Episode Analysis: What If... Ultron Won?
Episode 8 of What If...? begins to tie the season together but raises questions about how it fits into the larger MCU.
Warning: Spoilers for all of What If...? the entirety of the MCU, the comic version of Age of Ultron, spoilery speculation on Dr Strange 2, and we're talking about MODOK again, go figure. Anyway proceed at your own risk.
I have a whole bag of feelings about last night's episode. I mean it was the Ultron + Vision + Infinity Stones ep we knew has been coming since they released the promo poster. We end with Uatu deciding to interfere and create the What If...? Avengers which GASP! NO WAY! WHOMSOEVER COULD HAVE... yeah we all knew this was coming for a while now because they put the lineup in the trailer before the series even started. (Which like I said last week is totally fine! Formation of Avengers is a great tradition! But why act like it's a super secret story when it's in your own marketing?)
So nothing in the ep was really a surprise which means we're left with judging the story as a story and back to my bag of feelings. Because if we divorce this episode from basically everything we know about the MCU ever it's a perfectly fine 30 minutes about an apocalypse. But it takes place in the MCU and that raises the issue of how do we judge these things in their fuller context?
Which gets to my quick and dirty review for the ep, since that's the What If...? tradition now. If you know nothing about the MCU ever it's fine. If you do, on the other hand, it's a hot mess. And how much of a hot mess depends on where we're setting the scale, so let's talk about that.
Infinite Canon Infinite Headaches
Here's the thing: as we've talked about repeatedly since the first episode the insistence that there are infinite universes and that all of them are canon is nothing but a headache in the making. Case in point: If there's a universe in which Ultron defeated the Avengers and proceeded to destroy the multiverse then there's also a universe where a more powerful Ultron defeated the Avengers and then decided to give everyone in the multiverse a puppy. Said Ultron proceeded to destroy the weaker genocidal version of himself and then retired to create watercolor paintings of tulips with top hats while wearing nothing but a G-string hanging off of the left ball he built for himself because infinite means fucking infinite. Literally every possible thing can happen when there is no limit. That's the definition of no limit!
Which obviously means for the sake of storytelling we don't go down these paths. We in the audience do the buy in of saying sure, let's go along for the ride of a story with a multiverse genocidal Ultron just to see what that's like. It's a thought exercise which ties nicely to the title of the show, go fig.
However this isn't being treated as a thought exercise. Not by Marvel's marketing nor by anybody with half a brain. Like you don't need to have your finger on the pulse of the spoiler community to go hmm, they did a whole episode about a version of Dr Strange with a super special version of him implausibly left alive at the end of the ep and Strange's next movie is called Multiverse of Madness. Gosh I wonder if there might be some kind of connection there? It is a mystery! Much like the What If? Avengers is going to be such a shock and surprise when we meet them! I wonder who will be on the team?
At which point then we get drawn back into the headaches. If this is meant to be a version of canon then this episode just told us that Infinity War could've been solved if Steve got out of the way and let Vision cut through Thanos like he was prepping him for Wakanda's local Body Worlds exhibit. (Also who knew that the Mind Stone beat five other Infinity Stones including the one that changes reality? Gosh we're learning so much today!)
There's also the issue that the whole series is hampered by how it was made before pesky little canon entries like Loki. Because either you point out that it's a little bit odd that Mobius and the rest of the team were busy sipping pumpkin spice lattes instead of noticing the Nexus Event to literally end all Nexus Events or you remember that What If...? was made before Loki's scripts were even a gleam in Michael Waldron's eye. So do you twist yourself in knots trying to justify all this or do you give it a pass because of the limits of our reality?
Personally I vote for the latter but this does raise the issue of how fans and other forms of media respond to these things. For instance the clickbaity articles and videos that I'm not linking to because I'm not helping their algorithm rankings but which said things like "What If tells us that Tony Stark's death is a Nexus Event! IT ALWAYS HAS TO HAPPEN!!!" and then you read interviews with AC Bradley where she basically says "Yeah we kinda didn't notice that quirks of scheduling meant we kept killing him off this season. Whoopsie!"
Which again: totally fine! But this means the needle is all over the place in terms of how are we meant to watch these episodes and how should we watch these episodes. It's not fair to judge them as one offs when they're pulling direct parallels to things like Black Widow's death on Vormir. Remove that connection and the scene of Clint's death gets stripped of the meaning it was clearly intended to have.
But put them back into the greater context and we're left again with how the first season of What If? has repeatedly pointed out that Thanos is surprisingly easy to defeat by apparently literally any method other than the one they went with in the movie (and raises the question of why Dr Strange didn't notice things like "Ask T'Challa to have a nice conversation with Thanos over a cup of tea" when he was supposedly looking at millions of other options).
You see what I mean about how it's infinite canons, infinite headaches. And I'd be happy to ignore them! I'd love to ignore them! Again: I love Legends of Tomorrow. Please let me turn my brain off and enjoy timeline and multiverse shenanigans (and increase the amount of queer representation while you're at it, ahem). But that's hard to do with the series as a whole and especially with this episode which breaks the fourth wall and all the others besides. So what's a reviewer to do?
I got nothing. I mean I have thoughts but picture me making a vague shrugging gesture while I say them because I'm fully aware it's both fair and unfair to make judgements in any direction here. At least as far as plotting goes. So instead I'm just going to talk a bit and lay out my impressions.
So That Plot, Huh?
I want to give a shout out to how this episode did do the work of paying a sort of homage to the comic version of Age of Ultron, which came out before the movie of the same name. Things like Nat and Hawkeye having key roles in fighting against the Ultron apocalypse and even the breaking of the walls between multiverses to bring characters from other worlds - or in their case publishers - all happened in that event. So if you're going to go with a comics storyline to lead in to the What If? Avengers this was a good one to choose. In my not so humble opinion things like this are the good kind of reference where if you know you know but you're not left in the lurch because you didn't recognize that a building in the background was from issue blah di blah of bloo blee which came out in 1975.
I also liked the animation in this ep. As we've discussed the work there has been hit or miss so I like giving props when I can. In particular I liked that they did a great job of capturing ScarJo's wry smile. There was also a lot of effort put in to the backgrounds of the cities destroyed by Ultron so kudos for that.
As you can tell we're having a moment here like the Dr Strange episode where I'm struggling for full on compliments because everything else starts to have a caveat. And like I said I'm not trying to be a hard ass here but they're making it difficult to judge. So let's just have the conversation.
Yes, I liked that they did an homage to Nat dying on Vormir. I liked that Clint was the one who died because I've been firmly on team Kick MCU Clint's Racist Serial Killer Self Off The Nearest Cliff Regardless Of Whether You Get A Soul Stone Out Of It for years now. But Clint dying because he's exhausted from fighting is not the same thing as Nat sacrificing herself so that Clint and the rest of the universe can live. One is the action of somebody giving of themselves to benefit others and the other is the action of somebody who has stopped giving a shit. These are not the same.
Not to harp on it but Nat's sacrifice also created hope. She believed in her heart that this would help Clint, all the people she considered her family (Avengers and Black Widow related), and the universe as a whole. Clint, on the other hand, had no hope so in his mind he's dooming Nat to being what appears to be the last person on Earth with only a Nazi robot for company. Again, these are not the same.
It's surprising because this episode was written by our boy Matthew Chauncey who as we know is the one who actually writes stories with character depth instead of lists of plot points. So it's as weird that he missed the nuance here as it is that he didn't find a way to shoehorn in an Ant-Man reference.
Though again credit where due: The visuals of Clint dying were very lovely. And I don't just mean that in the morbid way of "Yay, it was finally him and not Nat!" but genuinely they had good visual composition.
Since we're back on animation let's take a sec to talk about the fight with Captain Marvel and Ultron. Obviously as a Carol Danvers fangirl I was thrilled to see her. I also liked that she was shown to give Ultron with the Infinity Stones a good run for his money. I'm fine that she lost and it was a plausible way to have her be defeated. Though again I'm going to plead that this show please come up with something to do in super powered fight scenes other than two people punching each other a lot.
I'm as amazed as you are that I'm going back to the MODOK well here but compare last week's Carol vs Thor and this week's Ultron vs anybody with MODOK vs Monica in a mad scientist fight. I'm not saying What If? has to go all the way and bring in Pokemon references (though I know at least one employee at Disney who would be thrilled if they did) but you're an animated show with MCU money and you can't do better than punching? Seriously?
From here it's kind of infinite canon headache turtles all the way down. So I'm going to tap out after making one last point which is what exactly was the conceit with Uatu? Because so far he's been narrating in what appeared to be, based on his speech during the opening credits, for the benefit of the audience. Yes, Strange Supreme heard him but he just heard a voice. He didn't get specifics of what Uatu was saying until they spoke to one another directly.
Ultron, on the other hand, clearly heard Uatu doing narration. So either Ultron discovered the existence of the fourth wall and us and mysteriously didn't care about it or Uatu has been talking to himself this whole time like he had an imaginary friend who needed exposition assistance. Neither one actually makes sense.
I just - insert vague hands plus shrug emoji here. What do you want us to do with this, show? It's your script! Pick something!
The Voice Acting
We didn't have anybody new here so this is mostly going to be touching on the old stuff. Lake Bell gave good Nat, as she's consistently done so far. Alexandra Daniels did better as Carol than she did last week though it's not like Carol had many lines to mess up this time.
Jeremy Renner was fine. Credit where due I suspected he'd be one of the worst of the MCU performers transitioning to voice acting work and he's been passable this whole time. I know that sounds damning with faint praise but we've all heard Natalie Portman and Sebastian Stan's efforts by now so Jeremy turning in a solid B is still pretty good by comparison.
I'm torn on Jeffrey Wright. Previously all he did was narrate so he didn't need to put much emotion into it. And god knows he's probably one of the few working actors right now with ample experience playing someone who wants to be an impartial observer while a newly sentient AI attempts to overthrow the world.
Jeffrey sounded very much like Bernard in this ep which, again, is kind of the assignment? But at the same time he wasn't really hooking me in terms of conveying the emotions as well as they could be. Yeah, emotions were there but as we discussed back in episode 2 there is so much more you can convey with voice alone if you know how to do it.
I suspect the problem is that Jeffrey, much like Mark Ruffalo, does a lot in his acting that is conveyed with subtle body language. His performance in Westworld has so much that is shown by things like the slope of his shoulders, the way he wears his glasses, and so on. The visuals add to the understated work he's doing verbally to paint a full picture of his character. Take the visuals out and his voice can't get you there alone.
So I think the rating here is that he's not horrible but not a star performer either.
I don't think anybody this week wins the award for not making a hard working voice actor worry about job security since the general rating scale is from good to passable. But I do still like introducing you all to good voice actors so just for the sake of adding to that list let's give a shout out to Phil LaMarr.
Finally, somebody please tell Benedict Cumberbatch that his American accent is far too shitty for him to be worth an "Also Starring" credit. Especially since he is not the best voice for Dr Strange while Liam O'Brien lives and breathes.
As always, the things which don't fit anywhere else:
- At least this time there's an excuse for Clint to have that awful haircut
- I get that they're going for a "darkest timeline" vibe but giving Clint a robotic arm as a shorthand for that is just distracting since all it does is make you wonder why anybody would trust a robot anything when your Big Bad Evil Guy is someone who, yanno, takes over technology
- "Alerted the Ultron hive mind to our location" wins the award for the best "As you know, Bob..." line. I mean what? There are other hive minds out there so Nat had to specify?
- I'm fine for MCU Tony being given 99% of the blame for Ultron but it's freaking weird how nobody wants to remember that Bruce helped. Ultron and Vision have two daddies, dang it!
- Convenient that Thor and Hulk got killed offscreen so nobody had to explain how that happened.
- I liked that Nat was the one to carry Zola's body around instead of it being that as the girl she is too weak for such things. But on the other hand if Michonne has taught us nothing it's that you take off the arms of your dangerous captives, not the legs. Keep those suckers ambulatory! Don't hurt your lower back for no reason!
- I wrote down in my notes that it was a nice touch that Clint was making jokes about HR as a sign that he was feeling hope again but then he killed himself because he didn't want to live. So that was a pretty rapid moment of me going "Wow, what great subtle work with the writing!" to "....oh."
- (I'm not saying Clint couldn't make jokes in that situation. The issue was my incorrect interpretation of what was going on in that moment, sadly.)
- Speaking of Clint's mental state, poor Nat not only having to come up with ways to find a counter attack to Ultron but also having to do the emotional labor of keeping Clint motivated all that time.
- I wish there'd been a clearer indication of what the state of the planet was for Clint and Nat. Because to all appearances they were the last two people alive so what was the plan after they defeated Ultron? Spend the rest of their days together talking about the good times? Get each other out of the friend zone and repopulate the world with the uterus Nat doesn't have? Other?
- I'm fine for the creation of the What If? Avengers but hopefully next week explains things like why party Thor makes the list and not original recipe Thor who is provably better at the job of being a Thor who can save worlds instead of destroying them. Because if the issue is the need to save the multiverse then you should be bringing in your A-list choices from every universe and not just the people who had a What If? episode, chucklefucks and all. Like Star-Lord T'Challa? Yes, absolute upgrade from Peter Quill. Captain Carter? Always a good addition to any team. But Killmonger Black Panther instead of T'Challa? Ehhhh, really? I mean he's not the worst skills-wise but is he the best? And seriously is party Thor just bringing a drinks cabinet with him? It'd be one thing if the What If? Avengers were formed by some multiverse related cosmic accident but if it's Uatu deliberately picking each one of them I think the first replacement on this team we're gonna need is swapping Uatu out for Nick Fury. I'm just saying.
And that's all for this week! See you next week for the hopefully thrilling conclusion which may or may not include my attempt to make a list of how I rank all these episodes from best to worst. (Spoiler alert: Star-Lord T'Challa remains number one.)
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