January sees the celebration of two notable dates in science-fiction history, with January 2 christened “National Science Fiction Day” to coincide with the birth date of the world renowned sci-fi writer Isaac Asimov, and HAL 9000, the sophisticated artificial intelligence of Arthur C. Clarke’s seminal 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), being created on 12 January. Accordingly, I’m spending every Sunday of January celebrating sci-fi in all its forms.
Released: 5 May 2017 Director: James Gunn Distributor: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures Budget: $200 million Stars: Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldaña, Dave Bautista, Vin Diesel, Bradley Cooper, Karen Gillan, Kurt Russell, and Michael Rooker
The Plot: After incurring the wrath of the Sovereign, the Guardians of the Galaxy are saved by Ego (Russell), a Celestial being who takes the form of a sentient planet. Claiming to be Peter Quill/Star-Lord’s (Pratt) true father, Ego promises to open Quill’s mind to the vast power and knowledge of the universe, but Quill’s adopted father-figure, Yondu Udonta (Rooker), reveals a far more sinister motive behind Ego’s seemingly benign nature.
The Review: I was pleasantly surprised by Guardians of the Galaxy; despite knowing next to nothing about the team or the concept heading into it when it first came out, the trailers and marketing had won me over and appealed to my love of science-fiction romps and bizarre comedic superhero adventuring. The film was a real breath of fresh air for the MCU at a time when things were just starting to really gear up towards full-on cosmic shenanigans and it remains one of my favourite entries not just in Phase Two, but in the entire franchise. So, to say my anticipation was high for the sequel would be an understatement; once again Marvel had outdone themselves by somehow getting Kurt Russell onboard and just the idea that they would even consider doing a concept like Ego, a literal sentiment planet, really told you all you needed to know about the scope of the MCU going forward: nothing was off limits, not even the most bizarre cosmic element of the source material.
Some time has passed since the events of the first film, and the Guardians of the Galaxy have become somewhat renowned as a freelance peacekeeping force, of source and are happy to help those in need…for a price. Thanks to having saved the galaxy, they can afford to charge higher rates for their services, but it’s undeniable that they’re a much more well-oiled team than the band of misfits and outcasts we saw in the last film. The family dynamic has been dialled up to eleven, with Quill and Gamora (Saldaña) acting as the parental figures of the group, Drax the Destroyer (Bautista) and Rocket Raccoon (Cooper/Sean Gunn) acting as petulant teenagers, and Baby Groot (Diesel) as the curious and mischievous child. However, while they have clearly grown as a team and a surrogate family, the Guardians remain flawed and troublesome characters: hired by the Sovereign to destroy the inter-dimensional Abilisk, the team struggle to get their shit together and attack the beast between bickering with each other over their priorities and weapon choices and expressing concern for Baby Groot, whom they are all fiercely protective of. Although far from his larger, more capable self from the first film, Baby Groot proves instrumental in helping Rocket escape from the Ravagers, but is primarily here to cute appeal and comic relief; young and childish, he has trouble understanding things sometimes, which leads to a number of amusing instances where he struggles to retrieve items or follow instructions.
As before, the one member of the team with the most sense remains Gamora, who is the only one capable and clear-headed enough to deliver the killing blow to the Abilisk. To be fair, Quill was the one who recognised that the creature had a pre-existing wound on its neck for Gamora to exploit, but Drax’s best plan was to foolishly try and attack the beast from the inside. While their methods are often haphazard and lacking in finesse, they get the job done and it’s Quill who takes point in speaking for the team to Ayesha (Elizabeth Debicki), the enigmatic and alluring High Priestess of the Sovereign race. While Quill flirts with Ayesha and attempts to keep relations with the proud race amicable, they incur her wrath when Rocket steals a bag full of their incredible rare and Anulax Batteries; of all the members of the team, it’s Rocket who struggles the most to let go of his selfish and underhanded ways, which brings him into continued conflict with the team and Quill’s leadership. A grouchy and antagonistic character, he actively pushes people away, even those closest to him, to avoid being hurt by them; he finds an unlikely confidante in Yondu Udonta (Rooker), an embittered space pirate who has spent his life doing the same thing and urges Rocket to recognise that he has people who actually care about him and help repair his relationship with Quill and his misfit family.
Overwhelmed by the Sovereign fleet, the Guardians are mere moments away from being blown to smithereens thanks to Quill and Rocket wasting time and energy bickering over their piloting skills. Although they are saved by the timely intervention of Ego, the Milano is crippled, but Quill finds something he has long been missing in his life: his father. A sentient planet, Ego reveals himself to be an ages-old Celestial, a being who has known nothing but loneliness for the longest time; his only companion is Mantis (Pom Klementieff), a naïve and sheltered character who strikes up an odd relationship with Drax and uses her empathic powers to help Ego sleep…and to ease his conscience. Thanks to some extremely impressive de-aging effects and a facial double (Aaron Schwartz), the film opens with Kurt Russell appearing in his prime years back in the eighties to woo Meredith Quill (Laura Haddock) and sows the seeds (literally and figuratively) for Ego’s true plot to spread his consciousness across the entire galaxy using seeds planted on distant worlds. To do this, he needed to sire a part-Celestial heir but was continuously met with failure; the bodies of his rejected children are literally piled up and hidden away on his planet, and his joy at finding Quill can harness his cosmic powers soon turns to anger when his son chooses to turn that very power against him to oppose his dreams of galaxy-wide conversion.
The Sovereign turn Nebula’s semi-cybernetic stepsister, Nebula (Gillan), over to the Guardians. Nebula’s hatred and resentment of Gamora has only grown between films; as children, their adopted father, Thanos (Josh Brolin), had them fight for supremacy over and over, and Gamora won every single time, reaping in Thanos’s praise while Nebula was replaced a piece at a time with mechanical parts. Gamora is happy to return Nebula to Xandar to collect her bounty and rid herself of her brutal stepsister once and for all, but Nebula is driven by rage and bitterness and takes every opportunity she can get to break free and hunt her sister down. This leads her to forming a brief, mutually beneficial alliance with the Sovereign and Taserface (Chris Sullivan), a mutilated member of Yondu’s crew who might be a laughable threat with a ridiculous name but he incites a mutiny and flushes those who stand against him and his followers out into space. This only further complicates matters for Yondu, who raised Quill as a space pirate and thief after learning of Ego’s true nature and intentions for the young Quill, but his part in child trafficking left him and his crew dishonoured and ostracised from the wider Ravager community by prominent Ravager figurehead Stakar Ogord (Sylvester Stallone). Betrayed by many of his crew, Yondu is forced to team up with Rocket to enact a merciless revenge with his fancy tricky arrow and rush to Quill’s aid when Ego’s true intentions are revealed, and an intense and brutal battle between Nebula and Gamora sees the two sisters reaching a mutual understanding and gaining the Guardians an additional unlikely ally for the finale.
The Nitty-Gritty: As before, music and pop culture play an important part not just in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2’s soundtrack but in defining Quill’s character, especially in relation to his mother. The flashback at the start of the film shows how Ego assumed the form of an irresistible 1980s rogue: he’s got the mullet, the car, and the tunes to go along with it and easily wins over Meredith with his good looks and silver tongue. Ego’s undeniable charisma and ability to manipulate his form are made more explicit when he pours vocal honey into Quill’s ears with stories of his love for Meredith and even assumes the form of his childhood hero, David Hasselhoff (Himself), showing that Ego knows exactly how to manipulate people by playing to (and preying on) their likes, hopes, and dreams. Quill’s love for music stems from his mother, who put together mixtapes for him that he listens to endlessly on his Walkman and onboard the Milano; so great is his love for music that Rocket even prioritises setting up a loud speaker for them to listen to Quill’s tune during their battle with the Abilisk and Quills still firmly drawing his pop culture reference from his childhood and the seventies and eighties. Just as these elements help him to remember and feel closer to his mother (and bond him closer with his newfound family), so too do they help to quickly build up a trust between him and his father when Ego expresses a liking for the same music and pop culture that was so integral to Quill’s childhood.
I remember being a little disappointed by Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 when I first saw it as I was expecting the film to be bigger and better than the first but, similar to Avengers: Age of Ultron(Whedon, 2015), it struck me as being just as enjoyable as the original, which actually knocked my rating of it. I have no problem with it telling a story more focused on the tea dynamic and exploring these characters further, I just hadn’t expected it when I first saw it, so I definitely appreciated it more on repeat viewings. However, there is still a decent amount of onscreen action and visual spectacle to keep viewers entertained: the Sovereign are a minor antagonistic force in the film existing mainly to drive the plot forwards and get our heroes to Ego, but they have a unique armada comprised of thousands (maybe even millions) of remote drones that are piloted very much like arcade machines and lead to some frantic space battles and an intense chase through a “quantum asteroid field” that’s like the asteroid chase from Star Wars: Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back(Kershner, 1980) on steroids! The hexagonal jump points help to add to the mysterious nature of the galaxy and result in an amusing scene where Rocket and Yondu are warped in bizarre ways by multiple jumps, and Ego pilots a sleek, egg-like ship that is unlike any other in the galaxy, but the true visual spectacle of the film is realised when the characters arrive on Ego’s planet. A lush, verdant alien world home to some bizarre, vegetation and an elaborate palace housing Ego’s memories and plans, Ego’s world is just like him: beautiful and alluring at first glance but hiding a dark secret beneath the surface that comes to fruition when Ego’s very face warps the planet’s crust.
The dysfunctional family dynamic between the titular team is a pivotal element of the sequel; although they’re far more trusting and accepting of each other, they still wind each other up and get on each other’s nerves. While much of this is embodied by Rocket, Drax’s blunt and literal perspective doesn’t help matters much and Quill is continuously distracted by his attraction to Gamora. Despite Drax’s assertions that Gamora isn’t interested in him in that way, she’s incredibly supportive of Quill and is touched by his stories of his childhood pining for a father who wasn’t there, which confuses and angers him when she suspects that something isn’t quite right about Ego’s planet and raises questions about what counts as true family, blood or those you are closest to. Naturally, the question of Quill’s parentage is a huge plot point of the film; after being left as a blatant dangling plot thread and piece of sequel bait in the first film, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 goes to great lengths to establish that Quill isn’t fully human, like his comic book counterpart, and is instead part-Celestial thanks to being one of Ego’s many progeny seeded across the galaxy. This afford him many fantastic abilities when present on Ego’s plant form, and potentially opens up the vats secrets of the universe to him, but his human nature and the nurturing of his mother, his oddball family, and his father figure, Yondu, prove to be strong enough influences on Quill’s morals and character and force him to reject Ego. Quill is further driven to this decision when Ego drops the bombshell that it was he who caused Meredith’s fatal brain tumour, thus dooming her and pushing Quill into an enraged defiance that sees him pull out all the stops to oppose Ego’s plan to terraform the worlds he’s seeded.
This means not only turning down the ability to construct greater things, and even life, using Ego’s cosmic power but also the virtual immortality offered by Ego’s planet; disappointed by sentient life across the galaxy, Ego realised that his destiny wasn’t to simply walk among men, but to dominate and consume them through “The Expansion”. His façade as a loveable, charismatic figure quickly gives way to a cold-hearted, self-centred parasite befitting of his name and capable of great love (for he truly loved Meredith and was tempted to give up his enterprise for her) but also intense anger. Fully capable of manipulating every element of his planet-form to his will, Ego is a monstrous, nigh-unstoppable God-like being comprised of pure energy but capable of bending matter as he sees fit to protect his brain at the core of his planet. Thanks to being part-Celestial, Quill is also able to manipulate the planet to a degree, leading to a visually impressive sequence where Rocket drills through Ego’s crust using lasers and Quill constructs a massive version of Pac-Man to go head-to-head with his father. With the Sovereign closing in and adding to the melee, Mantis strains her powers to the limit to put Ego to sleep while Rocket cobbles together a bomb to destroy Ego’s core. Although the threat is ended and Gamora and Nebula finally reconcile (and Quill and Gamora finally admit their true feelings to each other), Quill forever loses his immortality and Celestial powers…and also his true father when Yondu sacrifices himself to save Quill from Ego’s destruction and the vacuum of space for a surprisingly emotional and heart-breaking finale. However, Yondu is finally honoured by the Ravagers in death, and Kraglin Obfonteri (Sean Gunn) assumes command of his arrow and his crew; while the Guardians find dealing with a moody adolescent Groot to be a challenge in the post-credits scene, they remain unaware that Ayesha has vowed to destroy them by breeding a perfect instrument of destruction dubbed “Adam”.
The Summary: It’s definitely true that Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 holds up much better with each subsequent viewing; in many ways, it’s more of the same from the last film, but with a far greater focus on the characterisations of the titular team and the dysfunctional family dynamic they have. While it doesn’t necessarily match or expand upon the space-faring action and excitement of the first film, and may disappoint some viewers in that respect, the grounded, more personal story told here is a poignant and affecting one. Seeing Quill struggle with his heritage, his feelings for Gamora, and to hold the team together is what makes these outlandish characters so surprisingly relatable, and the banter and relationship between each member of the team is some of the most entertaining produced by the MCU. What we have here is a film that peels back the layers of one of the most obscure properties in Marvel, and the MCU, and makes even their most alien members human and vulnerable; expanding on Yondu’s character and showing how complex Rocket is as a character was a surprising highlight, as was the heart-breaking final reconciliation between Yondu and Quill. There’s plenty of amusing elements throughout the film thanks to Drax’s blunt nature and Baby Groot’s childish antics, and Kurt Russell seems to be having the time of his life being part of his big-budget production. The cosmic scope of the MVU was expanded even further with the introduction of the Celestials and laying the groundwork for the future dynamic and troubles coming to the Guardians and, while I don’t rate it as highly as the first film, that’s not to say that there isn’t a great deal to enjoy here and I’d say it’s well worth your time, especially for those who might not have been convinced by the Guardians’ characterisation in the last film and wanted to get to know these characters better.
Rating: 3 out of 5.
What did you think to Guardians of the GalaxyVol. 2? Were you disappointed that the film wasn’t as action-packed as the first or did you enjoy the more character-focused story? What did you think to the added emphasis on the team as a dysfunctional family? Which of the new characters introduced was your favourite? What did you think to Ego’s plot and the changes made to his character? Would you have liked to see Quill retain his cosmic powers or did you dislike that he was made part-Celestial? Which members of the team would you like to see included in the MCU later down the line? I’d love to know your opinion on Guardians of the GalaxyVol. 2, so sign up to share them below or leave a comment on my social media, and be sure to check in next Sunday as Sci-Fi Sunday continues!
January sees the celebration of two notable dates in science-fiction history, with January 2 christened “National Science Fiction Day” to coincide with the birth date of the world renowned sci-fi writer Isaac Asimov, and HAL 9000, the sophisticated artificial intelligence of Arthur C. Clarke’s seminal 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), being created on 12 January. Accordingly, I have decided to spend every Sunday of January celebrating sci-fi in all its forms.
Released: 1 August 2014 Director: James Gunn Distributor: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures Budget: $232.3 million Stars: Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldaña, Dave Bautista, Vin Diesel, Bradley Cooper, Lee Pace, and Michael Rooker
The Plot: Abducted from Earth as a small child, Peter Quill (Pratt) grows up to become the intergalactic rogue known as “Star-Lord”. However, after stealing a mysterious orb, Quill finds himself relentlessly pursued by the war-hungry Ronan the Accuser (Pace) and forced to team up with a rag-tag group of misfits and criminals in order to oppose the Kree warlord’s plans to devastate a peace-keeping world.
The Review: My knowledge of the Guardians of the Galaxy was basically non-existent when the film was first announced and released. In all my years of reading Marvel Comics, I had never once encountered the team beyond reading the issue where they encountered Cuchulain the Irish Wolfhound as part of my undergraduate studies and happening to read a story where Doctor Bruce Banner/The Hulk fought an early version of Groot. Thus, when I first heard of the film and saw the trailers, I was a little confused but intrigued by the concept, which reminded me of the kind of space-faring snark and adventure I’d enjoyed in Serenity (Whedon, 2005) and Star Trek (Abrams, 2009), and willing to go along with this risky venture of bringing such an obscure Marvel property to life. Although the film is unquestionably an ensemble piece and introduces many bizarre characters to the MCU, Guardians of the Galaxy is anchored by Peter Quill, a vain and self-centred space adventurer who, as a boy (Wyatt Oleff), was forced to watch his beloved mother (Laura Haddock) suffer and ultimately succumb to a cancerous tumour. Unable to bare the loss, he ran out of the hospital in his grief and was unexpectedly abducted by Quill Yondu Udonta (Rooker) of the Ravagers on the order of his mysterious father, whom his mother descried in her delirium as an “angel”. Rather than be delivered to his father, Quill was raised by Yondu as a surrogate son and taught the ways of the space pirates, growing up to become a thief and modelling himself after the film stars of his youth, such as Patrick Swayze and Harrison Ford.
However, Quill is not as notorious throughout the galaxy as he likes to think, despite having a bunch of gadgets and tech at his disposal (such as his blaster, gravity grenades, personal space helmet and rocket boots, and even his own ship, the Milano). While Quill may be a loser with delusions of grandeur, his greatest ability is convincing others to listen to his words and come together against a common goal; even though he doesn’t always have a plan (or even a percentage of a plan), he’s able to talk his newfound allies into setting aside their differences first in the name of survival and profit, and then to defend Xandar from destruction. Gamora (Saldaña) begins the film as a minion of Ronan the Accuser (Pace), on loan to him from her adopted father, the Mad Titan, Thanos (Josh Brolin/Sean Gunn), much like her cybernetic stepsister Nebula (Karen Gillan). There’s a rivalry and animosity between the two that extends beyond simply trying to impress their father; while Gamora is a renowned and notorious warrior, she secretly plots against her father, who destroyed her people and turned her into a living weapon simply for his own amusement. She is a non-nonsense, laser-focused individual who is riled up by Quill’s inane banter and buffoonery, but comes to find a surrogate family with her oddball team mates; as much as she hates Thanos and desires to kill him, she has a real love and pity for her Nebula, who has become cold and merciless and driven by hatred and resentment since Thanos always favoured Gamora, which inevitably leads to dramatic conflict between the two. Gamora is eventually convinced to trust Quill when he puts himself at risk not only by summoning Yondu for aid but by braving the cold, suffocating vacuum of space to save her, which also goes a long way to proving his selflessness and worthiness as a hero (however unlikely) to his newfound teammates.
Rocket Racoon (Cooper/Sean Gunn) and Groot (Diesel/Krystian Godlewski) are already branded as criminals at the start of the film, but operate as independent bounty hunters who are simply trying to et rich by bringing in marks and run across Quill and Gamora while staking out Xandar for bounties. Though Rocket appears to be the brains of the operation, Groot is far from a mindless creature, despite only ever uttering “I am Groot!”; Groot is insightful, curious, and compassionate and surprisingly gentle for such a lumbering brute, and adds to the film’s humour and heart thanks to his childish nature. Rocket also has a surprising amount of depth to his character; essentially a snarky, embittered raccoon-like creature, he was subjected to horrific experiments and takes a perverse pleasure in sticking it to those in positions of authority. After being arrested by the Nova Corps and locked up in the Kyln, these four are reluctantly forced to work together since all of the other inmates immediately target them because of their association with Gamora and her association with Ronan and Thanos. No other inmate has more of a vendetta against Ronan than Drax the Destroyer (Bautista), a musclebound warrior whose family were slaughtered by Ronan for sport and who longs to kill Gamora as recompense. Drax, who comes from a race of people that take everything literally and cannot understand metaphors, is convinced to spare Gamora by the fast-talking Quill so that they can join forces to lure Ronan out and kill him. Although reluctant to team up, Drax is won over by Quill’s reputation and Rocket’s plucky adaptability, but is so focused on having his revenge against Ronan that he puts his newfound teammates at risk by summoning Ronan to Knowhere, only to be summarily humiliated in single combat with his hated foe.
Each of the film’s protagonists has either a personal vendetta against, or comes into conflict with, Ronan, a Kree warrior branded a terrorist as he refuses to abide by the peace treaty between his people and Xandar, home of the Nova Corps. A maniacal zealot who wishes nothing less than the power to strip Xandar of all life, he makes a deal with Thanos, to retrieve the Orb for him in return for Thanos unleashing his might against Xandar, however he’s sadly another largely lacklustre villain; even killing the Other (Alexis Denisof) and making demands of Thanos does little to impress and he’s simply a large, malevolent force for the team to rally against. He does have some notable moments, however, such as delivering a massive beatdown to Drax and laying claiming the Power Stone that lies within the Orb, thus granting him incredible, nigh-unlimited power. Unfortunately, there’s really not much to go on with him; his fanatical vendetta against Xandar make him largely unsympathetic, he does a lot of posturing for someone so feared and revered by other characters, and is easily distracted by Quill’s hilarious dance moves and undone by the titular Guardians sharing the power of the Power Stone between them and atomising him. It’s a shame, really, as I feel like Ronan could have been a decent enough recurring villain, or even a reluctant ally, of the Guardians in subsequent films (or repurposed into one of Thanos’s Black Order), but instead he’s simply built up as this unstoppable bad-ass and then done away with before he can really earn that reputation.
The film is bolstered by a number of supporting characters, with Yondu being the clear standout; Quill’s mentor and, essentially, adopted father, there is an animosity between the two as Yondu believes Quill is ungrateful that he wasn’t eaten by the rest of the Ravagers and Quill believes that Yondu only kept him around because he was small enough to help steal stuff. However, there relationship softens over the course of the film and Yondu goes from placing a bounty on Quill’s head and wanting him dead to helping him push back Ronan’s forces, which is good news for Quill as Yondu can command a specialised arrow with just a few piercing whistles and cut down enemies in the blink of an eye. As home to the peacekeeping Nova Corps, Xandar offers some additional faces to the film’s line up, including the exasperated Nova Prime, Irani Rael (Glenn Close), who is frustrated at Ronan’s continued attacks against her people and the reluctance of the Kree to intervene, and Nova Corpsmen such as Rhomann Dey (John C. Reilly) and Denarian Garthan Saal (Quill Serafinowicz), who are both impressed and judgemental of the titular team’s notoriety and become reluctant allies of theirs for the finale. Another additional highlight of the film is the enigmatic Taneleer Tivan/The Collector (Benicio del Toro), a peculiar gatherer of oddities and knowledge who reveals the Orb’s true nature as housing an Infinity Stone and pushing the Guardians into leaving it in the care of the Nova Corps rather than selling it or allowing Ronan to lay claim to it.
The Nitty-Gritty: All young Quill had to cope with his mother’s failing health was his music; she would compile mix tapes for him that he would listen to repeatedly to help distract him from reality and, after being kidnapped by Yondu, he was (somehow) able to keep his Walkman and tapes working by retrofitting space technology. Quill is so attached to the Walkman and his music that he delays his escape from the Klyn to retrieve it, much to Drax’s chagrin, and he finds solace in the music of Blue Suede, Redbone, and Marvin Gaye. Obviously attracted to Gamora, Quill briefly begins to win her over by letting her share his music, and he has spent his entire adult life putting off unwrapping his mother’s final gift to him, which turns out to be a new mixtape full of even more classic tracks from the seventies and the eighties.
Being the MCU’s first adventure to be fully set in the deepest depths of space, Guardians of the Galaxy continues to impress with is visual presentation; from the sets, props, and special effects, everything has such depth and variety to it. Xandar is slick and advanced, clean and with the best resources available, while Knowhere is a desolate, lived-in hellhole full of scum and villainy. The Milano is a beat-up mess not a million miles away from the Millennium Falcon (although it doesn’t look like the Falcon), while Ronan’s ship, the Dark Aster, is a dark and ominous vessel carving its way trough the galaxy. The Ravagers are a bunch of degenerates holed up on a huge, filthy ship and made up of a variety of representable races, and the differences between their ship and the advanced forces of the Nova Corps is vast. However, it takes the combined efforts of these unlikely allies to defend Xandar and push back Ronan using a combination of space combat, a massive energy shield that amounts to a suicide run, and breaching the Dark Aster in an unsuccessful attempt to kill Ronan. I really enjoy the visual style of the film, which quickly shows in a very short period of time that the MCU’s galaxy is full of history, technology, and races that we’ve still only begun to scratch the surface of. Knowhere is carved from the severed head of a Celestial, the Collector’s museum is stuffed full of trinkets and captives from across the vastness of space and Marvel lore, and there’s a real sense that we could see another twenty films set in MCU space and still not really understand everything about it.
One of the most prominent themes that separates Guardians of the Galaxy from other films in the MCU is the sense of family; unlike other films in the MCU, Guardians of the Galaxy was given the unenviable task of introducing a whole team of new heroes all in one film and, while many of them are analogous to their Avengers counterparts, they manage to stand out from them thanks to their individual personalities and quirks. Quill is desperate to make a name for himself as notorious outlaw Star-Lord; until now, he’s being trying to do that by stealing shit and being a disreputable rogue, but he finds his true calling as a reluctant space hero and saviour by the film’s end and finally gets his wish when Korath (Djimon Hounsou) uses his codename. Quill is also carrying a tremendous amount of guilt over never getting to say goodbye to his mother and has been running from his past ever since; while he seems to have no wish to return to Earth and find a new family in the Guardians, he clings on to the pop culture of his childhood, and it’s his love for his mother that gives him the strength to endure the Power Stone’s power in the finale. The familial themes continue with Gamora and Nebula, stepsisters who have a bitter rivalry but are reluctant to admit how much they both have in common: bother were used and abused by Thanos and both wish to see him dead, but Nebula is too blinded by her hatred and resentment to consider working alongside her sister. Drax is completely motivated by love for his lost family, whose deaths haunt him and dictate both his vendetta against Ronan and his eventual acceptance of his newfound friends.
This band of misfits, degenerates, and losers finally finds something worth fighting for thanks to their common goals and interests, forced to work together for survival, their interests quickly turn from profit and revenge to putting their lives on the line for a greater good when they pledge to defend Xandar from Ronan and keep the Power Stone out of his grasp. Alongside the Ravagers and the Nova Corps, the newly christened Guardians of the Galaxy fend off the likes of Korath and Ronan’s Necrocraft in a co-ordinated attempt to kill Ronan. Unfortunately, Ronan embeds the Power Stone into his Warhammer, obliterating Saal and many of the Nova Corps and easily shrugging off Rocket’s specially made missile. Outmatched by the empowered Ronan, the Guardians are only granted a reprieve when Rocket punches a whole in the Dark Aster sending it crashing down to Xandar, and they’re only saved by the selfless and poignant sacrifice of Groot, who shields his newfound family using his own body. Thanks to the Power Stone, Ronan also survives the crash, but is so busy making speeches that he probably would have ben undone even without Quill’s distracting him with his dance moves. With Ronan’s Warhammer destroyed, Quill lays claim to the Power Stone, but its sheer destructive power threatens to teat him apart; memories of his mother give him the strength to hold back the damage and link hands with his newfound friends, who share the burden of the Infinity Stone’s power and allow them to triumph over Ronan. For their efforts, Quill makes amends with Yondu (despite again cheating him out of the Orb’s bounty, and Yondu taking with him the truth of Quill’s true parentage). The Nova Corps repair the Milano and wipe away the Guardians’ criminal records, and the head out into the galaxy to cause more mischief.
The Summary: I am continuously impressed by Guardians of the Galaxy; I was pleasantly surprised the first time I saw it and, even now, it stands out as one of the most unique and entertaining entries in the MCU. Essentially a space adventure, the film has a visual style and humour that really helps it stand out from other films in the MCU. The film does a fantastic job of extending the scope of the MCU beyond Earth and really showing how much variety, lore, and different technology, races, and conflicts exist out in the depths of space. Tying everything together is, of course, the titular team themselves; reminiscent of their Avengers counterparts (a man out of time, a warrior female, a snarky mechanic, a monstrous brute, and an oddball meathead), the Guardians shine trough their unique characteristics and the sense of loss that drives them. Each has a past, with many of them having committed unspeakable crimes prior to the film, and is motivated by a desire to find a sense of belonging, put to rest their demons, and discover their purpose in the wide, dangerous galaxy. Of course, to begin with, none of them would ever really admit to this and they’re more motivated by profit or revenge, but being forced together turns out to be the best thing for this band of misfits and assholes as they’re able to put their egos, pride, and selfish desires to come together for a greater good. It’s not easy debuting an ensemble team in one film, but Guardians of the Galaxy is fantastically paced and gives everyone a chance to shine; even supporting characters like Yondu and Nebula get a decent amount to do and, while Ronan is squandered as a villain, the overall package shines just as brightly now as it did when I first saw it and I remember coming away from Guardians of the Galaxy extremely excited for the future of the MCU, which looked to be near-limitless at the time.
Rating: 5 out of 5.
Are you a fan of Guardians of the Galaxy? Which of the characters was your favourite? Were you disappointed that the film didn’t feature the original version of the team, or a different line-up? What did you think to the MCU expanding its scope deep into space and with such an obscure property? Were you also disappointed with Ronan, or does he rank quite high in your list of MCU villains? What did you think to the hints towards the full scope of the Infinity Stones and the wider MCU peppered throughout the film? Did you enjoy the changes the film made to characters like Drax and the Nova Corps? Which members of the team would you like to see included in the MCU later down the line? I’d love to hear your thoughts on Guardians of the Galaxy, so please sign up to share them down below or leave a comment on my social media, and be sure to check in next Sunday for my review of the sequel as Sci-Fi Sunday continues!
January sees the celebration of two notable dates in science-fiction history, with January 2 christened “National Science Fiction Day” to coincide with the birth date of the world renowned sci-fi writer Isaac Asimov, and HAL 9000, the sophisticated artificial intelligence of Arthur C. Clarke’s seminal 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), being created on 12 January. Accordingly, I’ll be spending every Sunday of January celebrating sci-fi in all its forms.
Story Title: “Guardians of the Galaxy! Earth Shall Overcome!” Published: January 1969 Writer: Arnold Drake Artist: Gene Colan
The Background: Nowadays, Marvel Comics’ Guardians of the Galaxy are quite a well-known team of reprobates thanks to their inclusion in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU); when Guardians of the Galaxy(Gunn, 2014) was produced, it’s fair to say that the team (and the concept) was relatively obscurecompared to other Marvel heavy-hitters like the Avengers and Peter Parker/Spider-Man. Fans of the films and the MCU may be surprised to learn that the cosmic team was quite different when they first debuted in the pages of Marvel Super-Heroes!, a Marvel spin-off title that told standalone side-stories and was responsible for debuting many of the publications supporting characters. The concept began life as an idea by writer and editor Roy Thomas about super-guerrillas fighting against Russians and Red Chinese that was altered into an interplanetary situation by writer Arnold Drake and the legendary Stan Lee. Despite strong sales of the team’s debut issue, the Guardians of the Galaxy remained dormant for about five years; eventually, though, the team earned their own solo series and underwent numerous alterations over the years before evolving into something resembling the team dynamic reflected in the MCU and it all began with this bizarre space adventure about a team of misfits from the year 3007.
The Review: As mentioned at the end there, our story opens in the far-off future of 3007 to find the Earth, and dozens of other planets, united as the United Lands of Earth Federation (U.L.E.). However, conflict is still rife throughout the various star systems of the galaxy and it is into this squall that we are introduced to Charlie-27, a stout, semi-cybernetic inhabitant of Jupiter who is finally returning home after six months of “solitary space-militia duty”. Expecting a big parade for returning as a conquering hero, Charlie-27 is confused to find the immediate area deserted and lifeless except for a contingent of the nefarious Badoon, a reptilian race of warmongers who have overrun the entire planet and captured its inhabitants, including Charlie-27’s father. After disposing of a couple of Badoon using his massive bulk, Charlie-27 follows a prison transport and finds his fellow Jovians are being forced to mine “high-intensity Harkovite”, a substance that will cause them all to die of radiation poisoning within five days.
Realising that it is suicide to take on the invading Badoon forces alone, Charlie-27 desperately dives into a teleporter and randomly arrives on Pluto hoping to recruit an army to aid his cause and finding the ice-planet equally empty of life an, d overrun by the Badoon. Set upon by a Saturn Hound-Hawk, Charlie-27 is rescued by Martinex, a Pluvian man comprised entirely of a crystal-like substance. Though Maritinex harbours resentment to people like Charlie-27, who refer to him and his kind by the derogatory term “Rock Head” despite both races being descended from Earthman, Martinex catches the Jovian up with event son Pluto and uses a radio transmitter to cause a distraction that allows them to take a Tele-Train to Earth. Like Jupiter and Pluto, however, Earth has been enslaved by the Badoon; Drang, the Badoon supreme commander, is overjoyed to find his men has captured Major Vance Astro, the so-called “Thousand-Year-Old Man” who was the first Earthman to visit the stars. Curious to learn his story, Drang subjects Astro to a painful Memory Probe that quickly recaps how he came to be in the year 3007: back in 1988, Earth had established a small Moon colony and had started making excursions to Mars and Vance volunteered to be cryogenically frozen for a thousand years in a bid to explore beyond the reach of Earth’s solar system. Awakening a thousand years later, Vance was forced to remain forever garbed in a copper foil wrapping lest his centuries of slumber catch up to him and found his trip was ultimately futile as humanity learned to travel faster than light in the intervening years.
Thanks to his unique knowledge and experiences, Vance is spared the Badoon’s usual slave disk and seemingly agrees to aid Drang’s dreams of conquest. However, when Drang puts Vance’s loyalty to the test by having him execute his comrade, Yondu Udonta, Vance reveals it was all a ploy to reunite his blue-skinned friend with his special bow-and-arrow, which Yondu is able to control using whistles to take out Drang’s forces and allow them to escape. Vance and Yondu immediately run into Charlie-27 and Martinex, with each duo mistaking the other for an enemy; a fight between the two teams breaks out, in which Martinex showcases his ability to freeze air molecules and Vance reveals that he has (somehow…) acquired psychic powers, but they are soon interrupted by their actual enemy, the Badoon. United against a common foe, the group dispatch the Badoon guards and teleport themselves to New New York, determined to find the rumoured free colony and free the Earth from Badoon enslavement as the Guardians of the Galaxy.
The Summary: When I went to see Guardians of the Galaxy, I was intrigued by the presentation of the film, which gave off vibes of Firefly (2002)/Serenity (Whedon, 2005) and the J. J. Abrams Star Trek films (2009; 2013), I knew absolutely nothing about the characters, the team, or the concept beyond a very rudimentary familiarity with the likes of Drax the Destroyer, Gamora, and Nebula thanks to having read The Infinity Gauntlet (Starlin, et al, 1991). No doubt to capitalise on the release and success of the first film, Marvel released a collection of Guardians of the Galaxy stories as part of their “Marvel Platinum” range of graphic novels and this is primarily where my experience of the comic book versions of the team comes from. Reading the Guardians’ debut issue is a bit jarring for anyone who is a fan of their MCU counterparts; the only character that carries over to the films is Yondu, here characterised as little more than a simpleton rather than the leader of a band of space pirates. There’s no Peter Quill/Star-Lord, no Drax, Rocket Raccoon, or Groot and rather than being a band of well-meaning reprobates, the original Guardians of the Galaxy are a rag-tag collection of oddballs united by a common cause.
Each of the Guardians is the last of their kind either due to slavery or the slow passage of time and are very bold, independent characters…with the exception of Yondu, who is denied any kind of in-depth backstory and whose character is reduced to a couple of throw-away lines from Vance. Aesthetically, ‘Guardians of the Galaxy! Earth Shall Overcome!” is a bit of a mess; taking place in the far future, we find that colonisation has extended far into our solar system and rendered even gas giants like Jupiter entirely habitable but evolution has also caused Earthlings to adapt in radical ways to survive in their new environments. A lot of the backgrounds and the comic’s more cosmic-trappings are very reminiscent of the works of Jack Kirby but, while this is very fitting, it does make for quite a cluttered and messy presentation. The issue has its work cut out for it by introducing four brand-new characters in about thirty pages of story, something I find early Marvel Comics often struggled with, and while there are some interesting elements to each character (Charlie-27 seems to be going for a self-entitled righteousness, Martinex hints at possibly being racially targeted, Yondu is a monosyllabic grunt, and Vance has his whole, very rushed, “man out of time” thing going on), I can’t really say that I was massively blown away by either their characterisation or their abilities (which are, for the most part, vaguely defined).
I’m not massively familiar with the Badoon; from what I can tell, this story wasn’t their first appearance but they really don’t seem to be that much different from other monstrous, semi-humanoid galactic conquers like the Free and the Skrull (despite, obviously not having shape-shifting powers). As a villainous force to unite against, they’re relatively unremarkable; while we can assume that they’re a formidable force since they have completely enslaved Jupiter, Pluto, and the Earth, Drang’s forces crumble like paper whenever they engage with the Guardians. Still, they have the numbers advantage, which is a great way to show that even a veteran like Charlie-27 knows when to fight and when to flee, and it’s pretty clear that the main aim of this issue was to bring together these misfits to continue telling stories of their struggle against the Badoon in subsequent issues. Still, as interesting as it is to see how the Guardians first came about the Yondu’s wildly different initial characterisation, there’s not really a whole hell of a lot to really say about this first Guardians tale; this isn’t the team that’s been popularised in the decades since, inevitably the writing and presentation is a product of its time, and the art isn’t particularly engaging or eye-catching (or even good, at times) so this is more of a quaint look at the Guardians’ humble beginnings rather than a bombastic showcase of what the team is truly capable of and probably has more appeal to die-hard fans of Marvel’s cosmic stories than the more casual Guardians readers like myself.
Rating: 3 out of 5.
Have you ever read the Guardians of the Galaxy’s debut story? If so, what did you think to it, especially compared to the various interactions of the team that have come since? What did you think to the idea of setting the story in the year 3007 and of the Badoon having conquered the solar system? Which of the original four characters was your favourite? Which version of the team is your favourite and why? Are you a fan of the Guardians of the Galaxy comics and, if so, did you like the MCU’s interpretations of the characters and concepts? Would you like to see the original team get a larger focus in the MCU someday? Share your thoughts on the Guardians of the Galaxy in the comments below and check in again next Sunday for more sci-fi content.
The Plot: With Peter Quill/Star-Lord (Pratt) still reeling from the death of Gamora (Saldaña) and the presence of her alternative self from a separate timeline, Mantis (Klementieff) and Drax the Destroyer (Bautista) head to Earth to bring Peter the greatest Christmas gift they can think of: his childhood icon, Kevin Bacon!
The Review: The special opens with Kraglin Obfonteri (Gunn) shedding some light on young Peter’s (Luke Klein) childhood amongst the Ravagers to Mantis, Drax, and Nebula (Karen Gillan). As a boy, Peter was still very sentimental towards Earth (largely referred to as “Terra” out in the depths of space) and tried to teach Yondu Udonta (Michael Rooker) about its ways and traditions. Yondu, however, wasn’t just unimpressed at the idea of Christmas; he was enraged by it and forever ruined the festivities with his volatile temper. While Mantis is heart-broken at the story, Drax, in his usual boisterous fashion, finds Peter’s traumatic upbringing incredibly amusing, something even Nebula admonishes him for. The special does answer a lingering question I had about Taneleer Tivan/The Collector (Benicio del Toro), last seen as an illusion cast by the Mad Titan, Thanos (Josh Brolin), and presumed dead but he’s apparently still alive since he sold the entirety of Knowhere to the Guardians between movies. Because of this, the team has been too busy fixing the place up and restoring some kind of order and has been unable to indulge in festivities or even search for the elusive, alternative Gamora. Feeling a sense of obligation towards Peter, who’s revealed to be her half-brother since they’re both children of Ego the Living Planet (Kurt Russell), Mantis is spurred to give Peter the Christmas he missed out on as a child. Confiding in Drax, the only one who knows her secret, Mantis is elated when the muscled-bound buffoon suggests bringing Peter’s childhood hero to him as the ultimate Christmas gift and head to Earth to kidnap Kevin Bacon! Although their arrival initially causes a stir due to Drax forgetting to activate the ship’s cloaking device, the two easily blend in amidst the glitz, excess, and cosplayers of Hollywood, unwittingly earning themselves a decent wad of cash in the process as enthusiastic tourists clamour for selfies with their pair.
After blowing all their dough on shots and revels, Mantis uses her empathic abilities to obtain a map to Kevin Bacon’s house, where the EE spokesman is relaxing in his spacious Hollywood home and awaiting the return of his family. Although he politely sends the two away when they come calling, they’re easily able to barge into his house and a frantic chase throughout Bacon’s abode ensues, with Mantis hopping from wall to wall like her namesake and things escalating when Bacon desperately asks the local cops for help, which thankfully ends without any bloodshed. This sequence also showcases Mantis’s fighting skill as she easily takes down the armed cops and renders them unconscious with her powers, showing that she’s more than just the team’s emotional, compassionate conscious. These same powers are used to quell Bacon’s fears and, at the lightest touch and softest suggestion, he become enthusiastic about accompanying the two and helping them deck their ship out with Christmas decorations. However, once he’s heading out into the big black and sharing stories of his career, Bacon unknowingly lets slip that he’s simply an actor rather than some world-renowned superhero, much to the disgust of Mantis and Drax, so Mantis coerces Bacon into believing he truly is a hero so as not to ruin Peter’s Christmas once more. Bacon then believes himself to be a World War Two soldier, adopting a…well, “Australian” accent would be generous…then briefly pretending to be Bruce Wayne/Batman before Mantis demands that he be himself but not “suck”. Thankfully, Bacon is just happy to be out in space and takes it all in his stride, and Peter is astounded to find that all of Knowhere has been decorated with Christmas lights, songs, decorations, and even a snow blower. Though touched by their efforts, Peter’s joy turns to horror when he discovers that his friends have kidnapped his childhood hero, regardless of how excited Kevin Bacon is to be there to celebrate Christmas with them. After demanding that Bacon be returned to normal, the actor’s enthusiasm turns to terror; however, after learning of how influential his career was to Peter’s life, Bacon has a change of heart and decides to stick around and help out.
The Summary: Naturally, given the title and when it released, Christmas is a central theme of The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special; it’s bookended by the God-awful “Fairytale of New York” song by The Pogues, the traditional Marvel Studios logo is overlaid by soft snow fall and Christmas lights, and the special opens with an animated flashback showing young Peter’s failed attempts to explain the sentiment behind Christmas to Yondu. He’s not the only one in the depths of space who struggles with the concept; Bzermikitokolok (Rhett Miller) and his band (The Old 97’s) to interpret the season through song recast Santa Claus as a superpowered master burglar who shoots missiles and has a flamethrower, much to Peter’s dismay. Drax and Mantis are equally dumbfounded by Earth’s traditions but soon enjoy the taste of Earth liquor, the excitement of a bar, and delight in the festive decorations littered across Kevin Bacon’s lawn. Those who delight in the action-packed adventures of the Guardians may be disappointed to learn that the Holiday Special is much more of a character-driven pieces; Groot (Diesel) is little more than a cameo (and looks a lot like a man in a suit, an effect I approve of) and the special primarily follows Drax and Mantis, which is pretty delightful as these two don’t always get much to do and it’s cute to see them bicker and Mantis ultimately gifting him with an inflatable elf he had grown fond of on their journey. Also, the special shows that the team is now aided in their efforts by Cosmo the Spacedog (Maria Bakalova), a sentient dog that developed psionic powers after being shot into space by the Soviet Union and who has a strained relationship with Rocket Raccoon (Cooper), though she responds much better to doggy treats than criticism.
Although Kevin Bacon is terrified by Mantis and Drax, and rightfully so, fearing at first an invasion of his home, then an attempt on his life by overly enthusiastic cosplayers, and finally overwhelmed by being surrounded by strange alien lifeforms, his excitement at being out in the galaxy comes through thanks to Mantis’s spell. Despite his fear, however, he is touched by Kraglin’s story of how much his movie roles impacted Peter’s life and he decides to stick around Knowhere for a bit, singing a song and helping to teach them about the true meaning of Christmas. While Bacon’s explains the virtues of family and goodwill so associated with the season, Peter encourages the others to open their gifts: Groot is delighted by his Game Boy and even Nebula gets into the spirit by gifting Rocket James Buchanan “Bucky” Barnes’ (Sebastian Stan) prosthetic arm! Thus, Kevin Bacon parts with the team on friendly terms, and even promises to be back for Easter, having brightened Peter’s life considerably with his generosity. Equally moved by the team’s effort, Peter reveals to Mantis that Yondu quickly came around to the spirit of Christmas after being amused by Peter’s gift (the first of many small toys for his control panel( and that he even gifted Peter his trademark blasters in return. Mantis’s revelation, however, trumps even that present and Peter is thrilled to learn that he has a sister, ending the special on a sweet note about family and goodwill and all that heart-warming Christmas spirit.
Rating: 3 out of 5.
Did you enjoy The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special? What did you think to the focus on Drax and Mantis and their efforts to cheer Peter up with a most unusual present? Did you enjoy Kevin Bacon’s role as a clueless, well-meaning celebrity? Would you have liked to see a little more action in it or were you happy with the traditional Christmas message it delivered? Where do you see the team going in the future? What’s your favourite Christmas special? Whatever your thoughts, feel free to share them below or on my social media.
In September 1961, DC Comics published “Flash of Two Worlds” (Fox, et al), a landmark story that brought together two generations of the Flash: the Golden Age Jay Garrick and the Silver Age Barry Allen thanks to the concept of the multiverse, an infinite number of parallel universes that allowed any and all stories and characters to co-exist and interact. Marvel Comics would also adopt this concept and, to celebrate the release of Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness(Raimi, 2022) this month, I’ve been both celebrating the Master of the Mystic Arts and exploring the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s (MCU) equivalent of the multiverse every Sunday of May.
Air Date: 11 August 2021 to 6 October 2021 Network: Disney+ Stars: Hayley Atwell, Chadwick Boseman, Samuel L. Jackson, Benedict Cumberbatch, Mark Ruffalo, Michael B. Jordan, Chris Hemsworth, Ross Marquand, and Jeffrey Wright
The Background: As a big comic book fan, it’s been absolutely amazing seeing the MCU become a multimedia juggernaut and some of Marvel Comics’ most beloved characters and concepts come to life on screen. Although Marvel Studios dabbled in television ventures with the likes of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (2013 to 2020) and their Netflix shows, they really doubled down on TV productions for the MCU’s fourth phase to produce content for their parent company’s streaming service, Disney+. With MCU head honcho Kevin Feige behind them, the Disney+ shows aimed to maintain and expand the ongoing continuity of the MCU, but I don’t think anyone could have predicted that Marvel Studios would delve so deeply into the multiverse that we’d seen an adaptation of What If…?What If…? began life as a semi-consistent series of hypothetical, often light-hearted (or downright dark), stories that presented Marvel heroes and storylines with subtle (or major) changes. The Disney+ show followed this format and recontextualised the premise as an animated anthology series that would explore what the MCU would be like if characters or events had unfolded differently. The show’s animation was headed by Stephan Franck and sported a cel-shaded design that emphasised hyper-realism; as the MCU was officially exploring the concept of the multiverse, episodes could be part of the franchise’s overall canon and many recognisable faces, names, and voices returned to put a new spin on their iconic roles; however, although voice recording was able to continue remotely during the COVID-19 pandemic, this production sadly marked the final performance of the late Chadwick Boseman as T’Challa/Black Panther. What If…? was received extremely well and the series was praised as a love-letter to the fans; despite some reservations about the format and presentation, reviews were primarily positive and spin-offs were quickly announced as either being in production or on the cards. Crucially, the multiversal scope of the series would be revisited in the live-action MCU films and characters and concepts from the show even seem set to cross over into the main MCU canon going forward.
The Plot: From beyond the multiverse, the cosmic being known as Uatu the Watcher (Wright) observes as the events of the MCU unfold differently, resulting in Peggy Carter (Atwell) becoming Captain Carter, Doctor Stephen Strange (Cumberbatch) becoming a force for evil, a zombie infection running rampant, and T’Challa (Boseman) becoming Star-Lord. However, when a version of Ultron (Marquand) acquires the Infinity Stones and threatens the entire multiverse, the Watcher must break his oath of non-interference to assemble a heroic force capable of fending off this threat.
The Review: Because of the nature of the series, I think it’d be much better to look at each individual episode, what they do and how they work by themselves, and then talk about some overall themes and give my opinion on the entire concept down in the summary. The first season of What If…? is a nine-episode series of animated adventures that examine familiar characters and events in the MCU but change things about in subtle, or major, ways to create entirely new stories as part of the MCU multiverse. These alternate realities are observed by the enigmatic Watcher, a cosmic being bound only to observe and never directly interfere, and who acts as the narrator of the show. The Watcher’s opening narration explains the basics of the multiverse; as we were told in Avengers: Endgame(Russo and Russo, 2019), time and reality in the MCU is not a single, linear, fixed path. Instead, multiple timelines and alternate universes exist, with the deviations occurring from different decisions being made at key moments in time, however big or small. In this regard, time is less like a line and more like a river, with an infinite number of paths trailing off all over the place, and the Watcher acts as our impassive guide to this vast multiverse. The Watcher also serves as our narrator, quickly catching us up on the events preceding the episode and explaining when, where, and how each divergent timeline was created; however, he has taken a solemn vow to never interfere in the events he witnesses, no matter how gruesome or extreme they are.
The series kicks off with “What If…Captain Carter Were the First Avenger?” (Andrews, 2021), essentially a retelling of Captain America: The First Avenger (Johnston, 2011). Unlike in the original timeline, Strategic Scientific Reserve (SSR) Agent Peggy Carter chooses to stay and watch on the ground as skinny, ill-bodied Private Steve Rogers (Josh Keaton) prepares to become a super soldier. However, when the Nazi sleeper agent attacks the experiment this time around, Peggy manages to keep him from escaping with a sample of the serum but Steve is wounded, so Peggy ignores the orders of her commanding officer, John Flynn (Bradley Whitford), and voluntarily becomes enhanced to the peak of human physical conditioning before the experiment is lost forever. Promoted to head of the SSR, Flynn is outraged at the result; disgusted that the super soldier serum was wasted on a woman, he refuses to allow Peggy to actively participate in the war, much less on the front line, out of sheer prejudice, much to her chagrin and fury. As before, Hydra figurehead Johann Schmidt/The Red Skull (Marquand) seeks to usurp Adolf Hitler and claim victory for himself with the mysterious and all-powerful Tesseract. Flynn, however, is unimpressed by the threat and unwilling to risk even one man, let alone an entire platoon, on recovering the cube; luckily, inventor Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper) believes so strongly in the Tesseract’s threat that he furnishes Peggy with a striking Union Jack-style costume and a familiar Vibranium shield so that she can single-handedly recover the Tesseract from Schmidt’s Hydra colleague, Doctor Arnim Zola (Toby Jones), decimating an entire convoy of Hydra’s soldiers with efficiency and glee and earning herself an official promotion to “Captain Carter”. Although he lost his best shot at fighting alongside his friend, Sergeant James Buchanan “Bucky” Barnes (Sebastian Stan), Steve is fully supportive of Peggy’s newfound strength and abilities and only too glad to pilot Stark’s Tesseract-powered “Hydra Stomper” armour. However, following an action-packed montage, Steve is apparently lost during a familiar assault on an armoured train; though grief-stricken, Peggy forces information out of Zola and leads an all-out assault against the Red Skull’s fortress, where they find Steve alive but are too late to stop the Red Skull from opening a dimensional rift with the Tesseract. The tentacles of a gigantic, interdimensional, Lovecraftian creature breach the portal, killing Schmidt and threatening all life on Earth; Peggy and Steve fend off the beast as Stark tries to shut down the portal, but Captain Carter is forced to sacrifice herself to the unknown by physically forcing the creature through the rift. The story then skips ahead to find the Tesseract being reactivated, spitting Peggy and the remains of the beast’s tentacles out into a Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement, and Logistics Division (S.H.I.E.L.D.) facility where she meets Director Nick Fury (Jackson) and Agent Clint Barton/Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) and learns the bittersweet news that the Allied Forces won the war but she is now seventy years in the future, and thus forever cut off from her friends and loved ones.
While the first episode arguably played things a little safe, we really see the potential of a What If…? series with the second episode, “What If…T’Challa Became a Star-Lord?” (Andrews, 2021), which wildly deviates from the story of Guardians of the Galaxy(Gunn, 2014). Young T’Challa (Maddix Robinson) longed to explore beyond Wakanda but was shielded from the chaotic outside world by his beloved and overprotective father, T’Chaka (John Kani), only to be abducted due to a mistake by Yondu Udonta’s (Michael Rooker) subordinates. Surprisingly, he was excited at embarking on adventures throughout the cosmos with the Ravagers and, while T’Challa doesn’t possess the Black Panther’s near-superhuman abilities, he sports all of Peter Quill’s (Brian T. Delaney) gadgets in addition to his Wakandan fighting prowess. His greatest assets, however, are his charisma, diplomacy, and reputation as a Robin Hood-type figure. Indeed, T’Challa is far more competent, notorious, and respected than his mainstream MCU counterpart; not only does Korath the Pursuer (Djimon Hounsou) know who he is, he views sparring with Star-Lord as the greatest honour and willingly joins his crew. T’Challa’s positive influence means the Ravagers put their skills towards helping others rather than for personal reward, thus sparing Drax the Destroyer’s (Fred Tatasciore) family and even convincing Thanos (Josh Brolin) that his destructive aspirations weren’t the answer to the galaxy’s problems! Touched by T’Challa’s mission to save others after the presumed destruction of Wakanda, Nebula (Karen Gillan), now a far less violent and far more beautiful woman, proposes a heist to steal the Embers of Genesis, a cosmic dust capable of ending galactic hunger, from Taneleer Tivan/The Collector (Benicio del Toro). While sneaking around the Collector’s museum, T’Challa finds a Wakandan spacecraft and is angered to find that Yondu lied to him about Wakanda in order to help him realise his true calling as an adventurer. The two reconcile in the best way possible: by teaming up to fight with this much more formidable version of the Collector, who is enhanced by weapons, technology, and items retrieved from some of the MCU’s most powerful and prominent individuals and races. Thanks to their teamwork, the Collector is disarmed and left at the mercy of his captives, and T’Challa forgives Yondu’s deception before reuniting with T’Chaka and his people in Wakanda, bringing his two families together in celebration over their mutual friend. Across the world, however, a greater threat awaits when Ego (Kurt Russell) comes looking for his son, here a mere Dairy Queen employee.
“What If…the World Lost Its Mightiest Heroes?” (Andrews, 2021) takes us back to the middle of Iron Man 2 (Favreau, 2010) and Nick Fury and Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow’s (Lake Bell) latest effort to recruit Tony Stark/Iron Man (Mick Wingert) to the Avengers Initiative. Fury is horrified when his attempt to stave off Stark’s palladium poisoning apparently has the unexpected side effect of killing the would-be Avenger; this tragedy is quickly followed by Thor Odinson (Hemsworth) being accidentally killed by Hawkeye’s errant arrow and the archer later being found dead while locked in an impenetrable S.H.I.E.L.D. cell. Fury suspects that his recruits are being targeted by an unknown party, and charges Natasha to escape Brock Rumlow’s (Frank Grillo) custody and make contact with Doctor Betty Ross (Stephanie Panisello). Though initially distrustful of Natasha due to her association with those who’ve hounded her friend, colleague, and former lover, Doctor Bruce Banner/The Hulk (Ruffalo), Betty is convinced to take a closer look at the injector used on Stark and theorises that a microscopic projectile fired from the needle killed the superhero. Hungry for blood after learning of Hawkeye’s death, Natasha agrees with Fury’s theory that their killer is targeting Avengers recruits; unfortunately, General Thaddeus “Thunderbolt” Ross (Mike McGill) arrives looking to arrest Banner and sparks his transformation into the rampaging Hulk as in his solo film. However, the seemingly immortal Green Goliath also falls victim to the mysterious killer when he violently explodes from the inside out, and things escalate even further when Loki Laufeyson (Tom Hiddleston) arrives looking to avenge Thor’s death. Fury manages to buy himself one day to solve Thor’s murder on the promise of delivering the culprit to the God of Mischief and, when Natasha finds that a dead agent’s credentials were used to access S.H.I.E.L.D.’s database, she’s brutally beaten to death by an unseen assailant, and only able to tell Fury that all the deaths are relating to “hope”. This, however, is enough to piece together the perpetrator’s true identity: Doctor Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), who targeted Fury’s recruits in the guise of the size-altering Yellowjacket after his daughter, Hope van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly), died while working for S.H.I.E.L.D. A broken, bitter, twisted old man, Pym blames Fury and has become a deranged killer due to his grief and anger. However, Pym and his tech are outmatched when Fury is revealed to be Loki in disguise but, after Pym is defeated and taken into Asgardian custody, Loki double-crosses Fury and declares himself ruler of humanity. To combat this threat, Fury gets back to work assembling his super team, starting with calling Carol Danvers/Captain Marvel (Alexandra Daniels) back to Earth and uncovering Captain America’s frozen body.
The show shifts over to the world of magic and mysticism for “What If…Doctor Strange Lost His Heart Instead of His Hands?” (Andrews, 2021), which presents a world where Dr. Strange and Doctor Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams) are still a couple in a loving relationship. Fully supportive and enamoured by Dr. Strange, Christine encourages his ego and his skills as a surgeon, but sadly her influence doesn’t extend to his driving skills. However, in this world, Dr. Strange is relatively unharmed from the car crash that took his MCU counterpart’s hands but is left grief-stricken when Christine dies as a result of his negligence. In a bid to fill the void in his life, and his heart, Strange travels the world and, once again, ends up studying the mystic arts at Kamar-Taj under the tutelage of the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton). Like his mainstream counterpart, Strange becomes the Master of the Mystic Arts after the Ancient One’s death and successfully bargains with the Dread Dormammu (Cumberbatch), but remains preoccupied with the mistakes of his past and the promises offered by the Eye of Agamotto’s time-bending abilities. Haunted by memories of happier times with Christine, Strange ignores the warnings of the Ancient One and his manservant, Wong (Benedict Wong), and uses the Eye to place his current consciousness into the body of his past self. Unfortunately, the tragedy still occurs no matter how safely he drives, which route he takes, or even his refusal to go to the award speech as Christine dies again and again whether he’s there or what he does. Dr. Strange’s anguish at being unable to save Christine isn’t helped by the Ancient One’s explanation that her death cannot be averted as it would create a potentially universe-destroying time paradox (if Strange prevents her death, he won’t become a sorcerer and be able to go back and save her).
Refusing to believe that Christine is fated to die, and angered at the Ancient One’s refusal to help him break this “absolute point” in time, Dr. Strange uses the Eye to flee from the confrontation and consult the ancient tomes of the Lost Library of Cagliostro. There, he meets O’Bengh (Ike Amadi) and learns that one can potentially gain the power he requires by absorbing magical beings; thus, Dr. Strange conjures a variety of demonic, Lovecraftian, and magical creatures (including gnomes, familiars, dragons, and even the octopus-like creature Captain Carter fought). When they won’t willingly share their power, he resolves to forcibly take it, and quickly becomes obsessed with gaining more and more magical power from these entities over the course of centauries to become “Strange Supreme”. As he does so, he grows increasingly monstrous and takes on more of their attributes, but is shocked to learn from O’Bengh that he’ll never be powerful enough to achieve his dreams due to the Ancient One using magic from the Dark Dimension to split him in two and create two concurrent timelines. His other half, who took Wong’s advice and moved on from Christine’s death, is charged by an echo of the Ancient One to oppose his dark doppelgänger before his ambition erases all of reality. When Strange Supreme’s attempts to coerce his other half into joining his cause are rejected, a magical battle ensues that spans multiple dimensions. Despite Wong’s protective spells and Strange’s efforts to talk down his dark half, Strange Supreme’s centauries of basking in the powers of countless magical beings makes him the superior and he’s ultimately able to absorb his missing half. Finally whole again, Strange Supreme succeeds in undoing Christine’s death but is transformed into a demonic being by the effort this requires; understandably, she is horrified by his nightmarish appearance, and he’s left helpless to stop the time paradox from devouring all of his reality. Desperate to preserve the world, he begs the Watcher for help but he refuses to get involved, despite wishing to punish Strange Supreme’s reckless arrogance, and the once Sorcerer Supreme is left alone, despondent, and remorseful in the tiniest pocket of reality with nothing but his grief and regret for company.
One popular, recurring storyline in Marvel Comics in recent years has been the Marvel Zombies spin-off (Various, 2005 to present) that tells of a devastating zombie plague overwhelming the Marvel universe (and beyond). A version of this reality is explored in “What If…Zombies?!” (Andrews, 2021), which finds the Hulk crash-landing into the Sanctum Sanctorum as in Avengers: Infinity War (Russo and Russo, 2018) only to find it, and the streets of New York City, deserted. When Iron Man, Dr. Strange, and Wong arrive to take care of Ebony Maw (Tom Vaughan-Lawlor) and Cull Obsidian (Terry Notary), Banner’s elation soon turns to horror when the three are revealed to be vicious, flesh-eating zombies who tear Thanos’s children to shreds, instantly infecting them in the process, and Banner is only saved from the same fate thanks to the timely intervention of Dr. Strange’s Cloak of Levitation, a swarm of ants commanded by Hope van Dyne/The Wasp, and Peter Parker/Spider-Man (Hudson Thames). Spider-Man’s amusing orientation video shows that the MCU’s zombies largely confirm to the “rules” commonly associated with their kind; they’re decomposing corpses with a voracious hunger who turn others with a single bite and can only be killed by removing the head or destroying the brain. However, they’re not as mindless or shambling as traditional zombies; they’re intelligent enough to co-ordinate their attacks and utilise tech like the Iron Man armour and magic like the Sling Rings. In a change of pace, the Watcher reveals a definite origin for the zombie outbreak by relating how Janet van Dyne (Michelle Pfeiffer) became infected with the virus while stuck in the Quantum Realm; when she bit Hank Pym, he brought the virus back with him and the entire world was quickly overrun once the Avengers were turned.
Banner joins up with the few uninfected survivors and learns from Okoye (Danai Gurira) of a possible cure at Camp Lehigh, New Jersey; the group travel to the Grand Central Station, where they’re attacked by zombified versions of Sam Wilson/The Falcon (Anthony Mackie), Hawkeye, and Captain America. Although they lose Harold “Happy” Hogan (Jon Favreau), the group is able to get the train working and fend off the zombies thanks to Okoye and the Wasp. However, the train is attacked by Zombie Cap, who infects Sharon Carter (Emily VanCamp) and forces Bucky to end his undead existence, retrieving his shield in the process, but Hope is also infected from a small cut she receives after disposing of Sharon. Although Peter tries to remain optimistic that she’ll be cured before she can turn, Hope sacrifices herself to atone for her part in causing the outbreak by carrying the group through a horde of zombies and dropping them off at Camp Lehigh. There, they find the zombies refuse to breach the camp thanks to the presence of the Mind Stone in the Vision’s (Paul Bettany) head; he and the severed head of Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) reveal that the Mind Stone’s properties can reverse the zombie virus, and the group is excited to spread the cure throughout the world from Wakanda. However, Banner learns that they’re not the first to respond to the Vision’s beacon, and Bucky is horrified to find that the Vision has been feeding parts of other survivors (including T’Challa) to a zombified version of Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) since she’s proven resistant to the Mind Stone and he’s been unable to kill her due to his love for her. When Wanda breaks free and proves uncontrollable due to her powers and hunger, the Vision rips the Mind Stone out of his head to atone for his actions and the group’s escape is covered by Bucky and the Hulk, who finally emerges from Banner’s psyche and is able to resist the zombie’s bite and hold back Wanda so the others can take off. The one-legged T’Challa, beheaded Lang, and shellshocked Peter console themselves with the knowledge that they’ll be able to save the world once they reach Wakanda, completely unaware that the nation has already succumbed to the infection and is under the rule of a zombified Thanos and his partially-completed Infinity Gauntlet!
We then go back to where the MCU all started in “What If…Killmonger Rescued Tony Stark?” (Andrews, 2021), which recreates the opening moments of Iron Man(Favreau, 2008) with one key difference: right as Tony Stark is about to be injured by one of his own missiles, he’s saved by N’Jadaka/Erik Stevens/Killmonger (Jordan), who fends off the Ten Rings soldiers looking to kidnap Stark and thus means that the genius, billionaire philanthropist never learns the humility or courage that led to him becoming Iron Man. Instead, he remains a conceited, arrogant, self-serving glory hound who believes that he needs to build bigger, better weapons to protect America’s interests. To that end, he drafts in Killmonger, who wastes no time in publicly outing Obadiah Stane (Kiff VandenHeuvel) as the man who bankrolled the Ten Rings’ attack on Stark, and Stark is so grateful to his saviour that he quickly promotes Killmonger to his new Chief Operations Officer, alienating Virginia “Pepper” Potts (Beth Hoyt) in the process. Killmonger swiftly becomes Stark’s closest friend and confidante and, together, they create robot drones, the “Liberators”, based on Killmonger’s fandom for anime. Killmonger pushes Stark to use Vibranium as a power source for the Liberators, and Stark sends in Colonel James “Rhodey” Rhodes (Don Cheadle) to steal some from Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis). However, the Black Panther attacks the meeting to recover stolen Vibranium, only for Killmonger to reveal his true intentions and kill T’Challa with one of Stark’s weapons. He chastises Rhodey for wearing the uniform of his oppressors and kills him with the Black Panther’s claw to make it seem like they killed each other; thanks to Just A Rather Very Intelligent System (J.A.R.V.I.S.; Bettany), however, Killmonger’s actions are revealed to Stark. Stark tries to avenge his friend’s murder using a Liberator, but Killmonger easily bests the drone and kills Stark with a Dora Milaje spear, which escalates the tensions between the United States and Wakanda into all-out war. General Ross assumes control of Stark’s assets and the Liberators are pushed into mass production; Killmonger then kills Klaue in order to deceive the Wakandans, then seizes control of the Liberators to lead his people in “defeating” the invading army. His victory and battle prowess wins over his uncle, T’Chaka, and earns him the mantle of the Black Panther; however, T’Challa’s astral warnings of Killmonger’s impending defeat are left a distinct possibility not only due to Ross’s obsession with continuing the war but also when Pepper and Shuri (Ozioma Akagha) agree to work together to expose Killmonger’s deception.
“What If…Thor Were an Only Child?” (Andrews, 2021) lightens things up a bit by retelling the events of Thor(Branagh, 2011); in this version of the story, in the absence of a brother to grow up alongside, Thor is little more than a lackadaisical, party-loving frat-boy who, despite still being worthy of Mjölnir, is far more interested in wasting time revelling with his friends than following his mother, Frigga’s (Josette Eales), instructions to behave or becoming a bore like his father, Odin Allfather (Anthony Hopkins). To avoid the all-seeing gaze of Heimdall (Idris Elba), Thor and his drinking buddies head the Midgard, the most backwater, insignificant world in all the Nine Realms, and invite guests from all over to join them in a massive, nonstop party. Tracking the cosmic disturbance and fearful of an alien invasion, Doctor Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) investigates and is both disturbed to find that Thor’s parties are so out of control that they can kill planets and won over by the Thunder God’s otherworldly charm. Jane and her intern, Darcy Lewis (Kat Dennings), join the party, quickly being swept up in all the intergalactic chaos and merriment on display; Darcy even marries Howard the Duck (Seth Green), and Jane and Thor get matching tattoos, but soon wake up to massive hangovers and the arrival of S.H.I.E.L.D. Acting Director Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders) is deeply concerned that Thor is leaving a trail of destruction as he takes his party on the road, and calls in Captain Marvel to assist with the perceived threat. Thor’s reunion with fellow party animal Prince Loki of Jotunheim is interrupted by Captain Marvel’s arrival; Thor brushes off her demands that he leaves, and a fight ensues that sees the two battle all across the globe. Despite Thor’s petulant, childish nature, the two are seemingly equally matched in terms of power and durability, but Carol’s forced to hold back her full power to avoid damaging the world or endangering lives. Since Jane disagrees with attacking or eliminating Thor since she’s so enamoured by him, she uses her tech to contact Heimdall and literally tells on Thor to Frigga. As Hill prepares an all-out nuclear strike against Thor, he’s terrified by Frigga’s impending arrival and begs his guests to help him clean up all evidence of their shenanigans. Despite Thor’s best, most frantic efforts to put right all the anarchy he and his friends had caused, she sees through his deception; however, rather than being mad at Jane for selling him out, he thanks her for teaching him a lesson in humility and asks her out…only for he, and the Watcher, to be stunned by the sudden appearance of an alternate version of Ultron!
This cliff-hanger is explained in the following episode, “What If…Ultron Won?” (Andrews, 2021), which presents a post-apocalyptic world where Black Widow and Hawkeye are the only Avengers left to oppose the all-powerful Ultron. In this world, Hawkeye not only sports his ridiculous mohawk and a mechanical right arm, but Ultron successfully fulfilled its goal to cause an extinction-level event by claiming the Vision’s body as its own, killing Iron Man, Cap, and Thor, and launching a worldwide nuclear attack that decimated humanity. When Thanos arrived looking to retrieve the Mind Stone, Ultron split him in two with one shot and claimed the Infinity Stones for itself, becoming a God-like being capable of laying waste to entire worlds and Realms with its endless supply of drones. Asgard, Ego, Xandar, and countless others all fall before Ultron’s power and even Captain Marvel is unable to oppose it; having eradicated the vast majority of life across the universe and ascended to a higher pane of existence, Ultron not only sees but also hears the Watcher. Although the Watcher previously considered intervening in Dr. Strange’s story, he held true to his vow of non-interference since he deals in a cosmic balance beyond the lives of mere mortals, even ones as powerful as the Master of the Mystic Arts. However, Ultron’s threat is so terrifying even to this cosmic observer that the Watcher is sorely tempted to assist Natasha and Clint in their efforts to coerce Zola’s artificial intelligence into helping them. The Watcher is pleased when their perseverance pays off but, although Zola is able to possess one of Ultron’s drones, he cannot shut down Ultron’s hive mind as Ultron is outside of the known universe, meaning Clint is forced to sacrifice himself so that Natasha and Zola can escape. The Watcher is aghast when Ultron not only does the impossible and breaches his cosmic observatory but is also able to match even the Watcher’s cosmic power. Their battle sees them literally smashing the dimensional barriers into numerous alternate realities and sees Ultron devour a whole universe and force the Watcher to flee. While Ultron prepares to lay waste to the entire multiverse, the Watcher is forced to turn to Strange Supreme for help in opposing Ultron’s threat.
This story, and the entire show, comes to a head in the final episode, “What If…the Watcher Broke His Oath?” (Andrews, 2021), which sees the Watcher recruiting Captain Carter, T’Challa Star-Lord, Killmonger, Party Thor, and a previously unseen version of Gamora (Cynthia McWilliams) to join Strange Supreme as the Guardians of the Multiverse. He enlists each of them right as they’re in the middle of tying up loose ends from their respective episodes and emphasises that every one of them is needed to protect something even bigger than their individual lives or concerns. Captain Carter immediately recognises the gravity of the situation, while Strange Supreme sees this as his chance at true redemption, and, despite the odds, they all tentatively agree to work together to combat Ultron, steal his Soul Stone, and destroy it using Gamora’s “Infinity Crusher” device. While Strange Supreme struggles to contain the dark magics within his body, Gamora is troubled by Killmonger’s obsession with Ultron’s technology, and Thor accidentally attracts Ultron’s attention, but the group is thankfully shielded by Strange Supreme’s protection spell. Following Captain Carter’s lead, the Guardians are able to launch a co-ordinated attack that allows T’Challa to swipe the Soul Stone; when Ultron makes short work of Zombie Wanda and follows the Guardians to its home reality, it gets summarily pummelled by the Guardians’ repeated attacks and Strange Supreme’s ability to counteract both Ultron’s Time Stone and match its enlarged form with his monstrous magic. Although they’re stunned to find the Infinity Crusher ineffectual because it and the Infinity Stones are from different realities, Ultron’s threat is ended when Captain Carter helps Natasha avenge Clint and fire an arrow containing Zola’s consciousness into Ultron’s armour, erasing its sentience once and for all. In the aftermath, Killmonger claims Ultron’s armour and proposes using the Infinity Stones to “fix” their universes; when they refuse, he attempts to destroy them and they’re saved by a Zola-controlled Vision, who tries to take the Infinity Stones for himself. Before they can properly get into a potentially devastating battle over the gems, Strange Supreme freezes them in time and seals them within a pocket dimension, ending their threat once and for all. The Watcher trusts Strange Supreme with watching over the two, and returns everyone to their proper place and time; since Natasha’s world was left lifeless by Ultron, the Watcher sends her to help Nick Fury overthrow Loki, and then alters his vow of impassive observation to a pledge to protect the multiverse when needed.
The Summary: At first, I wasn’t too sold on What If…?’s animation style; the slick, computerised cel-shaded look has never been a favourite of mine, but I was quickly won over by it due to how closely each character and episode mirrors their live-action counterparts. Everything from the recreation of certain shots, to the musical cues, to the costumes and likenesses perfectly emulates the source material each episode is based on, meaning we get the brown-hued colour scheme of World War Two for Captain Carter, the barrage of bizarre cosmic colours for Star-Lord, and the industrial, high-tech grey of Stark and S.H.I.E.L.D. facilities. Although some notable names from the MCU didn’t return to lend their voices to their iconic characters, What If…? employs the services of some incredibly gifted soundalikes and even goes the extra mile in presenting a version of Bruce Banner that resembles both Edward Norton and Mark Ruffalo, which is fitting considering we encounter this character between his solo film and his first big MCU crossover. Animation also means that What If…? is theoretically able to do absolutely anything it desires, regardless of budget, and is limited only be the imagination of the animators; thus, while things are a little on the safe side with slightly different retelling of Captain America: The First Avenger, Thor, and other MCU films, it’s not long before we’re seeing massive Lovecraftian creatures, a whole host of Marvel heroes interacting in ways we’ve not really seen before, an additional taste of the cosmic madness of the universe (and multiverse), and a wide variety of both horrifying and oddball concepts to really test the waters of what the MCU is capable of going forward.
I really liked that, despite their reversed roles, Peggy and Steve still have a mutual attraction based on mutual respect and their respective struggles; Peggy faces an uphill battle due to being a woman in a male-orientated world (and war) that constantly weighs her down even after she’s enhanced by the super soldier serum, and of course Steve has been overlooked and undervalued his entire life due to his gaunt frame and sickly nature. While everyone else is either incredulous due to her being a woman or impressed by her fighting prowess because she is a woman, and she must prove her worth through her deeds to win them over, Steve admires the person that she is and her fighting spirit; he’s the only one that doesn’t judge her for her gender and who doesn’t need convincing that she’s the right person for the job and is only too grateful to be an active combatant alongside her in the Hydra Stomper. Peggy is also quite different in the role; like Steve, she attacks it with a sense of duty and honour, but she also takes far more joy in her newfound abilities. There’s a sense that she’s finally able to let loose, that she’s been given the physical gifts to realise her full potential, and she literally dives head-first into making the most of that opportunity. T’Challa’s characterisation as a galaxy-wide force for good is a fitting tribute to the late Chadwick Boseman; unlike Peter Quill, T’Challa is a well-respected and competent space mercenary, and I loved the running gag that he’s somehow able to convince even the most maladjusted individuals to give up their villainous or tyrannical ways simply through presenting a convincing argument. Korath is only too willing to change sides simply out of his worship of Star-Lord, and his crew follow his lead into doing good deeds simply because he was such a positive influence on them. Unfortunately, he’s not able to have the same influence on the Collector, who’s not only blinded by his position in this universe, but also driven by his inherent greed and given a major power boost thanks to his artefacts. However, while threats still remain in this timeline, on the surface it seems to be a far more peaceful and united universe simply thanks to T’Challa’s positive influence on others.
Things take a turn to the dark side once the Avengers (especially Stark) start getting killed off; What If…? is a self-contained show within the larger MCU multiverse, meaning literally anything can happen to anyone, and seeing the franchise’s core six heroes be so brutally murdered really hammers that home. It also gives Hank Pym, someone introduced later into the MCU, a chance to be a more prominent player in this sandbox; seeing him active in the MCU’s first phase is a great way of fleshing out the world in a unique way, especially as he’s become a murdering psychopath. This is a Pym whose neuroses and paranoia have been pushed to breaking point, which deftly showcases just how much of a threat a guy with Pym’s intellect and technology can be to even the most superhuman individuals. Of course, the epitome of dark character turns is the tragic tale of Strange Supreme; it’s absolutely heart-breaking to see Dr. Strange left so desperate and despondent by Christine’s loss that he fell deeper and deeper to the darkness. His frustration and anguish at being unable to change the past see him become obsessed with gaining more and more power, to the point where he is fixated only on being reunited with his love. This makes him blind to all pleas, even those of his uncorrupted counterpart, and it isn’t until all of reality is about to be erased forever that he realises the error of his ways. Sadly, by then, it’s much too late for him to undo anything; Christine once again dies in his arms and everything that ever was is unravelled due to his time paradox; even the Watcher judges his heinous actions, and the once mighty Strange Supreme is left alone and repentant in the tiniest slither of reality. It’s a poignant and gut-wrenching take on the snarky, stubborn, and arrogant Sorcerer Supreme, one that shows just how dangerous a threat he could be if he lost his strong moral compass, and it’s a testament to the show that the character remained a tragic and relatable figure right up until the end rather than simply being a malevolent antagonist.
Easily the darkest tale is the inclusion of zombies; never before has the MCU veered so closely towards traditional horror and I really appreciated the bleak, gory change of pace. It was fantastic seeing the MCU’s most powerful characters reduced to animalistic ghouls, forcing the few survivors to battle their lifelong friends and making painful sacrifices to ensure the safety of others against overwhelming odds. This was also a prime opportunity to show a new side to the Vision; him luring in survivors just to feed his love is a haunting glimpse at the darker side of his cold, calculating logic. We’ve seen such behaviour, this overpowering sense of denial, in zombie films before and, here, it served as a gruesome reminder of just how close to the brink this alternate reality is to total collapse. This continued in Killmonger’s welcome reappearance, with his alternate tale basically showing what could have happened if he had succeeded in his goals of reclaiming his Wakandan birthright; Killmonger was always one of the MCU’s more driven and dangerous antagonists and his episode showed just how truly vindictive and sadistic he really was. He had no qualms about deceiving or using anyone and any resource at his disposal, and even incited an all-out war just so that he could get himself into a position of trust and power, which serves as a stark reminder to just how ruthless a villain he really was. The party-loving version of Thor is the polar opposite; Party Thor cares little for battle or being a king and just wants to enjoy himself. He revels in being the centre of attention and throwing the biggest, most outrageous parties in all the Nine Realms and is lauded amongst his guests as being the wildest party animal around. Thor is a consummate free spirit and a friend to all; alien races, Gods, and recognisable beings from all across the cosmos cheer his name and share in his revelry, making for some of the most light-hearted and amusing moments in the entire series as Surtur (Clancy Brown) tries it on with Lady Liberty and Frost Giants deface Mount Rushmore. This episode also leads to one of the best fist fights in the series as Thor and Captain Marvel trade blows, but he delights in the fight as much as he does in enjoying himself with mead, and only the disapproval of his mother finally shakes Thor from his apathy and pushes him to make amends for his reckless merriment.
Of course, things come to a suitably dramatic and action-packed conclusion with the final two episodes, which finally force the Watcher into action. Up until then, the watcher existed outside of the normal universe, powerful and cosmic enough to remain completely undetected, but Ultron’s sentience and force grows to such an extent that it’s able to sense the Watcher, breach his observatory, and begin a maniacal campaign to conquer and destroy the entire multiverse. Untold aeons of quietly observing the multiverse haven’t exactly dampened the Watcher’s power cosmic, but in the face to Ultron’s might, enhanced by the six Infinity Stones, the enigmatic onlooker is forced to do the one thing he has never done and ask for help, calling upon the characters he has been observing and asking them to intervene where he cannot. Seeing these wildly different versions of these characters interacting was a blast; they arguably got on the same page much faster than the regular Avengers (which is no doubt due to the short length of the episodes) and were able to launch a united attack on Ultron as a result. Indeed, Ultron kind of got a bit shafted in the last episode; it went from going toe-to-toe with a cosmic being to getting battered about by a handful of mortals and Godlings simply because the Guardians were able to keep the pressure on and keep Ultron from activating the Infinity Stones. Realistically, Ultron could’ve just “snapped” them all away, but then that wouldn’t be anywhere near as exhilarating for a final battle now, would it? Seeing Killmonger claim the gems and just the idea of what his twisted imagination would use them for was a cool moment, as was the idea that he might someday escape his trap to threaten the multiverse again, and just about the only issue I had with that last episode was the random inclusion of a Gamora when they could’ve maybe employed Zombie Wanda instead. Overall, though, I thoroughly enjoyed this series; the presentation, the humour, the fun twists on established characters, and the bizarre stories were all really fun and engaging and I can’t wait to see more from this as the MCU continues to expand into more and ore obscure concepts.
Rating: 5 out of 5.
Did you enjoy What If…?? Which episode was your favourite, and which of the alternate characters did you like the most? Did you enjoy the Watcher’s inclusion and characterisation? What did you think to all the cameos and the animation style? Did you enjoy seeing Ultron as an all-powerful force and what did you think to its battle with the Watcher? Were you also disappointed that Gamora didn’t get her own episode? Are you a fan of the What If…? comics and, if so, which was your favourite? What other hypothetical scenarios would you like to see explored in a future season? Whatever your thoughts on What If…?, sign up to drop a comment down below and check back next Sunday for the final instalment of Multiverse Madness.
In Avengers: Infinity War(Russo and Russo, 2018) the Mad Titan, Thanos (Josh Brolin), finally made a significant appearance in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). When the idea of a two-film saga based on the Infinity Gauntlet comic book (Starlin, et al, 1991) was first announced, I, like many others, had many theories about what was going to happen, who was going to live and die, and how everything was )going to go down. For example, before Thor: Ragnarok(Waititi, 2017), I was certain that Thanos’ big entrance was going to immediately establish his threat by hanging him storm into Asgard kill Odin Allfather (Anthony Hopkins), and claim the Tesseract (and, obviously, the Space Stone it help). After all, how better to establish this big bad villain than by having him kill a God?
Instead, of course, Thanos wrecked Thor Odinson’s (Chris Hemsworth) ship and slaughtered half of the Asgardians onboard. Still an impressive feat, to be sure, but one that focused more on Thanos’ grandeur and pretentious philosophy rather than his actual physical strength thanks to the bulk of the work being undertaken by his underlings, the “Children of Thanos”. Headed by Ebony Maw (Tom Vaughan-Lawlor), Cull Obsidian (Terry Notary), Proxima Midnight (Carrie Coon/Monique Ganderton), and Corvus Glaive (Michael James Shaw), the Children of Thanos didn’t actually appear in The Infinity Gauntlet and are, instead, relatively recent additions to Thanos’ ranks who first appeared (as the “Black Order”) in Infinity (Hickman, et al, 2013). In the film, we don’t really learn much about these guys at all except that they enforce Thanos’ will with unquestioning loyalty and that he trusts them to help him gather the remaining Infinity Stones and, while they certainly look visually interesting, they’re mostly disposable bad guys for the Avengers to fight in place of Thanos.
Now, I’ve never read Infinity; I have no emotional attachment to the Black Order or any of the characters and, as a result, they were merely nothing more than henchman to me and I only really recall one of them being referred to be name (“I take it the Maw is dead?”) While I enjoyed their inclusion in the film, I can’t help but feel like they could have been dropped and supplanted with some other, more recognisable MCU villains had some other films and events happened just a little differently. For example, take Cull Obsidian; he’s Thanos’ muscle who basically does nothing and is largely inconsequential. What if, instead of killing Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace) in Guardians of the Galaxy(Gunn, 2014), Ronan had been soundly defeated and humbled and, having seen the extent of Thanos’ power (he did destroy Xandar (offscreen), which was what Ronan wanted, after all, and would be enough to bring Ronan to heel, I would wager), he pledged himself fully to Thanos’ cause to get revenge against the Guardians of the Galaxy? I’m not massively familiar with Ronan but it seems to me like it was a bit of a miss-step to kill him off when he could have fulfilled a role in Thanos’ little gang at the very least, if not remain as a recurring antagonist for the Guardians. Another potential replacement for Corvus would be Emil Blonsky/Abomination (Tim Roth) who, at the time, had been conspicuous by his absence from the MCU. However, arguably, it wouldn’t make as much sense for Thanos to recruit the Abomination as he’s not exactly floating around in the depths of space for him to encounter.
Intrigue was equally high in the build-up to The Avengers/Avengers Assemble(Whedon, 2012); I was hoping to see a version of the Masters of Evil, with Loki Laufeyson (Tom Hiddleston) joining forces with Johann Schmidt/The Red Skull (Hugo Weaving) – who was clearly transported away from Earth by the Bifrost at the end of Captain America: The First Avenger(Johnston, 2011 – and either the Abomination or Doctor Samuel Sterns/The Leader (Tim Blake Nelson) once they got to Earth. While I was happy with the first Avengers team-up we got, I do feel this was another missed opportunity that we never saw this anti-Avengers team-up. Consequently, I feel like we could have swapped out Ebony Maw for either of these characters; in The Infinity Gauntly, Thanos was advised by Mephisto, a role many expected Loki to play in Infinity War given his mischievous and devious nature. Naturally, of course, you could argue that this wouldn’t really fit with Loki’s character arc by that point but remember how he feigned loyalty to Thanos and then tried to stab him in the neck? Well, imagine that but throughout a large portion of the movie. Loki pledges fealty, willingly hand shim the Tesseract, and spends the remainder of the film waiting for the perfect moment to strike and then he’s killed for his efforts. Obviously, the Red Skull finally showed up in Avengers: Endgame(Russo and Russo, 2019) in a slightly different role as the Stonekeeper (Ross Marquand), but again…what if the Red Skull had replaced Ebony Maw? How much more interesting and impactful would it have been to see the Red Skull empowered by Thanos and making a triumphant return as Thanos’ chief torturer? Sure, if his death was the same then you could argue that he would’ve been “wasted” or been killed off too easily but I still feel like this would have been a better use of the character than as the keeper of the Soul Stone (a role that could’ve been filled by character’s envisioning the Stonekeeper as someone close to them, perhaps?)
Corvus Glaive is a trickier one to “replace” in this hypothetical alternate world, however I have one suggestion: Nebula (Karen Gillan). Now, similar to Loki joining Thanos, this would require quite a few changes to Nebula’s character arc; in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2(Gunn, 2017), she finally buried the hatchet with her “sister”, Gamora (Zoey Saldana) and it was great seeing her grow as a character, put aside her hatred, and learn how to work alongside the Guardians and the Avengers. In The Infinity Gauntlet, Nebula spends most of her time as a mindless zombie thanks to Thanos’ wrath but plays a vital role in his downfall by stealing the Gauntlet for herself (and promptly being driven mad by its power). By tweaking her character arc, or having it so that Thanos either intimidates or reprograms her into subservice, you could replace Corvus with a more prominent and recognisable character and still find ways to weave her existing arc into the story. Like, what if, after Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2, Nebula is forced into Thanos to serve him (maybe he threatens to kill Gamora/the Guardians or promises to “repair” her once he’s assemble the Gauntlet) in Corvus’ place; she could still have been ripped apart and tortured to force Gamora into revealing the Soul Stone’s location and would have even more motivation to turn against her “father” since he would have lied to and manipulated her once again.
Another character who I, like many, expected to play a prominent role in Infinity War was Hela Odindottir (Cate Blanchett), a character who a lot of people expected would take the role of Lady Death as the object of Thanos’ affections. Of course, this didn’t turn out to be true as Hela was killed in Thor: Ragnarok and Thanos’ motivations were changed from worshipping Death to wanting to bring a sense of balance to the galaxy. Still, how awesome would it have been if Hela had taken Proxima Midnight’s place in the Dark Order? If killing the Allfather didn’t show you that Thanos was a bad-ass, bringing the Goddess of Death to heel totally would have and could have made for a much more memorable female villain for the finale in Wakanda. Again, there’s the question of her being killed off but what better way to help showcase Wanda Maximoff’s (Elizabeth Olsen) sheer power than by having her shred a Goddess to pieces? Or you could rewrite her death to maybe come at the hands of her brother, Thor, and his new weapon, Stormbreaker, to sell the awesomeness of the weapon.
Ultimately, I was more than happy with Avengers: Infinity War, Endgame, and the MCU’s portrayal of Thanos overall. His underlings were find cannon fodder for the film and helped to serve as extensions of the Mad Titan’s will but I do feel it would have been even more awesome to see these more recognisable villains swayed to Thanos’ cause so that we could see them interact with their rivals, and other heroes, in new and interesting ways. Sure, many have cropped up again since then and the potential of a Masters of Evil in the MCU is still there, I just think that maybe these huge movies could have been made even bigger if things had been slightly changed to accommodate these more familiar characters. Do you agree or disagree? Maybe you’re a big fan of the Black Order from the comics? Perhaps you’d have like to see a different route taken? Do you even want to see the Masters of Evil in the MCU? Either way, feel free to sound off in the comments below.
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