Episode Analysis: What If... Killmonger Rescued Tony Stark?
How does the sixth episode of What If...? handle the balance of Black Panther and the first Iron Man movie? And what is going on with the marketing for the show?
Warning for spoilers for What If...? including spoilery speculation about future episodes based on information found in the trailers. Also for spoilers for the entirety of the MCU. Read at your own risk.
If you haven't watched the episode yet I feel I must break the news to you that the answer to "What if... Killmonger Rescued Tony Stark?" is not, sadly, "They will then proceed to make out on camera."
I mean it's implied but not shown so, yanno. Points off for sure.
But other than that this was actually a pretty good episode. I'd rank it near the top, though it does not topple the current number one of my heart which is T'Challa Star-Lord. Still, it is mostly very solid. So when I get into critiquing things here note that I'm coming from a place like in Top Chef when most of the cannon fodder is gone and thus the judges are left with having to come up with things to take points off for like "How dare you not turn the arugula five degrees to the left on this plate and still call yourself a chef? Pack your knives and go!"
Because this ep is about Tony and Killmonger, and thus by extension Iron Man and Black Panther, I'm going to split the discussion that way. Also a brief bit on marketing. But first some awkward conversation about the writer.
Issues With The Writer
I RTed this over on my Twitter account but in an interview with head writer AC Bradley which has since been locked down (original link here on the odd chance it ever gets unlocked again) AC said that writer Matthew Chauncey originally drafted Sharon's death in the zombies episode to happen by having zombie Steve go to kiss her, rip her lips off, and then devour her. According to AC, when she told Matthew he couldn't do something so horribly extreme he protested saying everybody hates Sharon especially because she kissed Steve.
Now on the one hand hey, at least this scene was in fact rewritten to not include this. On the other hand the fact that it was written at some point means I'm gonna hit a pause here and suggest that perhaps this isn't so much a "funny ha-ha" anecdote for AC to be relating in interviews, as she was laughing the whole time she told this story, but rather a moment when she, as the boss, should've pointed out to Matthew that either Disney or perhaps the Writer's Guild could provide him access to an EAP of some kind where he could find a therapist to help him get the entire fuck over his issues with women.
Like dude, I'm sorry your mom was five minutes late picking you up from baseball practice that one time or whatever but Jesus Christ Sharon's a fictional character. Please take hints from one of her Disney co-workers and learn to let it go.
Also - and this applies to writers everywhere - if there's a character you don't like who you have to write for writing them better is now your job. If the character still sucks when you're the one doing the typing, that's on YOU, pumpkin.
(Not that I ever thought Sharon sucked, I'm just saying that if you as the writer do think that it's on you to fix it.)
I bring this up one because when I talk about the writing for the episodes I don't want to ignore that this happened even when I talk about the things Matthew does do well when he's the one credited for the script.
Another reason is that I've had a pet theory that a fair amount of the Disney+ MCU shows have been, in their own way, the people working on the shows replying to the issues they have with the MCU. For example, the five years of the impact of the Snap was handled badly by Endgame so both WandaVision and The Falcon and the Winter Soldier addressed it. And, of course, my pet theory that Matthew has some personal interpretations about Hank Pym at the bare minimum if not the entire Ant-Man cast of characters which he's been channeling into the show. So hearing that Matthew flat out said he was trying to do this to Sharon because of his and a gross section of fandom's hatred for her does confirm that the theory isn't entirely far-fetched, even if it's in the worst way possible.
Tony Stark and Iron Man
As I said, I'm going to split this into the two movies because I think that helps with the analysis of what did and didn't work. But the first thing I think we should clear up - and based on my very brief accidental viewing of some other reviewer's comments this is apparently something people missed - is that Tony isn't the protagonist of this episode. Again, very brief skim. I'm trying to actively avoid anybody's comments, professional or otherwise, until I write these things so it doesn't bias my reaction one way or another. But case in point it was a comment to the effect of how the episode didn't really focus on certain aspects of Tony's life as seen in the MCU and like... yes? That's the point?? On many levels???
Icky as I now feel for having to say it, given that we are apparently limited to the two options of AC or Matthew, it's better that Matthew was the one who wrote this ep because, as we've discussed before, he's the one who seems to have affinity for actually looking at these AU stories as stories in and of themselves rather than MCU moments he's got to check off a list before the credits roll. Which means that when presented with this concept he understood that you actually have to talk about what Killmonger rescuing Tony means for both men as characters rather than as plot points.
And where you start with that is Tony.
When I heard about this premise for an episode I had fear - not like keeping me up at night fear but if you, personally, had come up to me and said "Hey, TBQ, I love your episode analysis articles for both their insight, humor, and the adorable way you never notice how often you repeat a turn of phrase until well after you've published the article and can't edit it out of the web version without feeling as though everyone on Earth is going to notice which may in fact be a symptom of your anxiety but that's neither here nor there. Anyway, I was wondering: if you had to randomly point to a concern about the Tony and Killmonger episode of What If?, what might that concern be?"
And my response would have been one concern is that whoever wrote the ep forgot that Tony doesn't become a hero if he doesn't get captured. In other words, that the episode would find some way for him to still be Iron Man, heroic leader and bankroll of the Avengers, without understanding that it was the impact of being captured, being tortured, and being around Yinsen which set him on that path.
I would have also added it is totally not a symptom of my anxiety and I know that because my anxiety tells me so. So there.
So I was relieved to watch last night's ep and see that, thankfully, they got that if Tony doesn't get captured then Tony is still the Tony we meet at the start of the film. Which means he drinks a lot, he designs weapons, and he is a passive participant in his own life.
I'm going to go on a small digression here but only because it helps my whole point. The thing people need to remember about the first Iron Man movie is that it was made by Robert Downey Jr and Jon Favreau in a Hollywood studio with a box of scraps. Other than a broad outline they had no script. Tony's habit of wearing sunglasses all the time started because otherwise it was too obvious that RDJ was reading off of cue cards that were written up seconds before Jon shouted "Action!"
I mention this because when we talk about both the movie and how this episode - or anything else - handles the events of that movie we have to do so with the understanding that some aspects of the film (like Pepper's characterization, which I'll get to in a sec) were held together with bubble gum and masking tape if that.
One of the things that did work, though, because he did the work, is RDJ's characterization of Tony Stark. Which is why I'll happily take my earrings off and roll up my sleeves when someone tries to suggest that anybody could've played the part, or when they try to suggest that the only thing RDJ brought to the character was his own past experience as someone facing addiction.
If you want to argue that the MCU as a whole became far too Tony-centric where we're now at the point where thank God he's dead because now other stories can be told I will not dispute that (and again: I love the guy! One of my favorite characters! I'm still okay if we hear from anybody else for a change!) But you can't treat RDJ's handling of Tony like it was phoned in while he sipped a latte. Dude did the work. Tony has a clear character arc, clear speech pattern (more on this in a sec), clear motivations.
Bringing this back to the show, it was good that they understood that if Tony isn't knocked into his new life direction by being captured then it isn't simply that he doesn't build an Iron Man suit. Part of why Tony ends up where he does is that not only was he The Merchant of Death he didn't give a fuck about it. Or anything else! Obi was able to get him captured and then take over Stark Industries because Tony was happy to let Obi run things so long as Obi let him drink and (literally) fuck around as much as he wanted. Tony wanted no responsibilities at all.
It makes perfect sense that when Killmonger comes along as the guy with plans and solutions this Tony would cheerfully and unreservedly give him the keys to everything, especially now that Obi's gone. Just as it makes sense that this Tony drinks more than his MCU counterpart since, as you may recall, Tony with the first arc reactors in his chest was a Tony who was slowly dying from palladium poisoning. He stayed sober while he was focused on a mission but once his own mortality became too close for comfort he tried to drink to escape again. There's motivations for everything. These aren't accidental choices.
Granted, we could argue that something like "Tony would drink a lot" is a low bar to set for an answer for the Family Feud category of "Something Tony would do if he hadn't been captured" but yanno, we've seen a lot of low bars that the D+ shows have failed to meet so credit where due.
Another aspect that I liked was how they did Tony's dialogue. It wasn't the platonic ideal as if you'd had RDJ riffing in the room, but at least it was a close enough for government work approximation. One of the things that many people mistake with Tony is that they think he's a quip machine with no thought behind what he's saying. If you pay attention, though, you'll notice that Tony actually has a distinct way of talking, particularly in the Iron Man movies where RDJ has final say on Tony's words (compared to the Avengers movies where the Russos think that the majority of Tony's humor is nickname based and Joss Whedon who wrote Tony to sound like Xander).
Then we get into things where if we look at continuity from the movies to the show it doesn't quite work but on the other hand, as previously mentioned, they didn't quite work in the movie either. For example Pepper's characterization in the first movie is atrocious, not helped by Gwyneth Paltrow having the same problems Jeff Bridges did with the amount of improvisation being asked of her.
So on the one hand we can look at the way What If...? handled Pepper and point out that actually once Tony's dead she shouldn't be there anymore because her job at the time was his personal assistant, not CEO. Likewise we could also point out that she, Happy, and Rhodey wouldn't necessarily all jump to a place of worry about Killmonger given that in the movie absolutely none of the three of them had a single issue working for, with, and/or being BFFs with Tony when he was the Merchant of Death. In the movie Tony actually calls that out at one point when Pepper challenges him about the Iron Man stuff, saying she had no problem before so why does she have a problem now that he's trying to make things better?
But yanno frankly that was just shitty - I mean we can't call it writing because as we've repeatedly said there was no script. But shitty characterization for sure. The issue of Rhodey, Happy, and Pepper never really being taken on their own journey along with Tony is the movie's fault, so I'm not personally going to hold it against the show for wanting to skip past that bit.
However I do wonder if for Pepper at least part of the issue was that it was laziness and forgetting that Pepper wasn't CEO yet. But again: meh. We can handwave and say maybe personal assistant Pepper stuck around because she refused to let Ross tell her she had to leave.
Killmonger and Black Panther and the Destruction of My Fragile Sanity
I'm going to admit I'm never sure if I should call the character Erik, Killmonger, or N'Jadaka. I'm going to stick with Killmonger, then, just because that's what he's called in the title and I need to pick something.
As I said above, the episode isn't about Tony it's about Killmonger. Which right off the bat I think is the best decision for the story because, again, we know Tony's story. We're good. We don't lack for hours to spend with the man. Other people can be the main character for the day.
Plus it's Killmonger and they had Michael P Jordan in the booth and he was killing it. You can't go wrong there.
(That's gonna cover my review of the voice acting, by the way, since Michael was the only new element from previous eps)
Again this is just off my brief accidental glimpses but I think people missed that this is supposed to be a Killmonger ep and not a Tony ep. And not to be all Ms Pedantic - well not about this specifically, fuck knows I am about literally everything else - but the title itself makes Killmonger the subject of the sentence. There's a reason for that.
This isn't the story of what Killmonger can do for Tony Stark, it's what Tony Stark can do for Killmonger. Which is an interesting story! It asks the question of how Killmonger's path might have changed if he'd had access to bleeding edge military technology much sooner than he did in canon. How does it change his plans? Does it change his motivations? Does it move him towards a different outcome, good or bad?
There's a certain element of it where you do want to eye roll a bit that Killmonger's able to be a thousand steps ahead of everyone else at every time. Like it gets a tiny bit into Marty Stu territory (and in some ways echoes Star Lord T'Challa's ability to fix every problem in the universe, including Thanos). But I'll be honest: in much the same way I was fine for it in ep 2 because T'Challa, I'm fine for it in this ep because Michael P Jordan. He's one of those actors who I'll happily let do whatever the hell he wants, including playing a character to an implausible level of competency.
Me being me, though, of course I'm going to talk about the handling of the Black Panther aspects and dear fucking God how do you keep getting the Dora cue wrong?
Look I am not obsessed with the Dora cue! There is an entire score to this movie which is amazing and has even more levels of meaning to it! I would be thrilled to talk about anything else! But oh my fucking god this is the simplest thing to get right and somehow Laura Karpman keeps getting it wrong like she lost a bet. This is like hearing "If you're happy and you know it clap your hands" and responding with the hokey pokey! HOW?
Laura, honey, if a member of the Dora is fighting, such as Ramonda heading into battle, you USE THE CUE. If a person who is not a Dora, especially a man such as Killmonger, is fighting you don't! This literally could not be easier! IT'S IN THE NAME OF THE MUSIC.
(I deleted a typed out scream here. You're welcome.)
Anyway, so yeah the music's doing what the music always does. There's some issues with the writing and animation as well. And sadly I feel this again goes back to the thing where stories mostly focused on white characters get more attention and also that stories without white characters aren't given respect.
Because like I said, "he'd keep drinking like scotch has a remote chance of replacing his father's love" is an easy one to guess for Tony Stark in damn near any circumstance. But "Hey did you notice literally any detail at all about Black Panther beyond 'Black people' and 'pretty colors'?" continues to be a "No" as far as this show is concerned.
Now I'm not actually going to be as picky as you might think. For example, I'm going to give a pass to Ramonda wearing the exact same outfit we see her in when we meet her for the first time in Black Panther. Because even though there's layers upon layers of meaning to every inch of clothing in that and every other scene I'm willing to handwave for the greater concern that in cartoons you want characters to be immediately recognizable. We see multiple outfits for her in the film but the first makes the biggest impression. It's fine to pick that even though it implies that Ramonda hasn't updated her wardrobe in 10 years. Laws of the cartoon universe, it's allowed.
But I will be picky when it comes to the Dora, again, because if Ramonda is the General, aka in charge, of the Dora then Okoye needs to not be wearing gold in her outfit as we've previously discussed in ep 2.
Moreover, while I'd normally be okay for rule of cool on finding any reason to show Ramonda kicking ass, it was actually a deliberate decision to say the Dora weren't potential wives in waiting as well as being bodyguards like they are in the comics. Not a hugely egregious error on its own and heck we could even handwave and say that in this part of the multiverse Doras as dating pool was still a thing. But when you look at everything else it again goes back to leaning on the side that they just did not care enough to check in the first place or, if they did check, respect it for the mindful decision that it was. (I suspect the former more than the latter.)
You then also get things like Shuri thinking JARVIS was complicated AI and look, I get that she's younger here than in Infinity War but she's also canonically the smartest person in the MCU (Lunella Lafayette being the smartest in the 616 universe). JARVIS is amazing (and should always be spelled with all capital letters if you're talking about the AI version, looking at you closing credits) but based on what we know of Shuri and her later reaction to how Vision was put together she shouldn't have been blown away by JARVIS's system. Thought of him as an impressive effort by an outsider in the same way you put a kindergartener's drawing on the fridge, but not baffled at his complexity.
I'd like to get into issues like taking down the force field and that the point of a shield wall is to stay the fuck behind it, hence shield but to be fair they did this in Infinity War too so instead I'll just sigh heavily about how often Hollywood in general gets this wrong. Let's instead take a brief moment to appreciate that, at least once, Game of Thrones got it right. (And we just won't talk about how spectacularly they got it and everything else wrong in the final season, which we all agree never happened.)
The Other Stuff (aka the Spoilers The Trailers Give Away)
Finally we have how the episode ended or, rather, how it didn't with that vague scene with Shuri and Pepper and then it just... stopped.
Which brings me to a topic we've been dancing around for a while which is that the show seems to be building up to the creation of the What If...? Avengers. Which is great! Fun idea! An idea wholly spoiled by the first trailer for the show if you paid attention. And in case that trailer didn't do it for you there's the mid-season trailer which not only gives more in that direction but spoils you for how the weird ending that's not an ending of this episode is fine because hey look! Pepper holding a weapon while with Shuri! I guess we're getting a part two! Oh did you not see this episode yet? That's okay, because the What If...? Twitter account is happy to spoil the twists of it for you in the trailer they posted for it this morning!
I just.. I know I talked about this a little last week but I genuinely do not get some of the decisions being made by the marketing department over at Disney Plus. This started back with Loki where bad luck if you actually were invested in anything that happened in Lamentis because the trailer for ep 4 spoiled the cliffhanger for you.
Now me personally I love spoilers. Because my enjoyment of media is as much about how the final product was put together as it is the story I actually prefer to know what's going to happen before I see it. That way I get to pick up on more of the layers as I watch. Plus, as someone who is disabled, now that Disney isn't releasing movies on streaming anymore I don't even get a vote on if I remain unspoiled. By the time I'm allowed to watch the movie all the spoilers have been considered fair game, including by the Marvel and Disney social media accounts which started showing spoilers for Shang-Chi the Monday after the film came out.
I also have huge rants I could go on about how absurd spoiler culture has gotten on the studio side, such as how nobody except RDJ was allowed to see more than a page of the script at a time when filming Infinity War and Endgame, if that. (Don't ask for pesky details like which character you're speaking to, that's silly!)
Point being that I'm the kind of person who actively seeks out spoilers and is fine with them so this ruins nothing for me per se. But at the same time I'm also someone who respects that other people don't want to be spoiled and as such I'm baffled by this move to give away plot points like they're car keys Oprah stashed under everyone's seat. Also because it's just so weird?
Like the scene of Nick Fury at the end of Iron Man 1 let us know they were going to try to build to something. The concept of the Avengers movie was not a spoiler. So on the one hand I don't get why the What If...? Avengers would need to be a spoiler either. Like I said, it's a cool idea. Go for it! Make it part of the draw!
But at the same time you have articles like this which treat the concept like something super secret only eagle eyed viewers could pick up on instead of, yanno, right there. In the trailers. Getting glory shots so you don't miss them. (To say nothing of plot points like leaving Strange Supreme alive at the end of his episode which is a very obvious "We're leaving him here so we can pick him up later" move and not "This makes any sense whatsoever given that we just said he destroyed his entire reality, of which he is a part.")
So yeah. No clue what's going on with marketing but at bare minimum I think we can call this particular plotline not so much a spoiler or even speculation so much as obviously it's happening and we can all make the stab in the dark that we'll see it in ep 9.
Which, for those of you playing the What If...? episode logic puzzle game, means that we have Party Thor on deck, possibly even next week. The sight of the Grandmaster and Korg suggests that "What if Tony landed in Sakaar?" actually made it to this season instead of having to be pushed to season 2 like rumors suggested, though possibly they just show up for Thor's party. Somewhere in there we still need to get Gamora in Thanos's armor, Apocalypse Nat fighting Ultron, Pepper and Shuri going after Killmonger which we've now been spoiled for knowing is a thing, and whatever thing brings the What If...? Avengers together, which I'm assuming is the giant hentai creature we've seen in Captain Carter and Strange Supreme but I could be wrong.
And there we are. Or we could wait like 8 hours or so and let the next round of trailers spoil it for us I suppose.
As always, things that don't fit anywhere else
- I know this is dangerously close to being a reference to a thing I know but given that being stabbed in your armpit isn't actually fatal you couldn't have Killmonger aim for, yanno, Tony's heart? Injuries there kinda being a theme with him?
- I was so happy to see DUM-E, you have no idea. I love Tony's robots so much. Poor babies who don't even know he's gone. I hope Morgan takes good care of them.
- "I like anime" - I appreciate a good meta joke.
- JARVIS was oddly quiet given that they actually had Paul Bettany record a line. Like they couldn't get some generic "Yes, sir" and "No, sir" recordings in the can?
- I love how in every universe the bridge too far for Tony is if you fuck with Rhodey
- Related, let's appreciate that in this universe the correct actor was playing Rhodey for these parts of Tony's life
- The closing lines of "Heroes inspire others" doesn't work because the whole point is that in this universe Tony wasn't a hero. Are the closing lines for these episodes written by someone who didn't see the previous 29 minutes? Does Matthew write those lines first and assume he can backtrack and do whatever for the rest of the ep and it'll all work out even if the story changes?
- The closed captions were off for this ep. Not hugely in meaning but much more significant changes than one word being slightly off.
- So what exactly was Killmonger's plan if Christine Everhart hadn't asked that question? Did he have an awkward "So speaking of Obi stabbing people in the back..." segue planned?
- Also when did he cue up the PowerPoint so it would be ready right when he needed it? I want the scene of him staying up late eating stale pizza and swearing to himself because god damn it this is supposed to be a fade animation, why is one image coming in as a pan?
- Finally, unrelated to this ep but in case you missed it I wrote up an entire volume of speculation about Rogers: The Musical as seen in the Hawkeye trailer. Read it now, so you can wonder about my sanity just as much as my dog did while I was typing it!
And that's all for now. See you next week!
Get access to exclusive reviews, essays, and more by treating yourself to a Ko-Fi membership. Memberships help to keep the site running and free to all readers. Thank you for your support!