Episode Analysis: What if... Thor Were An Only Child?
Why the seventh episode of What if...? isn't the worst but neither is it the best, and why Thor loses to MODOK.
Note: Warning for discussion of What If...? including future plot points revealed by the trailers and posters for the show, for the entirety of the MCU, and for Marvel's MODOK. Proceed at your own risk.
Well that happened.
I mean look, this wasn't the worst episode of What If...? so far but it wasn't the best by a long shot. For there to be strong emotions on this episode something would've need to have happened in it. Not only that, something interesting needed to have happened in it. Thor threw a party. He cleaned up after the party. There are no details in the middle of that information that are worth 30 minutes of your time. And when you consider that I'm saying this even though the episode included a significant amount of Carol Danvers that clearly tells you how weak the story was. Even with my best girl getting so much screentime, my reaction remains, and I quote, "Meh."
Let's roll up our sleeves and get out of the intro section to talk about what the ep was, what it could have been, and as always the voice acting.
The Strangeness of This Episode, No Doctor Pun Intended
This ep was always going to be a weird one and not just because of the odd grammar decision to say "What if... Thor were an only child?" instead of was an only child. Like yeah you can make that verb tense choice but why?
Beyond that it was odd because well before What If...? aired it was known that there was going to be a "party Thor" episode. As in that's what it was called and even pushed on the merchandise as though the concept of "party Thor" was going to be a huge sell. Idea being, "What if... When Thor Came To Earth He Threw A Party?" instead of the events of the first Thor movie where he tries to become worthy.
Which is why I always had my eye on this episode because let's face it, Thor throwing a party is not a story hook. It doesn't grab you like "What if Peggy took the serum?" or "What if Killmonger saved Tony?" Therefore it raised the question of okay, how is this episode going to hold our interest? And not only that, hold our interest so much that party Thor in and of himself was going to be considered a - ahem - worthy merchandise collectible up there with Captain Carter.
And this is not an impossible task! Put Thor in a different enough outfit and the collectible part is handled. Which, let us notice, they didn't actually do because Thor just looked like Thor. So even on that particular challenge they didn't hit the dismount, because, yanno, they didn't try.
But also you can make the party interesting enough that it's enjoyable to watch even if not much happens plot wise. Coming into this I assumed the wild party was going to be the draw, either by having fun cameos (more on this in a sec) and/or clever uses of animation. To be clear I'm not saying either of those had to happen for me to give this a high grade, I'm just saying that I came into this with an open mind that the plot was probably not going to be the most interesting bit and I was fine for whatever else they were going to do with it to make it fun.
And there were fun bits! Darcy marrying Howard the Duck was cute. Nebula saying she heard her father calling her was cute. Jotun Loki being a bro both emotionally and colloquially was funny. But beyond that it was just... stuff. Concepts that didn't go anywhere.
I actually peeked at some of the online reaction to see what people were responding to. Of course the Loki stans were passing out in seizures of orgasmic bliss over the idea that their boy could be happy. But beyond that it seemed like people who liked it mostly enjoyed having something to watch. Like "Thor ate Chinese food!" or "The Grand Master sprayed people with foam!" were considered high points and not, yanno, just things that happened. Because we know Thor eats food, and we know the Grand Master enjoys spectacle. There's nothing new here. We don't need an alternate universe to give us this.
Which is probably a good as place as any to talk about how this was written by AC Bradley, who as regular readers know by now is the writer who creates episodes which are plot point checklists instead of actual stories. In this case it wasn't like Captain Carter where she simply did one for one scenes from Captain America but with Peggy instead of Steve, but rather quick concepts - Thor throws party, Thor fights with Carol, Frigga is why the party stops, episode ends with unrelated plot point that ties into the end of the season - and not really caring too much how any of it makes sense when you put them together.
Bringing this back to the title, a lot of this episode also felt like not so much things happening for the sake of story but as a mad scramble to explain plot holes. "What if... Thor were an only child?" is not actually the thrust of this episode. Other than Uatu giving us the quick "They influenced each other growing up" introduction we skip right to party Thor.
Which we actually didn't need in terms of motivation. Much like with episode three where they didn't need to do "What if Hope van Dyne was actually a SHIELD agent who was also killed by the Winter Soldier because she did the Odessa mission instead of Natasha?" to get to "What if Hank Pym, who we already know loathes SHIELD, decided to get murdery about it?" you don't need Thor as an only child to get to Thor being an irresponsible twat who only wants to party because that was the fucking premise of the Thor movie.
Thor lost the hammer because Odin said he wasn't worthy! He wasn't worthy because all he cared about was things like drinking and boasting and not having responsibility! They were there. All they needed to do is say that Thor goes down to Earth like the movie but, unlike the movie, he doesn't care about being worthy. Done and done.
Except... that raises the question of okay, if Thor's fucking around on Earth - possibly literally - why doesn't Loki try to take over Asgard while he's gone? And now we start to see why some decisions in this episode might have been made.
I'm not saying I have the inside track here. I could easily be wrong. But things like "oh, wait - what if Thor was an only child?" do make sense from the lens of someone scrambling to fill plot holes. Like okay, Loki doesn't take over because he's not there! Uhhh because Odin never adopted him! And, uhhh - also he and Thor are friends instead of enemies! And Loki's not a Trickster for some reason he's a bro! And, uhhh, look it's Drax vomiting! That's funny, right?
Which is possibly me and my conspiracy theory board and I fully acknowledge it. But at the same time there are a lot of - it kind of overstates them to call them plot points but things which happen because that's the only way to make a thing happen. For example Carol smacks Thor into Siberia because they need the tension of Maria Hill firing nukes and also because that's the only way to have Thor in a place where Frigga can show up. As opposed to the classic solution of superheroes with phenomenal cosmic powers in every universe ever which is that when you're dealing with a situation too dangerous for Earth you move the fight up into space where it's safe. Yanno, like Carol is kinda known for doing.
Which is as good a place as any to move the topic to what this episode could have been.
MODOK and Other Ways It Could've Been Better
I'm going to stick with Carol for a moment because she is one of my favorite Marvel characters. And to be clear I loved Darcy being a total Carol fangirl trying to immediately get hired as her assistant or cat wrangler because boy do I feel seen. However we're dealing with an episode in which Carol is in a fight for over three minutes of show time and during that I was not saying "Yay! Carol kicking butt like I love to watch her do!" but rather "So this started at 14:30 and is... still going huh? Wow."
It was boring. It was three minutes and change of nothing but Carol punching hard, Thor using the hammer, and one vaguely interesting moment of Carol absorbing the lightning which actually wasn't that interesting because 1) We already saw Tony do literally this exact same thing in Avengers and 2) At no time did Carol's movie establish that she has this ability like she does in the comics, whoopsie.
It was, frankly, the Strange vs Strange fight all over again. Granted without the detriment of going into it knowing which one of them would lose but beyond that it was just stuff happening and not even interesting stuff at that. And sure we could argue that this is a cartoon so how interesting could it get but take a look at Carol and Kamala vs T'Challa and Shuri from the Avengers Assemble cartoon series. It's only a minute and twenty five seconds and clearly not done with as smooth an animation style as What If...? is. But even so in that short time we're seeing layers of emotion from both sides as well as clever attacks and counter attacks that use everyone's abilities in creative ways.
Granted that clip has better examples of Kamala and Shuri's abilities but point still stands that you can show super powered Carol in a fight with people who don't even have an infinitesimal percentage of her strength but come up with ways to present a challenge to her that isn't "They punch and sometimes there's a hammer that gets dropped to the ground." And if you want examples of different ways to show an animated Carol kicking butt and keeping it interesting, well here's an eight minute long montage of it so enjoy.
The Carol and Thor fight is a microcosm of the lack of potential with the entire episode which is that they don't do anything with what they have. Thor throws a party. It's a party. Thor and Carol fight. It's a fight. Yeah there's a flicker of interesting moments now and again but ultimately it is exactly what it says on the tin.
And one could argue that hey, how interesting could this be except that another animated show already did this concept and did it far better, which is Marvel's MODOK. Spoilers for that show, obviously, but in episode 3 they have what is basically the same concept: MODOK unleashes a party on Earth using beings from another planet which will result in the destruction of Earth if the party isn't stopped.
Now the fact that this is the same plot isn't a problem. Legends of Tomorrow also had an episode about a party where people got addicted to the concept of partying until they died. The idea is what do you do with it and the fact that I just cited two other shows off the top of my head proves you can do a lot if you get clever with it. (Also both episodes address the issue that the reason the parties take over is because of magic/powers that force it. What If...? never actually explained why everyone on the planet decided to lose their minds. It just... happened. As though nobody has to go to work in the morning.)
I'm sticking with MODOK though because it's Marvel and it's the closest in what What If...? was trying to do. But the thing that makes MODOK stand out first and foremost is that it actually ground the idea in characters. "Beware What from Portal Comes!" isn't just about the party but about MODOK, newly separated from his wife, trying to succeed at being an evil villain and dealing with the tenuous connection he has with his kids. We get the wacky fun cameos of the party, the danger of the aliens, and an evolution in MODOK's relationship with his daughter all in the same episode.
I'm not saying that party Thor had to follow this exact same trajectory but can you see how the scraps we start with "What if... Thor were an only child?" could've been built up into something just as meaningful and fun? What if we saw some sort of development in Thor's relationship with Frigga? What if this is where we see him and Jotun Loki become friends instead of just telling us it happened some nebulous time in the past? What if we see Thor and Jane fall in love but instead of turning Jane into a horny idiot in a complete contradiction of everything Natalie Portman fought for in the first Thor movie instead it was Jane's intelligence inspiring Thor to become more serious and responsible?
(I'll get to Natalie in a sec but I can only assume Jane's handling in Love and Thunder must be fucking amazing for Natalie to have agreed to voice this version of Jane with no notes about how shitty it was.)
(Or, more scary, maybe this is the version of Jane we got after notes were given. Insert Sideshow Bob shudder here.)
Anyway you get the point. MODOK proves you can keep all the concepts that make up the starter idea of this episode but actually do something with them to make them both funny and full of character development. And, I will remind you, this is in a stop animation show about a guy who is a giant head in a floating chair. If they can do it, What if..? has no excuse.
The other thing I think MODOK shows is, unfortunately, the problem What If...? has with the whole "It's canon!" thing we talked about back in episode 1. Because as we established, "canon" is meaningless when you're talking about infinite universes. If you have infinite possibilities then everything is canon, including a world where everything is the same but Tony Stark is an ice cream sundae.
Which first and foremost I think is proving to be a problem for this show in that nobody cares much about it. People are watching it, sure, but it's not getting the buzz that WandaVision, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, or Loki got. One I think because it's a cartoon and sadly those traditionally do not grab everyone's attention even if they're well done. But two because these being alternate universes means that nothing matters unless you care about the premise. You don't have to stay up late to watch these shows because it doesn't matter if Twitter spoils "OMG LUKE SKYWALKER!" for you because it's an alternate universe. There are no spoilers, just stories.
So "canon" as it relates to what anybody wants to know about the MCU isn't a thing here. But, what this episode made me realize in comparison to MODOK, canon does matter when it comes to creative freedom. Namely: This show can't use characters unless they get official permission. They can only use what the MCU has already shown us. Period.
You see, MODOK doesn't have that problem. So even in a quick gag like MODOK deciding what aliens to bring to Earth he can mention anybody from the Skrulls to the Brood if he wants to. Any random episode can either have a throwaway gag or even fully feature characters and ideas from damn near anywhere in the comics. Party Thor? Couldn't even have Johnny Storm in the far far background as a throwaway gag even though MCU Fantastic Four has already been announced as an upcoming property. Because even in an AU you can't touch it until it's actually canon.
Which doesn't have to be a bad thing per se! Limits can lead to creativity, just look at any good sonnet or haiku. But in this case what they went with is cameos of characters we've already met doing things we've already seen them do. That's not interesting, that's just there.
The Voice Acting
We can't start this section without giving it up for Kat Dennings who is without a doubt the episode MVP. Probably helped by how she has voice acting experience under her belt already, plus god knows her comedic timing can't be beat in any format. She elevated every scene she was in and bless her for it.
Chris Hemsworth and Tom Hiddleston also did great this episode. I think they were helped by the way that the majority of their dialogue was aimed at comedy, which both of them are skilled at. I think Tom benefited the most because the comedy Loki was doing was structured, and relied on tone and timing, rather than the "WHEEEE I'M BEING WACKY!!" moments we had over in Loki which felt more like nobody on the set had the courage to tell the lead actor how to do his job.
Natalie Portman, on the other hand, wins this week's award for not making Laura Bailey* worry about job security. Not sure who would win in the competition between Natalie and Sebastian Stan in terms of saying lines as though confirming for their eye doctor that they do in fact see the correct words on the page but I think we can all agree none of us would actually want to listen to said competition if it happened. Though to be fair to Natalie, if I had to read this version of Jane I probably wouldn't be bringing my A game either.
(* If I do one thing with this series it's going to be to introduce y'all to some amazing voice actors, I swear.)
The other thing that confuses me with the voice acting is the choice of Alexandra Daniels for Captain Marvel. Alexandra has no prior voice acting experience, doesn't sound a thing like Brie Larson, and isn't actually very good at the job. It makes no sense to me why they would hire her compared to Grey Griffin who has a ton of experience as Carol and actually does something with the part. Those earlier clips of Carol I shared were all her. Or you could try these clips where even in a few words Grey is giving Carol far more personality. (Also you can enjoy a cameo from Matt Mercer playing Hercules, for those who care about such things.)
And, if not Grey, again this is a Disney product. Yeet a Mickey doll out the window and grab the first female voice actor who says "hey!" Sheer volume says it'll be someone beyond qualified for the job. Done and done.
Finally, I'm a voice acting nerd enough that I appreciated they brought Clancy Brown back to play Surtur. It's the little things.
As always, things that don't fit anywhere else.
- When talking to a friend I was made aware that, if you didn't pay close attention to the posters and marketing for the show, you wouldn't know that the version of Vision that appeared at the end of the episode is actually his own What If...? (You can see him above Peggy's left shoulder on the poster, for example.) Given that we have two episodes left and he was introduced in an unrelated episode I assume "Vision as Ultron plus the Infinity Stones" will be the big bad that the What If...? Avengers come together to fight.
- Which again brings up the point that the marketing from this show has been so weirdly handled, since clips of party Thor featured heavily and most of said clips weren't in this episode, thus spoiling that we'd see him again (and see him with Strange Supreme at that.)
- "I don't know anything about horse gods" - well that proves party Thor really didn't spend a lot of time around Loki, HEYOO.
- I know this supposedly took place during Fury's Big Week so in theory Tony was busy trying not to die, but still if we're having parties all around the world you'd expect at least a quick visual cameo from him.
- Rumlow being pouty about not using nukes was funny. And was a doubly good joke when you remember that it was the leaders of SHIELD, who were actually HYDRA, who pushed for nukes to be used during the Battle of New York as well. I'm possibly giving too much credit for thoughtfulness here but still. I compliment when it's deserved.
- Why were the Skrulls so quick to be mean to Carol? If the events of the Captain Marvel movie are the same - which was implied - then the Skrulls should love her. Again it feels like this ep was meant to have something to indicate that people were under some kind of spell or drug to make them want to party and somehow that got left on the cutting room floor. (I figured the reveal would be that it involved the bottomless mug of alcohol Thor was passing around back in Vegas.)
- Hugely not a fan of how one of the jokes was "Ha ha, you thought Thor was going to say a misogynistic slur but he just said 'party pooper'!" Because the joke still hangs on the idea that calling Carol a misogynistic slur was on the table.
- Also not a fan of the running gag of telling Carol to smile. Don't get me wrong, you can make these jokes. Carol's own movie did it. But unless you're doing something with the joke, such as having Carol get revenge by stealing a guy's bike or you're Brie Larson turning the joke around all you're doing is repeating the sexism. As with everything else in this episode, they just put the thing out there. They didn't do anything with it.
- Fair warning if you decide to watch MODOK that episode 3 does have a huge amount of secondhand embarrassment in it. If that's hard for you to watch you may want to skip that episode when watching the series. I admittedly barely made it through that ep myself. The series as a whole is great though and worth viewing.
- Note to self: Write up a more detailed review of MODOK for Ko-Fi Members.
And that's all for now! We have Ultron Vision with Infinity Stones, Gamora as Thanos, and Nat in the Apocalypse as the three things left we know are happening for this season. (Sadly, Tony on Sakaar got pushed to season two. Woe.) Given that we have only two episodes left and signs indicated that Nat's episode was tied to Ultron, my guess is that next week is either going to be Gamora on her own or somehow Gamora, Nat, and Vision will all be tied together so next week introduces the concept and ep 9 is the What If...? Avengers coming together to take down the big bad. We'll see how it goes.
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