Episode Analysis: What If... T'Challa Became A Star-Lord?
The second episode of What If...? raises the bar, though not quite as high as its source material.
Spoilers for discussion of What If...? through episode 2 and all of the MCU. Proceed at your own risk.
This was a good episode. This was a solid episode that fully explored the layers you can achieve with the Alternate Universe (AU) concept and why you would even use the concept to try to tell a story.
Now, of course, me being me I still have notes. But let me be clear my notes aren't to label this episode a fail but rather to, hopefully, help give greater appreciation of how monumental a degree of difficulty it is to match the quality of Black Panther. To paraphrase Billy Shakes, I'm here to praise Black Panther, not bury What If...? Basically I didn't have this website when Black Panther came out so y'all are getting some of my raves about it now. (And will again and again because hot damn the work they put into that movie.)
Also because I'm me we're gonna talk about voice acting again. Apparently I've made it my mission to try to teach the world to appreciate the work that goes into that job so here we are.
ANYHOO, let's break it down.
Did It Work As An Episode?
Look I'm not gonna lie, any episode which could be summarized as having a thesis statement of "The entire universe would be better if MCU Peter Quill never touched anything" is already coming out of the gate as a win. But more to the point what I loved about this ep is that it was thoughtful about the AU concept.
As I talked about last week, there are multiple ways to handle AUs. Captain Carter took the approach of examining the domino effect that can happen from a single decision. "If Peggy stayed in the room then this happens, then this, then this - " and so on. It's an exercise in extrapolation, and it's fun and interesting.
But what last week's ep did not do is dig into the full emotional impact of these decisions. It was a checklist against key points of the first Cap movie and no more. Things happened last week because they happened in the movie, not because they necessarily made sense for the changes that happened to the characters.
Case in point - and I know the Bucky stans are sharpening their knives as I type - but the part where Peggy rescues Bucky is the clearest and most egregious example. There is no reason for Peggy to feel that Bucky specifically is the thing that's going to motivate her to break ranks. Yes, I know she's warm for Steve's form but the way it is presented in the scene is that the only thing she cares about is that Steve's best friend is captured. Why? Because this is the "Cap rescues Steve's best friend" scene. There's nothing different happening other than that Peggy is the one who does it because she's the one with the powers.
Contrast that to a rewrite where, for example, Peggy starts the scene talking about how frustrated she is about being sidelined. She knows damn well there's good she could be doing for the war effort but nobody is letting her. Why case in point, there are prisoners being held at this spot right here on the map and she knows she could go in and save them!
Then Steve looks over, blanches, and says that's where his friend Bucky is being held. Because this is now personal to someone she cares about, Peggy has reason to act on her desire to ignore orders by doing the rescue mission.
Boom! Solved! We've now got a scene which speaks to the changes in the world because Peggy is Cap which are based on the changes to Peggy as a character. Moreover, the scene is now providing an interesting contrast to the similar scene in the movie: Steve broke orders because he didn't like being told he couldn't rescue Bucky. Peggy is breaking orders because she's been silenced as a woman.
I'm walking you through this because it shows the contrast between two extremes and, hopefully, gives greater appreciation for what they did in last night's ep with T'Challa as Star-Lord. With last night's ep they didn't just do moment after moment of "Scene from the movie, but T'Challa!" but rather started from that point and used it to then actually tell a new story.
And yes, there's a certain element of leaning far too into the concept of how T'Challa makes literally everything better but 1) It's T'Challa 2) It's one of Chadwick's last moments as the character so lifting them both up is, IMO, highly appropriate, and 3) The other moral is that MCU Peter Quill is a useless piece of crap and that moral is never wrong.
Beyond that, what we see in the episode is a story about characters and relationships and stakes that matter to them. When the time comes that T'Challa has to decide between space and Wakanda this feels like a truly difficult decision. It's made its case for why this alternate path and the people in it would matter to T'Challa and appeal to him as much as his country and family by blood. The audience sits there going well shit, maybe T'Challa should keep hanging with Yondu.
Which is part of the beauty of AU stories (and, frankly, fanfic). You can take the characters you know well and shift a few things around to discover entirely new layers to them and paths for them. Original T'Challa might not have made more than polite conversation with Yondu if he met him, this T'Challa considers him a surrogate father and we believe it.
On top of that the story also looked at the impact on other characters. It understood that if T'Challa got Thanos to go down a more peaceful path, that would affect Nebula's relationship with him. Then it actually took the time to make that its own story and something the audience would care about.
I also want to give a shout out to how well this episode did as a heist story, particularly with only a half hour to work with. Deciding to tell a new tale with a heist story instead of a beat for beat Guardians movie remake was a great move. Then making it a heist with a triple cross and the element of surprise with T'Challa finding the ship was a great way to keep the story constantly feeling fresh and interesting. Particularly since - uh, skip the next paragraph if you like heist stories and don't want to know one of the ways their narrative magic tricks work.
Adequately warned? Everyone here who wants to be? Okay, so one of the things with heist stories is that if a character details the plan while you see the plan happening it will work out fine. If a character details the plan before the plan is executed, the plan will fail. Knowing that, you can now appreciate how last night's show kept it interesting by having multiple plans which Nebula narrated at different stages of when they were going on. That kept the audience on its toes and pretty much incapable of guessing how it was all going to work out. A great narrative gymnastic feat on its own, even moreso that they managed to pull it off in such a short time frame.
So yes, a really good and strong episode. It's something they should be proud of.
But, that being said, it didn't quite meet the challenge that it set for itself.
Did It Live Up To Black Panther?
Here's the thing: this episode worked great as an episode. It was strong, it was thoughtful, it explored its own concept, it was well done.
But one of the things it also did was put itself into the arena with Black Panther, and if you're doing that you have set the bar of difficulty incredibly high. And as far as that goes, this episode did not manage to punch above its weight.
When making Black Panther Ryan Coogler and his team put thought and respect into every aspect down to the atoms. This is not amateur effort. This is not Loki where him removing his coat is the closest they ever got to giving a costume some meaning.
Black Panther is a movie in which blue represents colonization. Who in the hell do you know who thinks about colonization in a "guy dressed as a big cat" story, let alone what freaking color it should be?
There isn't a single god damn detail in Black Panther which wasn't thought about from every possible angle. Watch Ryan Coogler talk about a scene. Watch Ruth Carter talk about a scene. Recognize that they are focusing on mere minutes of the movie and they are barely scratching the surface of the work they put into them.
This is god tier effort. This is sixteen dimensional chess where most movies - certainly many MCU movies, including Guardians of the Galaxy - are playing checkers.
Last night's episode? Played a very good game of checkers. It did not come near the area of chess.
Let's hit why.
First and foremost, there's the lack of understanding about Wakanda. Wakanda is an isolationist country in which white influence is not a thing. That is not just the backstory for the sake of a prologue, it is baked into every aspect of Wakanda from the dress, to the accents, to the hair. Every single thing was examined to ensure it did not show even a vague sign of inspiration from something in white culture because Wakanda kept white people the fuck away.
Therefore T'Challa should never be citing something like Robin Hood as an inspiration. You'd have to fight hard to make an argument for why T'Challa as a child would even know who Robin Hood is let alone why the story would stick with him.
And I'm gonna be frank, no offense to Matthew Chauncey but this is one of the moments which make it flamingly obvious the episode was written by a white person. (I say as a white person, so I would know.) That was a moment of straight up laziness. It's lazy work even if you are writing for a Western character, it's an insulting lack of work when you're writing for T'Challa.
I'm aware that I'm going full Apu to Skinner's book idea on this but there's no reason for this to happen. Ask Chadwick to call up Trevor Noah to say look, you're not reprising your role in this cartoon but could you do us a solid and share a fairy tale from your childhood that's on topic?
If not that there's also the thing where Wakandans worship Bast which means all of Egyptian mythology is on the table. Even if you want to argue that Wakandans wouldn't worship any Egyptian gods who aren't related to cats, you still have a basis to say they know about said gods. T'Challa could treat the idea of Maat as fiction yet still draw inspiration from her. It would even be more appropriate given that in the episode T'Challa is more about doing good for all beings because it is worth it to improve everyone's situation if you can. The idea of robbing from the rich to give to the poor is actually a stretch of a metaphor for him as Star-Lord (again, lazy.)
Next up we have a lack of respect and thoughtfulness towards the Doras, and this one is actually several examples though one I'm giving the benefit of the doubt on.
Doras are a key part of Wakandan culture. They are especially key for Wakandan royalty. So first up, if you are positing that T'Challa had such an influence on Yondu and the Ravagers that he was able to change their entire mission statement there would be more women there.
Now with this I am willing to say it may have been on purpose. Because, frankly, James Gunn has some issues with writing women. Not Russo-level "every woman is a sandwich making wife prize for male heroes, assuming said women live that long" bad but still bad. So when you know damn well that T'Challa would want female fighters around him and there are so few women and the only substantive female character is Nebula who literally shows up in this episode dressed like Smurfette that is so on the nose that boy howdy would it have been hard to do by accident.
So if it was on purpose, chef's kiss, love it. If it wasn't then no, lack of thoughtfulness to the source material, red pen on this bit with a note that says see me after class.
The next part is that, again, you shouldn't come on this playing field if you're not ready to meet the level. Which includes the costumes and the music.
The Dora outfits we see on the spaceship? Have gold metal accents. Here's the problem, gold means leader of the Dora. Leader. Singular. All the other Dora wear silver. Now you could argue that maybe there's an implication that these specific Dora were given an elevated status as the ones chosen to find T'Challa but again, the meaning is not Employee of the Month it is leader. That ship had to have some kind of a hierarchy. They wouldn't all be wearing gold.
Another moment is the music. Again, the music in Black Panther is made with thought and depth. You can't grab from it willy nilly, which is what the show did at 26:08 when T'Challa goes to lock The Collector in the box. Because the music used in that moment isn't just Black Panther music, it's Dora music. So much so that it's called the Dora cue. I would even grade on a curve if T'Challa did something Dora inspired, such as fighting using a spear, but he didn't.
And I realize all of this can come off as very nitpicky but like I said before, first and foremost I want to help people understand that Black Panther did the fucking work. Whether you, personally, understood that a single stone on Nakia's necklace was based on the concept of her tribe, which itself was based on research into real life tribes, and translating that research into the multiple levels of meaning into colors and sounds and shapes which resonate throughout the entire film you still felt the impact of it. It still factored into the story being told, and why people understood that Black Panther was a movie at least worthy of a Best Picture nomination when no other MCU film even came close.
But it's also to say hey, if you're making the attempt - as this episode did - you're asking for the comparison. And to be clear, this episode should be respected for the attempt. I know I beat Loki into the ground with this but compared to Loki, which clearly put no thought whatsoever into 99% of what they gave us, there is absolutely points given for a show that tried to do better.
I'm also saying that it's hard. Other than the Robin Hood thing which, again, was insultingly lazy, but the rest of it was Simone Biles level of difficulty. The show elected to try, so it's gonna get graded on how well it did the same way somebody taking an Honors level exam is going to get graded harder than someone in kindergarten. But still. Points for trying even if it did not succeed. Better luck next time and all that.
Still a great game of checkers though.
What About The Voice Acting?
After last week's episode I found it interesting to see the reactions people had to the voice acting. Because, again bless his heart, Sebastian Stan was not giving Troy Baker a run for for his money any time soon.
And the reactions seemed to be either, like me, you wanted to give SebStan a hug and maybe some hot cocoa to comfort him for trying his best or, like some others, a belief that it doesn't matter if the acting lacks quality because it's more important to have the authenticity of the original actors.
To which I will freely admit I do not understand that point of view. As we talked about last week, the concept of "canon" with a show where the premise is that infinite realities are real is, by definition, meaningless. If infinite things are canon then everything is canon, including me sitting at my couch typing these words. I can only assume that once I hit post Nick Fury will show up at my door with a job offer.
Yes, I do get that "canon" is probably meant to hint that there will be at bare minimum some Easter eggs from What If...? in future MCU movies (no spoilers, I'm just making educated guesses) but in a movie series where the Bluth stair car also shows up as an Easter Egg clearly the bar for those references needing to come from in-universe isn't that high.
Once again, much like the so-called Sacred Timeline, these are stories being created by people who can make whatever they want happen provided said things are within the bounds of pesky reality based things like budget and actor availability. Are the upcoming Tony Stark related stories going to be less canon because Robert Downey Jr isn't doing his own voice? Of course not.
I certainly understand why it's nice to get the original actors. Last night's episode was so much more meaningful for having Chadwick Boseman voice T'Challa. But make no mistake, the reason why that worked is that Chadwick's immense talents translated perfectly to this medium. He carried the emotion and the personality to, literally, make this story come to life. If he'd been there stiltedly William Shatnering his lines like he was more focused on playing Candy Crush than paying attention to the script, the episode would've sucked and his mere presence wouldn't have saved it.
Which again brings me to the unfortunate reality that too many people don't understand what goes into voice acting and why it requires its own skills. The reason why Troy Baker voices everything up to and I'm pretty sure including myself is that the man is a Black Panther level god at conveying characterization through talking. You could close your eyes during any scene of his in a video game or cartoon and still get everything that's happening with who he's playing.
If you want to have an idea of what kind of work voice actors need to do - and also why good voice directors are important - check out this clip of Troy Baker talking about filming The Last of Us. (Not sure if spoiler warnings are needed for a game that's been out this long but that link should take you to 21:41 in the video where he talks about the work required while skipping past the spoilery bits. But I will say if you've never played or watch someone play The Last of Us, it's worth it to watch that video from the beginning because the pre-credits scene in question is a perfect example of why the game is famous in its own right.)
Regardless, understand that the task given to Troy was to take his character on an entire emotional journey in a moment where his character is just sniffling and mumbling to himself. And he fucking does it. Yes, the animation helps but if you go back and watch that particular animation closely it's a loop. Nothing new is being added by the visuals, it's entirely Troy and his voice.
So if you are in an animated medium with dialogue you need voice actors who can actually voice act. They can't coast on name recognition. Last night's episode worked because Chadwick (and also Karen Gillan) could rise to the challenge of not just sounding like their characters but embodying their characters without having control over their physicality.
Which then brings us to the few instances of not having the original actors, such as Drax. Now I know Dave Bautista wasn't thrilled about not being asked and I certainly get that at the very least you'd want a shot at the part if it's yours in the movies. But the unfortunate thing in Dave's case is that who they did get is Fred Tatasciore who, in the voice acting world, is pretty much up there with Troy in terms of having such a long and distinguished resume that frankly if they had him on board to play anybody on this show you're inclined to lose the number of whoever it is he's replacing.
Though this does bring me back to my continued question of why, if you know you're not going to use the original live actors, you don't immediately go to the Disney stable of voice actors who have done these parts instead. I mean Fred's great but David Sobolov is the one who's done Drax for years now. Likewise if you're bringing in Peter Quill for a couple of lines but not Chris Pratt why not grab Will Friedle?
And let's be frank: if you've got Fred on this particular payroll, why oh why would you not ask him to voice Hulk? No offense to Mark Ruffalo but Fred's done the green guy so long that if we're in the world of animation frankly it's Mark who should be glad he even got an audition.
(Personally? If it was me? Get Mark for Bruce, Fred for Hulk. Best of both worlds, assuming Mark can voice act. We'll see in few weeks when we find out that answer.)
Part of me wonders if the issue is a desire to avoid Mister Peanutbuttering the whole concept.
In other words, since they're already confusing things by insisting that everything is canon, maybe they deliberately don't want the cartoon voice actors because then some people's heads will explode about if the meaning is that the movie versions of the characters are meeting the cartoon versions of the characters and is the What If...? suggesting that some of the multiverse branches are crossing and does this mean that Reed Richards is going to show up piloting the Millenium Falcon and -
And yeah. I mean I'd like to think they learned some lessons from the fallout of fannish expectations after WandaVision? But this was filmed way before that so no luck there. But maybe this production team was simply smarter out of the gate.
Anyway, point being yet again that if this series teaches people anything I hope it's to learn to appreciate voice actors and voice acting. And if not apparently I've made it my mission to ensure that that happens so tune in next time!
As always, things that didn't fit anywhere else
- Wasn't the name "Star-Lord" also something that was unique to Peter Quill? Like he made it up for himself? I don't actually care enough about MCU Peter to ever check this, for the record.
- I appreciated the Disney-esque comedy beats in the opening scene. It gave me Aladdin and Flynn Rider vibes in terms of the banter, in a good way.
- Me being me, I also greatly appreciated that this episode leaned far more into giving "if you know you know" style winks to the original story than "You almost ripped my arm off!" type ones that last week did. For example giving just enough information that the audience would understand that the space-originating vibranium under Wakanda would mess up someone scanning for something extra terrestrial on Earth without going "GET IT? BECAUSE SPACE? AND VIBRANIUM? AND SPACE? ALSO BUCKY LOST HIS ARM WHEN HE FELL OF THE TRAIN IN THE FIRST MOVIE, YOU MIGHT NOT HAVE CAUGHT THAT DETAIL. BUT THAT'S WHY HE SAID THAT LINE. ABOUT LOSING HIS ARM. BECAUSE HE DID ORIGINALLY. DID YOU GET IT?"
- (Apologies to screen readers for that but, like Bucky says about his sex life, sometimes you need all Caps.)
- (Which is, according to the laws of the infinite multiverse, canon.)
- I did like some of the thoughtfulness put into the costume designs, such as the increased amount of purple.
- I am so looking forward to seeing cosplayers go nuts with every What If...? character design. I know many have already been working overtime doing their insane creation magic on outfits. Bless them all for sharing their talents with the rest of us.
- Back on voice acting, it was strange that we got zero lines from Shuri and Ramonda, especially since the trailers have shown us that Ramonda has a bigger role in an upcoming episode. Plus they have Angela Bassett playing the part, so it can't be an issue of not being able to get her to record. It's not like they're restricted to a single episode once you've got them in the booth.
- Related to that, the lack of them talking and only a brief second of hearing Okoye reinforces just how much this episode was male focused. Again to the point where it's so over the top I'm left wondering if this was a purposeful winking nudge in James Gunn's direction. Because it's freaking weird otherwise.
- Another thing I've been finding fascinating in fandom discussions is people attempting to figure out what all of the What If...? Episodes will be. It's like watching people do those logic puzzles where you get clues like "Four people shared three bedrooms. The tallest took bedroom number 2. The person with red hair is not the shortest." and so on until you get to the answer of who had which bedroom. Only in this case it's "There are 9 episodes. 7 have known concepts. Chadwick recorded 4 episodes and SebStan recorded 3. There is an episode with zombies and at least one episode with Spider-Man." and so on.
- Again I have no spoilers and this is purely my own logic puzzle thoughts, but I am increasingly convinced that this season is building to a story where Uatu, who totally does not ever interfere, will interfere and bring all of the What If...? lead characters together to fight a climactic battle in episode 9. I mean not for nothing but there's shots of T'Challa Star-Lord that were in the trailers but very much not in last night's ep. I'm just saying.
And that's all for now. Catch you at the next episode!
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