Written by David Holland
The new MCU show “What If…?” debuts tomorrow on Disney+ (Wednesday, August 11th). It’s an anthology show that asks the question “What if” and plays out alternative histories in the MCU. For example, “What if Peggy Carter got the Super Soldier Serum instead of Steve Rogers?” or “What if T’Challa was Star Lord instead of Peter Quill?” or “What if Malekith had been the chaotic genius of the War of the Realms comics instead of a stiff, forgettable placeholder?” Ok, that last one isn’t real, but you get the gist.
Before the new show launches, I thought it would be helpful to take a moment and reflect on the Disney+ era of the MCU so far. In the spirit of the recently ended Olympics, let’s rank each of the three shows based on indefinable qualities that NBC commentators would struggle to explain to laypeople watching at home. And since this ranking is based entirely on my own opinions, you can rest assured that it is 100% objectively correct and no I will not be taking questions.
Bronze Medal – The Falcon and the Winter Soldier
It may seem insulting to be awarded third place when there are only three contestants, but like a true Olympic podium, there are no real losers here. “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier” was thrilling and fun. The chemistry between Bucky and Sam gave the show a Lethal Weapon, buddy-cop sort of vibe while they hunted for villains in a post-Endgame world. This series gets points for an interesting and sympathetic villain in Karli Morgenthau, for unexpectedly turning Sharon Carter into the evil Power Broker, and for addressing America’s complex and difficult racial history through the stories of both Isaiah Bradley and Sam Wilson. We also get teasers for US Agent and Lady Hydra, who seems to be collecting cast-off, would-be heroes for her own purposes.
Ultimately, Falcon and the Winter Soldier comes in third place because it was the most predictable of the three shows so far. I don’t want to unfairly penalize a show that is more rooted in reality than the one with the time-travelling trickster God or the android/witch sitcom romance. I’m a noted defender of the spy-thriller comic book movie. But “Falcon and the Winter Soldier” felt safe. There’s plenty to like about the show, but it could have done more. In the end, Karli became just irredeemable enough that the heroes didn’t have to grapple with hard choices regarding her cause. All it took was Sam giving a speech to smooth things over. There wasn’t a moment of subversion expectation like learning that SHIELD had been infiltrated by Hydra or understanding the truth about the TVA. Staying in the viewers’ comfort zone can make a good show, but if you want to make a great one you have to challenge them.
Silver Medal – Loki
Loki’s story could easily have ended in “Infinity War” (“No more resurrections,” said Thanos, unaware of the strength of Loki’s Plot Armor) or in “Endgame”, with the assumption that Loki survived but simply gallivants through the universe alive with Tom Hiddleston’s bank account now secure forever. Instead Loki gets his own show dealing with the effects of irresponsible time travel that somehow doesn’t involve Steve Rogers.
What’s good about Loki? First, all of the variant Lokis. Through the course of the show we meet Kid Loki, Classic Loki, Alligator Loki, and Sylvie all struggling with the question of Loki’s identity as the God of Mischief who seems destined to lose. Watching Loki learn about himself by interacting with all of the different variants, and especially seeing him grow by falling in love with Sylvie, gives the character an opportunity for growth that isn’t easy for a villain to come by. We also get some foundation for alternate timelines and alternate realities. So far alternate possibilities haven’t played a role in the MCU, and now we that was because of the TVA. Of course, thanks to the events of season 1 of “Loki”, that could change in the future. This opens up a much wider world of possibilities for storytellers to get creative.
“Loki” may get points for being creative and making big (potential) changes in the MCU, but it gets edged out by WandaVision for making a couple of stutter-steps. When you only have six episodes (compared to WandaVision’s nine), you need to make every single one count. Every moment and especially every episode should feel like it is essential to moving the plot forward, and that wasn’t always the case with “Loki”. The third episode, in which the pair of Lokis attempt to escape Lamentis-1, ended without feeling like it accomplished as much as it should have. More egregiously, the season finale was mostly a lore dump, with He Who Remains spending much of the time explaining things to the Lokis (and the audience). Contrast that with the season finale of WandaVision, which brought emotional closure and a few epic fight sequences. Even though Loki only gets the silver medal, I am happy that the show is coming back for season 2. Remember, there’s nothing wrong with silver!
Gold Medal – WandaVision
I think the collective reaction to the first two episodes of WandaVision was “…What did I just watch?” That’s when I knew that this show was either going to flop or be incredible. It went for the latter.
Let’s talk about where this show loses points first. I think some people did not like the slow burn, especially the very slow burn of the first two episodes. In those two combined there is really only about five minutes of genuine plot while the rest is the smoke-and-mirror show of Wanda’s constructed reality. Of course, that smoke-and-mirrors show becomes significant as the series progresses, but some viewers might have wondered what watching Vision play Dick van Dyke could possibly add to the MCU. Because WandaVision was so unpredictable (a point in its favor), it was prone to rampant online speculation in a way that didn’t happen as much for the other two shows on this list. Misleading comments by Paul Bettany helped fuel speculation that anyone from Stephen Strange, to Reed Richards, to Magneto, to Mephisto could make an appearance in the show and the Quicksilver head-fake led gullible Marvel fans (like this dummy) to crow that mutants were now officially canon.
WandaVision launched Phase 4 in a way that nobody saw coming. It took advantage of the medium – television episodes – to tell individual stories that led up to a larger narrative instead of creating something that felt like a Marvel movie chopped up into six parts. The show tells a story of grief and trauma and helps the audience relate to characters in a brand new way. Instead of asking “if you were super strong would you punch Nazis?” it asks “if you could make a perfect life, even if you knew it wasn’t real… would you?” That’s some deep, uncomfortable, philosophical stuff right there. By dropping into Wanda’s world with no guidance and watching that world both change and slowly fall apart, we see Wanda herself learn who she is, what she is capable of, and process the grief that led her to do what she did. All three of these shows deal with main characters who struggle to understand who they are. WandaVision addresses that question in the most convincing, most emotionally impactful way, hands down. Gold medal.
How will these rankings change with the addition of “What If…?” and other future MCU shows? Stay tuned as we break down each episode!
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