Episode Analysis: What If... Zombies!?

The fifth episode of What If..? is one of the better ones, highlighting what can happen when script and animation are at their best (and worst).

Episode Analysis: What If... Zombies!?
Screencap from Disney+

Note: This talks about What If...? and the entirety of the MCU. Spoilers abound, read at your own risk.

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I liked it! Which believe me no one is more surprised about than I am since generally speaking I do not like zombies. I like things which happen to have zombies in them - World War Z the book being a key example - but that is because they use the idea of a zombie apocalypse to talk about other things. World War Z, for instance, using it to talk about logistics and the home front during a war which are basically two of my fetishes rolled into one and I have no shame in admitting it.

So it isn't stories that focus on zombies qua zombies which do it for me - World War Z the movie being a key example - but stories about the people who happen to be dealing with zombies. And in that regard What If... Zombies!? delivered.

(It did not, however, deliver in the realm of consistent grammar as the promo material wrote it as "Zombies?!" and the show's title as "Zombies!?" and if you think that's too small a detail clearly you've never had to make and then revise social media graphics for articles you write about this show while almost blind in one eye due to a migraine.)

(Not that I'm saying you should keep such sacrifices in mind when you get to the reminder about signing up for a Ko-Fi membership at the end of this article but, yanno, I'm not NOT saying it either...)



I won't say that there aren't some weak spots in this episode and I'll certainly touch on them. But since the quick review in the intro is becoming as much of a tradition around here as bagging on the Russos I figured why not keep that going? I liked it. One of the better eps of the season so far.

Now let's get into the good, the needs improvement, and as always the voice acting and some other things.

The Good

This episode was credited to Matthew "T'Challa Star-Lord" Chauncey and once again we see how he's the writer of the team who focuses on the people in the stories more than ticking off check boxes of AU concepts with or without one for one plot points taken directly from the movies. With, again, the full caveat that credited writer does not necessarily mean sole writer but when reviewing things we have to work with what we know for sure.

If I can go on a small digression here - and hey there's no comment section and I'm not live streaming the writing of this on Twitch so absolutely none of you can stop me - if I could ever be said to have a goal for these analysis articles it's to hopefully help give an appreciation for how much work goes into making a show or movie.

One of my more viral pins on Pinterest is a quick video rundown of the color story in episode 5 of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier. And while the vast majority responding to that pin are people saying hey neat, I didn't know that was a thing there are a couple of people who scoff and say that maybe the clothes are just clothes.

And yes, in some shows the clothes are just clothes because next to no thought was put into them (coughLokicough) in general a costume designer and their team is putting work in to have clothes tell a story. So is the set designer, so is the composer, so is the person doing the lighting and so on. These people don't get hired for no reason. Movies and TV shows don't just happen. There's work put into them and when the work is good it deserves to be appreciated. And not just appreciated like "Hey, good show" but "Hey, good show and one of the reasons why it was a good show is because the writer came up with a good script."

Winging this back to Matthew, based on what we know to be his previous efforts we can guess that he was probably the one who knew that this episode would work better as more than a toy and collectible delivery machine (though of course it's that too). It worked as a story about people with their own individual goals and motivations about why they're putting a foot in front of the other in the face of seemingly impossible odds.

Which almost makes me regret he wasn't the writer on the Dr Strange episode which, ironically given the title, lacked heart. But then I'm incredibly selfish and given that I had small odds of ever liking a Dr Strange centered episode and slightly higher odds of liking a zombie episode if it was done right, I'm glad the writer's room chore wheel worked out this way.

Of amusing interest to me is that both this episode and episode 3, which he co-wrote, have key plot points around Hank Pym being adjacent to if not responsible for the fuckup of this particular corner of the multiverse as well as Hope Van Dyne being a key figure in fixing it. I'm not saying this suggests that Matthew either loves the Ant-Man franchise above all others or that he's perhaps carrying a grudge that MCU Hank Pym didn't get the blame for Ultron like his 616 counterpart but, yanno, common denominators are common denominators. I'm simply making note of them for you.

Now yes, there are aspects of the episode which didn't quite work and I'll get into those. But I want to be clear that with some things it is okay to simply have fun. "Rule of cool" is a thing where if it plays well it's fine, particularly in things like this which aren't trying to be Serious Media [tm]. For instance, in an episode where Happy is wearing a "I'm saving myself for Thor" t-shirt it's silly to get into nitpicky details like how MCU Tony was only with Dr Strange and Wong in New York because Bruce introduced the three of them to each other. Or, for that matter, to wonder how Strange is still doing targeted, situation appropriate spells as a zombie because, c'mon, they already told us its a quantum virus. Everybody knows quantum zombie viruses work that way, duh.

So first and foremost the episode was there to have some fun and the fun was, well, fun. It gets to exist. And let's face it, you've got to slow clap it out at knowing a section of the audience well enough that if you've picked Bucky out of a hat of which characters to include in the story you may as well go full fanservice and introduce a reason to show him naked in the shower even if the stated reason why never comes up or is even vaguely hinted at ever again for the rest of the 32 minutes.

Not to abuse the phrasing from Dr Strange but I also liked how the episode had heart. Not only that, but distinct heart for each of the characters. Okoye's reasons for going on were not the same as Peter's were not the same as Vision's and so on. And each one was given weight, and importance.

For example while of course it can't fully compete with all of WandaVision the few moments we got of Vision and Wanda in this show - and they were scant moments - still gave infinitely more depth and meaning to the love and devotion the two characters had for one another than anything the Russos ever managed to accomplish. Which I realize is damning with faint praise but at the same time this episode genuinely did a good job with it.

To which we can take a brief moment to discuss animation, because honestly for the most part the animation on this show is hit or miss (more on the misses in a bit). But, again in the interest of seeing where the work comes in, appreciating the moment of zombie Wanda losing Vision means appreciating the work done by drawing, animation, color, and a tiny bit voice acting. Take a look at a screencap:

Zombie Wanda reaching for Vision's dead body
Screencap from Disney+

Vision's dead so Paul Bettany's not bringing anything to the table here. Wanda's a zombie so whichever voice actor is doing her (she's not specifically credited) only gets a few tiny grunts to work with. Therefore the bulk of the heavy lifting is on the visuals.

We'd need the entire scene in motion to fully appreciate it but even in this one picture we can see it. Vision is dead, foregrounded but without a face. The coloring on him is so muted as to be almost nothing but tones of grey. He's not a being anymore, he's not a person (for lack of a better word). He's a thing discarded on the ground. Because he's in the front, though, he's still looming large. His death is occupying our - well - vision the same way it's impacting what passes for Wanda's thoughts.

Wanda herself is in the background. She's kneeling, so vulnerable she doesn't even have control over the hair falling into her face. The world is red to show her power but the greatest amount of it is in the hand reaching for Vision's body. What focus she has is towards Vision and longing to touch him. And even though her right hand is glowing brightest, the hair around her right eye - the one that can see Vision's body - is colored in shadows. It connects to Vision's dark body and the dark actions that she's about to take as she reacts to this great loss.

I mean I could go on and on but point being there is a lot happening here in blocking, camera angle, character shapes, color, and so on and this is a couple of animation frames you could easily blink and miss. It's nice to take a moment to appreciate it because if you felt and sympathized with Wanda's pain here, those are among the reasons why.

I also want to give a shout out to how this episode created action and fight scenes which had tension. We discussed last week how the good Strange vs Strange Supreme fight was pointless because we knew going into it that good Strange was weaker and had nothing on his side that Strange Supreme didn't have except more and better. Compare that to Hulk vs zombie Wanda where even though we didn't see the outcome of the fight it was interesting enough that we'd want to. Wanda's magic vs a being who gets stronger the more you piss him off? That's interesting! That's got drama! And, frankly, it works better not to show us how it ended because we don't need to know the answer to advance the story, we just need to believe that this is a real fight which will buy them some time (more on this in a sec).

Finally I'd like to give a shout out for how this episode didn't obey the rule of not using the Z word in a story about zombies. I imagine it was Peter who first called it like it is and insisted others do the same, so thanks for that, Pete. Luckily he's got genre awareness in addition to the spider sense.

The Needs Improvement

As I mentioned above, there's a lot here which gets to be covered by rule of cool. Why did T'Challa bring Bucky and not a member of the Dora? Why was Kurt there at all? Who the hell knows? Were they used in fun and/or interesting ways? Then it's fine.

(Actually I suspect Kurt was there because the answer to the question of Matthew's writing motivations is he's a fan of the Ant-Man movies and thus he'll include any aspect of them that he can get away with but that's neither here nor there.)

So I'm not going to find fault in things that anybody, myself included, could easily "well ACTUALLY..." even though they abound. If they don't get in the way of a fun story it doesn't matter. This section is more for things that got in the way of the story being as good as it could be.

Though, in one amusing note, given that this show was worked on before Falcon and the Winter Soldier was, I suspect the answer to "How did Sharon get to the US from Madripoor?" is "Actually nobody had decided yet that Sharon was in Madripoor." Which also ties to how she's drawn in the same vest we saw her in back in Civil War. Her post-Civil War story hadn't been filled in yet, so they picked her up right where they left off (albeit she still was on the wrong continent when last we saw her but whatever. We saw her being badass, rule of cool, it's fine.)

Sharon does lead us into things that could have been stronger, though, such as how the final characters to survive to the end of the ep included zero women. Please understand I have no complaints about T'Challa being on the survivors list, and like everyone else his line about "They are still with us as long as we do not forget them." hit me like a freight train to the gut. But we kill off Hope, Sharon, and Okoye but keep Scott's freaking talking head? Come on.

It's also not a great look when Peter lists off the people he's lost in his life and Aunt May only gets added as an afterthought two lines later. Again, come on. If I wanted stories which ignored how important Aunt May is to Peter I'd grab any random fanfic about Tony adopting Peter to be his actual son.

The only thing that makes it vaguely not as bad is that they're going towards a cure, so possibly Hope can be saved? But yeah, not a great look.

Related, the "dun dun DUNNN" ending of showing Thanos falls flat because funnily enough what Thanos and zombies have in common is that they can both be killed by headshots. Putting aside the part where Thanos shouldn't have the time stone either because you need Strange in order to recover it from where it's actually hidden, there's no tension or worry to the concept of cure = Thanos does the Snapture because you could just... not cure Thanos.

I suppose you could get into arguments about how nobody on Earth knew Thanos was a danger until Bruce told them and Bruce got a little too busy in this reality to mention it. But now we're getting into the kind of nitpicky arguments for something that I've been saying we shouldn't hold against the show for fails. Like if we're going to get that into it we could point out why the fuck would Thanos land 1) on Earth after his first two emissaries got turned into zombies as soon as they landed and 2) near Wakanda when the only reason he went there in the MCU is because that's where the mind stone was?

So you see how the whole thing gets silly in every direction. A far easier fix would've been to show Thanos still in his ship heading to Earth and then tweak the final line to make it more on point for them solving the zombie problem only to have another invasion at their door or something.

Speaking of dramatic moments without drama, Bucky vs Wanda. That was so pointless and absolutely nobody should've been on board with that. Everybody there knew that Wanda's powers included mind control and telekinesis at bare minimum. Why would anyone think it was a good idea to send a guy whose skills are guns and knives to be the one who buys some time?  He's a nothing to somebody like Wanda! He's less than a nothing because frankly it's ridiculous that he was able to block the shots fired back at him with the shield faster than Wanda could've squished Bucky's skull to make her own "This is what just happened to my husband" modern art sculpture.

Frankly there was a lot with Bucky that didn't work and I know, I know the Bucky stans saw the shower scene and declared this the greatest episode of all media in the history of ever. I get it, I'm not saying I fault them. I'd do the same if it'd been Tony.

But in the grand scheme of things Bucky even being in this episode reads a lot like "Matthew ranks Bucky as his #2 favorite character after the entire cast of Ant-Man" and not "Thank god we had Bucky specifically for the unique POV he brought to this story." Like compare why Bucky was fighting to live another day with Hope or Okoye or Peter. Can we even name his specific motivations other than, we assume, T'Challa gave him the vibranium arm and said "Be tee dubs your debt to my country is in the trillions right now and that doesn't even include my sister rebooting your mind. Milking some goats ain't gotta cut it, white boy, so get to work"?

A lot of stuff with Bucky just didn't play well. Some of which I'll get to in the voice acting section but also things like him facing off against zombie Steve. I know fans of Bucky and Steve, whether they see that pairing as platonic or romantic, were probably in raptures over the agony of that moment but if you rewatch the scene said agony is not supported by what's happening in the show. Animation-wise it's the opposite of the scene with Wanda I discussed above.

To start with, we're not primarily focused on Bucky. The majority of the moment is focused on giving us glory shots of the design of zombie Steve holding the shield. And hey - it's a great design, no question. It similarly makes for a great ad for all the collectibles they'll be selling based on this episode. But what it isn't is anything that establishes that Bucky, who is given ample time to get a headshot in while Steve is posting for future Funko products, to convey that the reason why he's hesitating is due to deep heartbreak over having to kill what used to be his friend. Instead what we get is a shot of him squinting a little bit.

Bucky staring, then Bucky staring with his eyes squinty
Bucky either deeply emotionally conflicted or his contact lens just moved. (Screencaps from Disney+)

The faceoff establishing Bucky vs zombie Steve takes about 30 seconds total, of which Bucky gets 8. (Yes I am anal retentive enough that I timed it, have you met me before?). Anything in that moment which conveys emotions about what's going on is entirely the viewer bringing it to the scene based on what they know about the characters. It ain't happening in the animation or the story. Either this was a different team handling this scene or the team in question blew their wad on Wanda and Vision so nothing was left for here.

Speaking of Bucky and Vision, Bucky goes off on his own at the fort and nobody, including Peter who'd already called out the stupidity of splitting up when you're living in a horror film, doesn't point out this is a bad idea? Nobody notices that Vision's encryption programing apparently applies to vague statements about where he's living? Scott didn't notice any of the weirdness?

And for that matter why did Vision haul Scott and T'Challa from San Francisco? As someone who grew up in New York I qualified to say and regret to inform you that New Jersey is, in fact, full of people. There was no need for Vision to import some in.

(Kidding, kidding. Love you all my Jersey friends!)

Finally, Hulk refusing to come out and fight because of reasons was stupid in Infinity War and it doesn't get smarter when you use the same "I don't know how to write around this" excuse for your own story. It was nice that he came out at the end but honestly they should've handwaved around it instead of reminding the audience it was happening.

The Voice Acting And Other Things

I don't want to dry out the Troy Baker well here so instead we'll say that Mark Ruffalo and once again Sebastian Stan are this week's winners of the "Not making Nolan North worry about job security" award.

I mean points to Ruffalo for dialing down the Woody Allen thing he had going in ep 3 but it's not a great sign when your strongest lines are ones taken almost word for word from scenes you already did in the movies. Though in fairness I think some of this fault lies with the animation as well. To begin with, his character design continues to be a strange choice given that it doesn't resemble Mark nor any of Bruce's comic counterparts. It's not made better by how it never includes the physicality that Ruffalo brought to the role.

In the movies Mark's version of Bruce is generally soft spoken, yeah, but he's matching that with actions which tell you he's either a guy trying not to be noticed or he's a guy in tight control of his emotions because he has to be. None of that is translating to the character we're seeing in What If..? which makes the lack of what Mark can do in a voice acting booth stand out that much more.

Likewise for Sebastian Stan - look, he did better than in the Captain Carter ep. Credit where due for that. But woof some of those line readings. "I should be sad, but I'm not" sounded like the version of the line he says to the director to confirm he's reading the correct words before he actually does the line for the recording. Same with "I guess this is the end of the line" which he said with the same inflection as a scientist letting us know "The food pyramid can include milk."

Which brings me to a pet theory I have that this series is the bastard step-child of the Disney+ MCU. Because Loki was the lowest class of effort but you couldn't deny Disney put money and support behind it. Frankly the support they gave it made the lazy, lack of care about the quality of workmanship stand out that much more.

Whereas for What If..? Jesus Christ it's an animated show produced by Disney and you can't get a decent voice director? Never mind the vast, vast stable of directors they have for Disney products, which is still a huge list of immensely qualified names even if you narrow it down to the Marvel animated shows specifically, you have Disney money and you don't use it to bust Andrea Romano out of retirement? Or get her currently working spiritual successor Mary Elizabeth McGlynn who is, again, in the Disney stable of voice directors already?

I realize I'm possibly the only person on Earth who is sitting here screaming about this but at the same time it's an animated show produced by the company known for animation! Getting a qualified voice director should've been the easiest thing for them to do. Throw a brick down any random hallway and pick the person who says "Ow!" You're done!

So the fact that they didn't do this stands out as highly weird to me. You've got award-winning actors in the voice booth for the first time and to all appearances the guy directing them has zero experience working with human beings. That's not considered disrespectful? Or a danger that it's going to blow up in someone's face by making the actors or the show look bad?

Which suggests that frankly nobody cared enough. Which I kinda think is the case. Because there's other parts of What If..? which haven't been getting attention on a behind the scenes level.

For example the promo work for the show has been lacking. As in literally. For WandaVision, FAWS, and Loki things like media kits were updated almost the second the credits rolled when the latest eps aired. For What If..? it's been taking days for that to be done. Which, if you're looking for a scavenger hunt, you can have a fun one by looking at all the other websites out there which do episode reviews and see how, like me, they are using pictures from the first round of promo shots that was released before the series aired. And when none of those 11 shots apply we resort to screencaps. (Which in and of itself amused me when I saw how many of us used pretty much the same screencap of Black Widow for episode 3).

Now to be fair, there have been some beautiful posters made for the shows after the fact (many of which get shared on the show's Twitter account if you want to see them.) So I'm not saying there's no effort, just a strange lack of effort in places where it's honestly not that much work to begin with.

Case in point, I'm going to go to the music well again because we talked about the misuse of the Dora Cue in episode 2 which was not a great look as it was. But then you get this episode with not one but two dramatic action scenes with Okoye and not only do they not use the cue but no Black Panther music at all! Seriously? Using the Dora cue for Okoye should've been something any competent composer did in their sleep. Fucking hell I could do it and I can't play a lick of music even on a recorder. Yet the composer's out there patting herself on the back for the complex work she's done in bringing in movie scores to the show and... dude, really? Maybe make sure a kindergartner couldn't pick up on how obviously you didn't pay attention before bragging about that?

So yeah. There's a lot of stuff happening here where I feel like the fact that What If..? is a collectible toy delivery system that just happens to have a TV show attached to it is a wee bit too obvious. Which is a shame because when the show is good it's pretty good and you don't actually need to turn the dial up that much to make the overall show better. But I'm increasingly starting to suspect nobody involved with approving things like budget for this show cares enough to try.


As always, the things that don't fit anywhere else

  • I've come to realize the entire show of What If..? also plays differently if you imagine each episode to be the result of script notes an executive gave to each of the movies while they were being worked on. "Infinity War is great but what if you added zombies? Eh? Eh??"
  • Happy saying "Blam!" was funny. I feel like this was one of those behind the scenes jokes that made it into canon. Not that I suspect Robert Downey Jr kept saying "Blam!" when using his repulsors but on the other hand Ewan McGregor did keep making light saber sounds so you never know.
  • This is nitpicky I know but boy it's a shame Tony's suit doesn't allow him to fly huh? That's another one that would've been an easy fix by having tiny Scott sneak into a crack in Tony's suit and bite him first.
  • They do a whole video about how important it is to wear long sleeves and Happy and Bruce never change clothes?
  • This is my personal pet peeve but Bucky? Sharon? When you are in a zombie apocalypse you keep your hair short. (I give Hope a pass because she wore a helmet).
  • Much like keeping Hulk offstage for no good reason, making Bruce a gibbering idiot is bad writing too. Man's got 7 doctorates, has traveled the world, and speaks multiple languages. He probably knows who Baba Yaga is better than, say, Peter.
  • "Oof, that happened." - for real? That was an actual line they gave to Uatu and paid Jeffrey Wright good money to say?
  • "Like too many great catastrophes this one sprang from a place of love and hope" and "Even in the darkest of times humans will give all to save their planet" are two lines that probably read so much better when they were written prior to the year 2020.
  • There were a lot of scenes in this ep which relied on light aimed directly at the audience and lemme tell you that sucks ass when you're dealing with migraines. Ow.
  • Finally, how do you know Bruce Banner isn't actually vegan? Because this is the first time he's ever mentioned it.
  • (I kid, I kid. Love you, vegans! Just like I love my readers from New Jersey!)

And with that we're done. See you next week!


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