Spoiler Warning for discussion of all the episodes of What If...? plus the MCU. Proceed at your own risk.
I'm gonna cut right to the chase and say this ep had good bits and bad bits and I'm going to dissect both. If we're continuing the tradition of me giving you the tl;dr review right in the first paragraph, I'd say thus far it's the worst ep of the three but I don't know that it will keep the bottom ranking as we get the other six eps this season. The bad parts were a hot mess but they weren't the greatest crime I've ever seen in the history of television.
(Insert your own joke about "Since I watched every episode of Loki!" right about.... here.)
We're also going to continue the tradition of me talking about voice acting, in which I will yet again get on a rant about how undervalued it is as a skillset, and I'm going to talk a bit about writing in which I will be giving you every impression that I've pulled out a bulletin board and some string so my conspiracy theorizing has the correct props and I'm here to warn you up front that that impression will be 100% correct.
Let's get started!
The Good, the Bad, and the Story
The thing that I genuinely liked and wanted more of this ep was the characterization. Most of the characters we spent time with were solidly written and acted as three dimensional beings who we could recognize from having seen them in the movies. I mean it stands out when we get only a few minutes of Loki but those few minutes captured his personality, sense of humor, and powers far better an entire show named after him managed to do.
A bittersweet goodness in particular was the Nat, Fury, and Coulson stuff. Watching the three of them talk and play off each other made me realize how deprived we were of seeing more of this in the movies. I loved these glimpses into how these are clearly three people who spend a lot of time together, have respect for one another, have bonded, and probably have arguments about who forgot to refill the coffee pot in the break room, Fury. I would have happily spent a half hour in "What if... we did nothing but watch Nat, Fury, and Coulson debate over the best office supplies?" Hell, I would've spent an hour there. Give me the office supplies cinematic universe, I'm down.
Where the problem comes in is that the characterization was surrounded by plot, and it was a lot of plot.
To clarify before we go down this route, I personally have no stake in the conceit of What if...? the show. As I've said before, I'm down for alternate universes (AUs). I love fanfic! As long as it's well written I am perfectly happy with ideas like "What if... Tony Stark is an insurance salesman who falls in love with Bruce Banner who is himself actually a half-alien half-mermaid and also this takes place in a version of New York where everything is made of cheese?" Like "What if I wrote this because I want to?" is a perfectly fine thesis statement as far as I'm concerned! Go for it! Rec it to me if the prose is actually well done and every line doesn't refer to Tony as "the billionaire philanthropist" instead of his name!
I say all this because purely from a writing perspective, the biggest issue with this ep was that it lacked a single thesis statement which is the whole point of the show. It's in the opening credits! "Where a single choice can branch out into infinite realities" (emphasis mine)
This episode didn't have a single choice. Sure, in the title it said "What if the world lost its mightiest heroes?" and that's a great question! But that's not actually the conceit of this story. What this story actually was is "What if Hope van Dyne had been a SHIELD Agent" and "What if, while a SHIELD agent, Hope was killed in action?" and "What if somebody tried killing the Avengers during Fury's Big Week?" and "What if Loki tried bringing armies to conquer Earth ahead of schedule?" and -
You get the idea. They had too many cards on the board and needed to kill some darlings. I mean I get "What if Hope had yadda yadda?" isn't going to be in the title because that gives the killer away, but at the same time we didn't need the Hope stuff at all! Hank Pym came ready made with ample hatred for SHIELD. All you needed for the murder mystery is "What if the world lost its mightiest heroes (because Hank Pym decided to go serial killer)?"
Then for the Loki thing, again pick a story. I'm not saying the concept isn't interesting - the Hope thing is interesting too! - but you've got a half hour. Pick one idea and go with it.
The other part is that the mystery itself was poorly handled. This surprised me because they did so well with the heist last week. I know a mystery isn't a heist but still the full story of the heist was a mystery to the audience and it was handled in a way which was believable for the story and the characters.
Meanwhile in this ep we have this strange combination of it not being clear how much they wanted or expected the audience to be puzzled along with characters doing things just to prolong the secrets of it all. Case in point, why would Natasha say "Hope! It's all about Hope!" while being killed instead of "It's about Hope Van Dyne, which is a statement I have enough time to say and reaffirms how I, a super spy, would understand the importance of giving useful intelligence to my allies instead of cryptic statements which convey fuck all"?
Now on its own "It's all about Hope!" was probably intended as a misdirect where for some reason Fury and the audience would assume Natasha decided to spend her last seconds on Earth writing optimistic poetry on behalf of the Obama campaign but that doesn't really work because, well, we've met Natasha before. Everyone knows her preferred medium is limericks about moral existentialism which are hilarious when you hear them in the original Russian.
Also Janet van Dyne was name checked on Nat's computer screen so basically the only people who wouldn't have immediately made the Hope van Dyne connection are my parents who enjoy MCU movies but forget pesky details like who anyone is supposed to be. ("Oh Captain Marvel is the woman" being an actual example.)
Plus this combines with very strange story beats which were clearly fueled far more by the desire to check off "That's a thing from the movies!" boxes, such as Natasha seeking out Betty Ross, the foremost expert in tactical applications of cellular biology, to get the kind of information that only comes from shoving a needle under any random microscope and going "Hey look, it's broken."
Which is when I start hauling out the string because this is when my brain starts to analyze the writing.
Okay so as I've talked about before one of the things my nerdy ass self loves to do is dig into writing and figure out who wrote what. On the remote chance anybody else might give a fuck about how this works, pull up a chair and let me walk you through it. Though with the full disclaimer this is just me making conspiracy theory style educated guesses because it's far too early to definitively say any of this for sure. I could be wrong.
So here's where we start: We know that this series had an episode with a really good mystery. We know that they then had an episode with a really poorly written mystery. This immediately suggests that the person or people responsible for the mystery in episode 2 aren't the same as the ones responsible for the mystery in episode 3.
We can then also look at the components that went into episode 3: really good characterization and character moments, poor handling of a mystery, and story beats which were fueled by a desire to hit scene after scene taken directly from the movies.
Episodes 1 and 2 then thoughtfully act as Rosetta Stones for us: Captain Carter was entirely an AU based on hitting movie scenes without much time spent on characterization. T'Challa Star-Lord was an AU steeped in impact to characterization with a great heist story. Ergo, AC Bradly was probably responsible for the plot and mystery aspects of episode 3 and Matthew Chauncy responsible for the scenes of character beats.
Now of course these things aren't necessarily so cut and dry. Yes, in some writers' rooms work can be split where one person writes one scene, somebody else writes another, and it all gets stitched together in the end. In others it might be that one person does a pass on the script then hands it off to somebody else to polish and improve. And this isn't even getting into how there can be people working in the writers' room who actually do significant amounts of writing but who don't get their name listed in the credits.
So again, I'm not saying this is a slam dunk. I'm just saying if we hit pause on this particular moment in the season we've got some good hints of who might be responsible for what in these stories. We can then keep an eye on how things unfold as the season goes on and see if that matches.
The reason why this would ever be important is that writing is a big part of what makes shows and movies. I know this sounds obvious but far too often it unfortunately is not. Case in point, I saw someone on Instagram talking about this episode going "Let us thank Tom Hiddleston for giving us this version of Loki!" and... no? First up you thank the writers because without the script you've got no version of Loki. Tom's performance helps, sure, that doesn't come in until much later in the process. It begins with the writers and they deserve credit for what they do.
Or, yanno, blame when they don't do it well. Looking at you, Endgame.
The Voice Acting
I want to say for the record that generally speaking I've been avoiding other people's reviews of the show. Normally I'll seek out what other people are saying about shows I watch both because it helps jog my memory about points I wanted to make and because I think it's valuable to get different points of view when analyzing media, especially if the points of view are from those who have backgrounds different to your own.
However, and as people who follow me on Twitter know, professional reviewers being paid to say dumb shit is my villain origin story. So for my own health and the safety of the world I decided to try to go cold turkey, or at least cut back as much as I could.
("Shang-Chi is set primarily in China because the MCU is popular there!" Really? Not because the character is Chinese, perhaps? Dear god where can I find sharks with laser beams on their heads...)
Anyway, I mention this because I stupidly decided to look at some reviews of eps 1 and 2 yesterday and, in addition to the general dumbassery, I saw that I have not been the only one talking about voice acting and the issue of the movie actors vs professional voice actors.
So part of me feels like I should clarify that at no time have I been writing about this stuff as a way to throw shade at places where people are paid cash money to write down what are supposed to be thoughtful opinions yet instead they say things like it's better to have the original actors no matter how stilted and awful their line readings are and also Chadwick Boseman's performance sucked in particular. First of all because I'm not going to throw shade when I can say directly that the AV Club recaps are utter garbage which are directly responsible for destroying the sum total of joy on this planet but second of all because I really do just like voice acting that much.
So let's get into how everyone did.
Of course Samuel L Jackson and Clark Gregg are going to knock it out of the park. Clark Gregg has tons of experience voicing Coulson in the booth so this was something he could do with one hand tied behind his back (that's a little Agents of SHIELD humor there. If you know you know). I thought it was particularly smart to use Fury and Coulson as primary anchors for the story because they embodied (emvoiced?) their characters so well that it really did feel like seeing them again in the movies.
This combined well with Lake Bell doing a fairly good Scarlett Johanson husky voice impression. Lake got the voice right, plus she has plenty of voice acting experience with Poison Ivy, so you can see why they went with her over Laura Bailey who, though she's probably voiced Nat more than ScarJo has, has a different sound to her. When you're bouncing off actual Sam Jackson and Clark Gregg, it makes sense to go for another movie sound alike. (Similarly why you can see how, since Robert Downey Jr wasn't on the table, Mike Wingert made a good next best thing since he both sounds RDJ-ish and he's voiced Tony before.)
Mark Ruffalo did better than I thought he would but why on Earth was he channeling Woody Allen in his performance? "I'm telling you it's safer for everyone if I fend for myself. Also there are worse things in life than death. My excruciatingly long selfie scene in Endgame, for example."
Jeremy Renner wins this week's award for not making Troy Baker worry about job security. I mean to be fair to the guy he barely had any lines so it might be too early to judge. But still. "I am saying this line. Now I am saying that line. What are emotions? We don't know."
I thought Hiddles was just okay. Like he hit some of the comedy beats well but otherwise it was just kinda there. Not great, not terrible as Chernobyl would say.
Stephanie Panisello did Betty Ross and I'm gonna be honest I thought this did Liv Tyler a disservice. Liv was actually one of the better parts of the Ed Norton Hulk movie which makes sense when you remember she was one of the few working actors at the time with ample experience having to emote in the direction of a tennis ball. Playing Betty as this wispy voiced ghost of a woman did not work for me. Which is surprising because Stephanie has plenty of voice acting credits, so I'm back on wondering if this was a fault on the directing side of things.
(For the record I did email Disney to ask if there was a different director in the booth on top of Bryan Andrews. I haven't heard back yet. Which I mostly mention because it makes me sound all official to say I reached out to Disney like they would ever return my metaphorical calls.)
As always, things that didn't fit anywhere else
- I wish the MCU had leaned into the concept of "Earth-[Number]" names instead of this whole timeline nonsense. "Well in the Sacred Timeline -" just say Earth-199999! It works fine in the comics! Plus then we don't have to get into arguments about what counts as the Sacred Timeline, especially when it doesn't even exist anymore.
- What was that Bruce Banner design supposed to be? I get that Hulk was a combination of the Norton and Ruffalo version, but Bruce didn't look like anybody.
- "Move or I'll make you move" and "We don't really do that here" had me gritting my teeth. Don't steal lines from Wakandans. Especially not to take a famous power moment away from Ayo and put a weaker version of it in a white woman's mouth.
- "He smells like lavender" - somewhere fanfic Thor is grateful that people will now write about at least one thing about him which doesn't involve Pop Tarts.
- It was super thoughtful of Loki and the Asgardian army to wait patiently while Fury and SHIELD set their defenses up. I can see where Thanos got it from.
- Yes, I loved Coulson's password. I'm not made of stone.
- Did they forget that Coulson was in Carol's movie? I'm fine for Fury keeping the pager a secret but that whole scene vibed like they forgot Coulson met Carol too.
- Reason five billion and eight why Loki stans make me tired: That they think Loki reducing earth to "ash and ice" is entirely about revenge for Thor even though the show itself reminds us that conquering Earth was already at the top of the To Do page in Loki's bullet journal.
- I have to say, much like last week's episode was great simply on the merits of pointing out that MCU Peter Quill is awful, this episode may be the worst because it denied me even concept art of Carol slapping Loki so hard he turned into a horse again. Mediocre men who want to commit genocide are her favored enemy! Show her doing what she does best!
And that's it for now. See you next week!
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