Episode Analysis: What If... Captain Carter Was the First Avenger?
The Disney+ show brings alternate universes and the challenges of voice acting into the MCU. Find out how it fared as a concept, as a show, and as a recap of WWII history.
Warning for discussion of spoilers for Marvel's What If...? including the first episode and information released in the trailers for the show. Also for discussion of the MCU in general.
I liked it. I figure again get that out of the way because I'm going to ramble a bit. It's an episode involving World War II, of course I'm going to ramble a bit. But yes, good ep, good handling of the idea of an alternate universe. Enjoyed it, looking forward to episode 2.
On the longer scale let me talk about alternate universes both as a concept and in the world of Marvel, how this episode handled alternate universes, how this episode was in general, the art of voice acting, and, of course, talking far more about the realities of the English home front during World War II than anyone asked for but you're getting it anyway.
What If... There Were Alternate Universes?
I appreciate Marvel's naming convention here, by the way. Handy for subtitles and graphics for articles.
Anyhoo - I love a good AU, which is what I'm going to use to refer to them now because constantly typing Alternate Universe is exhausting. Change one thing, see how everything else changes. And that one thing could be, like the show did, a single action with a butterfly effect like Peggy staying in the room or it could be a massive change for no reason other than "Neat!" like what if every member of the Avengers and X-Men were adorable babies written by Skottie Young?
AUs give such a great way to shuffle the board around and see how else you can play with the pieces. Which I'm pretty sure is a mixed metaphor but maybe we're in an AU where this is how board games work. You don't know. Point being it's a way to provide a fresh take on characters and storylines.
What interests me about the concept of What If...? (uh, I'm not a fan of having to constantly type the ellipsis there, Marvel, just putting that out there) Ahem. What interests me about the concept of the show, though, is how it's being handled on a meta level.
Take the idea that What If...? is MCU canon. The fuck does that mean? The concept of the show is infinite universes with infinite possibilities. That means that not only is Captain Carter canon but so is my fanfic where everyone in the Avengers is a fan of Teen Wolf. Infinite means infinite.
What I suspect they mean is that the concept of a multiverse is canon which, again, was established several movies ago even though the entire series of Loki relied on the audience's lack of object permanence to convince them that it wasn't so ("There was a multiverse! Then there wasn't! And now there IS! Also your binky was under this blanket the whole time, yay!!")
What I suspect is that there's a non-zero likelihood that we're going to see What If...? Easter eggs when Multiverse of Madness comes out. This is not me giving spoilers. I'm just saying if you have actors like Hayley Atwell and Michael P Jordan kicking around saying they don't mind reprising their characters if the need arises and you have a movie about multiverses why not take advantage of that to throw them into a costume and show a picture of one of their AU selves in a montage? It's what I'd do if I was in charge.
The problem is that fandom has issues with understanding the concepts of "canon" and "Hollywood is a business." Case in point the upset that occurred when the Captain America twitter account, which was switched to Sam Wilson Cap after the finale of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, was switched to Captain Carter the day before her What If...? episode aired.
Now for the record when I saw that pop up on my Twitter feed I had a momentary reaction of "Huh? Oh, it's advertising for the show. Clever, but I miss Sam." However others were more upset. To their mind this was yanking away Sam Wilson's well-earned claiming of the title and giving it over to a white woman like it was hers to take from him.
Now to me I think the answer is both "This was a cute marketing idea" and "This was an idea nobody at Disney considered the optics of." I suspect if the person who switched the Captain America account had also thought to switch over the Iron Man account to be Steve in the Hydra Stomper it would've been much clearer what they were intending to do. But they didn't so here we are.
The problem that demonstrates the issue with "It's canon!" is you had people - including a notable voice in the geek community who I'm not going to name because this isn't about starting shit, I'm just saying this is normally a person whose opinion I consider informed and worth listening to - got snotty and "Uh, OBVIOUSLY Sam Wilson is still Cap in the Sacred Timeline! Calm down!"
And like... sigh, okay? Just sigh.
People, the Sacred Timeline is a writing device entirely made up that works the way that an actual human being typing at a keyboard says that it does. It's a gimmick. And to be fair, so is "genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist creates a high tech metal suit to try to save the world in." I'm not saying gimmicks are bad I'm saying they are fictional concepts by which stories are told. You cannot argue against people's reaction to the implied meaning of a real world marketing campaign by claiming the made up laws of a made up universe say they're not allowed to be upset about it.
Secondly, not to burst anybody's bubble here but the Sacred Timeline by its own rules is neither sacred nor is it a timeline.
The images we get of the Sacred Timeline in Loki are not a solid, straight line but of a scribble that is allowed to hover between two actual lines which we are told branches of the timeline are not allowed to go past. Now I could get into a whole rant about how the graphic of the Sacred Timeline is poorly designed (why are there two red lines? What's the difference between a branch that goes up vs one that goes down?) but point being the all important canon says it's not actually a line. There's ample wriggle room in which the Avengers can bounce around in Endgame and be considered fine, for instance.
Second even on a meta level the Sacred Timeline isn't sacred. Agents of SHIELD was canon until it wasn't. The Netflix shows were canon until they weren't. Inhumans was full on MCU bound until it extremely was not.
And you know what affected those "sacred" decisions? The almighty dollar, which is the thing that's sacred here. The TV shows were canon until Disney knew Disney+ was going to be a thing and they could one-up the concept of those shows by laying out the money to get the movie actors to play their parts. Which is also why the Netflix characters could be winging their way back to canon now that Marvel has the rights to them again.
Make no mistake, Disney would "I don't know her" even Robert Downey Jr and Iron Man in a hot second if they thought doing so would help their bottom line somehow. To paraphrase Quentin Crisp, there is no great sacred timeline.
Winging this back to my point, I feel like the whole "What if...? is canon!" thing is going to cause nothing but headaches. It's a concept that's aimed directly at the parts of fandom that think their hyper vigilance and imagination about what they think canon is doing ("Loki is the best show ever because the multiverse means that Luke Skywalker is going to show up in Spider-Man No Way Home!" kind of a thing) counts as the same thing as what canon is doing and just... I feel so bad watching these folks keep trying to kick that football. I really do.
Anyway, so yeah. Concept of AUs is great, kinda wish Disney would stop toying with people's emotions about it though. On to the show.
What if... I stayed on topic?
I'm going to pull a Bucky "I read The Hobbit when it originally came out" here and say that I was a fan of Peggy as Cap all the way back when the concept was first introduced in Marvel Puzzle Quest. (Which is a fun match-3 game, by the way. Worth a download if you're into that kind of thing. That's not an affiliate link. The game is free anyway.)
I say this not only to be an obnoxious hipster about it but also to explain why my tone might lack the "OMG PEGGY AS CAP IS SO COOL!" enthusiasm that many have in reaction to this episode. I do think that! I genuinely do! It's just that I went through the initial version of that reaction a few years ago so I've moved on to being happy that others are now aware that Peggy as Cap is cool.
(She also has a way better powerset than Steve in the game. I'm just saying.)
As I mentioned above, I like the concept of the butterfly effect AU so I appreciated that this was how they handled Peggy's story. There was a thoughtfulness given the the cascading impact of her action that I liked. I also liked how there were changes made based on who Peggy is as a character. They kept her fighting style, which was always more of a brawler than a trained fighter. They kept her personality as someone determined to get the job done but not as someone who took on risks unnecessarily, Steve.
I also liked how the episode functioned as a not too subtle dig against the less... let's say well written aspects of the first Captain America movie, such as the entire USO sequence (the government wants a super soldier, gets a super soldier, and then... makes him sell war bonds?) and Cap crashing his plane instead of jumping out of it without a parachute as we know from multiple movies he's perfectly capable of doing.
Coming into the episode I was leery of Steve in the Hydra Stomper. I didn't like the implication that Peggy as Cap needed the help when Steve as Cap didn't. But having seen the ep I think they did a fair job of showing that for the most part Steve was merely Peggy's backup and not there to make sure the little lady actually won her fights. Yes there were moments where he saved her, but not because Peggy was too weak to save herself. She was busy, that's fair.
As a WWII buff (I told you this was coming) there were aspects that I was torn on. Like I had a hard time gritting my teeth through the "Here's what Peggy is doing for the United States!" sequence when 1) Peggy is British, 2) Britain actually did do things during WWII, and 3) the US showed up late with powdered eggs so calm down already.
That being said, one of the things to remember is that, just as other MCU films pull inspiration from specific genres and filter them through a superhero lens, Cap's first movie was based on World War II propaganda films. So to a certain extent the inaccuracy here is the point. Of course the story is about how this was all done by America! Savior of the world! Fuck yeah!
I'll therefore pull back my grump about that detail and instead grump about how there was a clear lack of understanding of the role of women in WWII, British women in particular. I'm not saying that Peggy wouldn't have experienced sexism, far from it. But the idea that her only option in the eyes of Colonel Flynn was to go home and tend to her manicure is anachronistically ridiculous. Women on the home front in the US and Britain were building bombs, they were working in factories, they were feeding their neighborhoods, they were cutting down trees to provide wood for the war effort - the list goes on and on.
And these were not fringe movements. These were huge, coordinated efforts created by the government that were as much a required part of the war effort as the draft. Flynn would've been as aware of them as a firefighter today is aware of ambulances.
Again, which is not to say that he wouldn't have been sexist towards Peggy. I'm just saying his snark towards her would've more likely been something like "Shouldn't you be home finding something to 'make do and mend'?" or the like.
Not something I'm holding against the show, to be clear. It's just that, as people who follow me on Twitter know, the spell to summon me is to incorrectly state something about the home front during WWII so here I am.
What if... more people respected the art of voice acting?
I want to round out my comments here by talking a little bit about voice acting. When the show was announced and it was mentioned that most of the MCU actors would be voicing their own characters my reaction was more along the lines of "Huh, well that'll be interesting."
Because here's the thing, being a good actor in front of the camera doesn't necessarily translate to being a good voice actor, or vice versa. Yes, there are some who can do both and do them well. But that's because they have the skills for both mediums, not because one is a ticket to the other.
The thing about voice acting is that it's just your voice. Yes, someone in the booth might move around to mimic the actions of their character, but you can't do things like rely on Robert Downey Jr's ability to tell an entire story using just his eyes. Everything has to be happening in the voice.
So I was interested to see how the MCU actors shook out, as well as the choices behind the actors filling in the roles where the MCU actors weren't. Because, as is no shock to you at this point, I am a giant fucking nerd.
In terms of the MCU actors I thought Hayley and Dominic Cooper did pretty well. Hayley Atwell's done voice acting for Peggy before so it makes sense she'd be able to handle this. Dominic hasn't done any voice acting but it's clear either he or the director twigged to how Howard's character should be played the whole time like someone out of a 1940s radio drama and that worked nicely for this story.
On the flip side you've got Sebastian Stan and... oh bless your heart, honey. It's clear he tried but at the same time you can tell by his face that he's not connecting to the material in the way that's needed to get his voice to do the work for him. Now it's possible he only shared footage of his early sessions and he grew into it as time goes on but on the other hand his work in last night's ep was a lot of "I am saying my line. And now I am saying this line. When it's my turn again, I will say another line."
And again: Not a slight against him! Michael Phelps can't do Simone Biles's gymnastic routines and Simone can't swim laps like Michael does! My point here is not to put SebStan down but to use him as an example of how you can embody your character perfectly in front of the camera but not necessarily in the voiceover booth.
(Yes, I know actors record ADR for shows and movies but in those instances their acting in front of the camera works with their voice to convey the emotions of the scene. With animation the only thing they contribute is their voice, which is why their voice needs to be doing so much more.)
And to be fair to everyone involved, Bradley Whitford wasn't impressing me either and he's done animation before so.... yeah. Being Josh Lyman carries a lot of benefit of the doubt, apparently. cough
On the flip side we have the folks who were brought in to replace the MCU actors who weren't doing their own voices. I was interested in the choices here because, as you might imagine, Disney has a tiny bit of a stable of good voice over actors for animation as a concept. Then when you get into MCU properties they have actors who have done the roles of various Marvel characters for so long they've embodied them longer than their MCU counterparts have.
As a giant nerd, then, I am curious about the thought process behind who got pulled into What If...? for the job. It's clear that in some cases they went for picking people who sounded like the actors they were replacing. For example Josh Keaton got Steve so well I forgot it wasn't Chris Evans playing him. But in other cases I'll be interested to see if they pull from the voice actors known for the roles, if at all. For instance - and this goes all the way back to Infinity War - it's interesting to me that when the time came to recast Hugo Weaving as Red Skull they went with Ross Marquand instead of getting Liam O'Brien who, for an entire generation that grew up on Marvel animated shows and video games, is the voice of Red Skull because damn near nobody else has played him.
(No offense to Ross Marquand intended! I'm sure there was a good reason why they went with him and he did a great job in the movies and in last night's ep. I'm just a giant nerd who would love to know what the thought process was.)
On top of all this I'm curious who was doing the directing in the booth. Bryan Andrews is listed as the director for What If...? but his previous credits are entirely about storyboarding, which suggests heavily that his directing was entirely aimed at the animation and not the voice acting (in animated projects it's not uncommon that these are done by separate people).
Again, it's Disney, they have a huge stable of incredibly talented voice acting directors. Granted you can only work with what you're given but the vibe I get from SebStan's comments about his experience is that he wasn't grokking the instructions which could be entirely on him but it could also be on a director who didn't know how to properly guide a newbie (something that is also not uncommon for voice acting directors to have to do).
Likewise you get someone like Jeffrey Wright not really voice acting so much as narrating. Which is possibly what he was told to do but knowing who the director was would help give some confidence on if this was a deliberate choice.
So yeah. Hopefully people will watch and gain an appreciation for the art of voice acting, and I'll be curious to see how it all shakes out as the series continues.
As always, things that didn't fit anywhere else...
- I was amused at how Howard just stood around during the fight in the lab, basically being useless.
- Speaking of useless, uh sure, let's just leave tiny Steve, who could be killed by a stiff wind, bleeding out on the floor. Nobody feel a need to apply some pressure or even a bandaid to that wound or anything.
- Howard: "I'm the buttons guy!" Also Howard: proceeds to do nothing but pull levers.
- Look I don't even go here as far as this ship but the fact that Steve, who is in love with Peggy, is the one to say "Let's hear it for Captain Carter!" as the AU version of Bucky saying "Let's hear it for Captain America!" is not so much subtext as a blazing neon sign that says "BUCKY'S HOT FOR STEVE." Like come on.
- "You almost ripped my arm off" wins this week's painfully obvious "That's a reference to a thing I know!" award.
- Get it? Because in the original version Bucky lost his arm. GET IT??
- Related, when Steve got blown up on the train I thought that they were headed in a direction where Steve was going to be the Winter Soldier in this universe. Not saying they had to go there or that I'm holding it against them that they didn't. Just thought it was an interesting concept. Someone please feel free to write that fanfic.
- Said fanfic would be, as we've established earlier, 100% canon.
- In case anyone was curious, other than A-Babies vs X-Babies my favorite comic AU is Mutant X. It's got Storm as a vampire. What's not to love?
- I didn't do a predictions article for this series like I did for Loki and FAWS because I felt the show's concept was too broad for even educated guesses.
- That being said, my answer to "What if... Tony landed on Sakaar instead of Hulk?" is and will always be "He'll have to fuck his way out of it, same as Loki."
- Which, again as we've established, is canon.
See you next ep!
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