it’s the rare movie in this series that has an ending. This is an end, really. End of Game had such a hard time solving almost every plot thread and running character arcs that it could have served as a final Marvel movie: The end of the great experiment that began a decade earlier when Nick Fury appeared in the credits of Iron Man. But there will never be a final Marvel movie, at least not if the studio has something to say about it.
Marvel Studios and Sony had to get back together to plot what Tom Holland’s Spider-Man then would. Marvel had to dive back to more stories with Wanda and Loki and Sam Wilson. Even the Chloe Zhao trailer Eternals– a movie about characters who exist far beyond the preoccupations of the Avengers – had a flashy reference to the Avengers.
Black Widow aimed to fill a gap in the timeline while introducing new characters into the larger mythology, and Shang-Chi snuck into a handful of familiar faces from other movies (in case you forget you’re watching something that was part of a bigger universe). Same Venom: let there be carnage, a film tangentially linked to the MCU, couldn’t resist the lure of becoming a little less tangential.
The Disney + Animated Series What if…? sseemed like a step away from that, or at least an opportunity for Marvel Studios to show that it can tell stories that are not all interconnected points that reveall a great design when you move back far enough. However, last week’s episode effectively wiped out any chance that this was true. Marvel studios could tell stand-alone stories, but it won’t.
Before its premiere, What if…? was billed as an anthology series about alternate realities within the MCU’s multiverse. If what happens in the movies is a reality, especially a reality where everything went as planned, then What if…? would present several different realities where things turned out differently, such as Steve Rogers injuring himself before he could become Captain America, Odin never adopting / abducting Loki, or Doctor Strange becoming evil after realizing that no amount of magic could prevent a specific tragedy from happening. Like the “What if” stories in the comics, this offered a chance to tell stories that just wouldn’t work in the main continuity – or maybe all continuity in the case of the Doctor Strange episode, in which his entire universe is wiped out.
But last week’s episode revealed that Jeffrey Wright’s The Watcher, the show’s “passive” narrator who has sworn never to interfere in the affairs of the universes he is charged with overseeing, is now on the verge of breaking that vow. The evil Doctor Strange has actually survived the complete disintegration of his universe and is biding his time in a pocket dimension.
Now with the Ultron of a reality possessing both the unlimited power of the Infinity Stones and Knowing that he is part of a multiverse full of realities to conquer, The Watcher has no choice but to enlist the help of evil Strange to put together a team of multiverses. What if…? Avengers. In other words, the previous episodes weren’t standalone stories just having fun with the MCU’s toy box, they were serial adventures featuring characters and worlds that could – and apparently now will-to recover.
This may be a betrayal of the basic premise of What if…?, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a bad idea. Hell, it’s kind of a fun fit on the MCU structure itself, somewhat accidentally stumbling into a shared universe, as if the fate of every reality in the multiverse is to ultimately build towards an Avengers-style team. There is certainly a playful meta-commentary in there.
This indicates a somewhat disappointing lack of vision on the part of Marvel Studios, which has established the Shared Universe surprisingly well, better than anyone before it and anyone who has tried it since. But is that all the studio can do? Made What if…? really need to come together for an epic superhero squad when it could have served as Marvel’s reaction to the epic superhero squad fatigue?
Editor-in-Chief AC Bradley Recount Weekly entertainment that this was all part of the plan, with The Watcher subtly taking on a more visible presence as the season progresses as a hint of her slight growth as a character, but she tries to have her anthology cake and eat it in as well. suggesting that (other than the finale) there are still episodes of What if…? that work as stand-alone stories.
That’s the problem, though: if the upcoming season’s finale is really good, you won’t be able to recommend it to someone who hasn’t seen at least one or two of the other episodes that put it in. square. Who, even if you don’t think it’s a fat problem, has been a problem with the MCU for a long time. (Try to explain only one plot point of End of Game to someone who hasn’t seen at least two or three of the other movies.)
It’s okay that it’s all Ultron’s fault, at least. After all, it was in Age of Ultron that the MCU has really started to buckle under the weight of its franchise obligations. Thor’s journey to the Magic Cave was not part of this story, that was part of the Following story, which only hurt the second Avengers movie.
What if…? is still a fun way to spend 30 minutes, but now he’s in danger of making the same mistake of insisting that everything has to be a little piece of the next Avengers-style crossover event to justify its inclusion in the MCU – even an alternate multiverse cartoon derived from the MCU. But if each story is only part of the next story, why bother paying attention to any story?