After two weeks of iffy What If…? episodes, it’s nice to get back to something more sophisticated — even if the ending gives us pause.
The first three episodes of the program proved the vastly different ways posing “What If” questions can lead to alternate telling of stories, how one character in a different place can change the galaxy, and how a choice of careers could doom the world to Loki (Tom Hiddleston). Then the fourth and fifth episode seemed to retreat as they tested the waters of horror and posed less interesting questions answered in less interesting worlds — and that’s considering the possibility that Episode 4 introduced a new villain for the mainline Marvel Cinematic Universe.
But this week — asking “What If … Killmonger Rescued Tony Stark?” — we see a return to greater narrative sophistication as Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) pulls off an even more audacious scheme than the one he devised in Black Panther. By even just bringing Killmonger onto the show, the program invokes the far more complicated politics of the villain, the source of his training, and the warmongering of Tony Stark (voiced here by Mick Wingert) and General Thaddeus Ross (voiced by Mike McGill) prior to the start of Phase 1. The issues are complex, but Killmonger’s thirst for vengeance remains simple and true, as does his desire to share the wonders of Wakanda with displaced peoples of African origin. Although, as T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman in yet another handful of poignant lines) rightfully suggests, the desire for power is never quenched and will lead to his cousin’s downfall.
Like Episode 3, this week’s show does a great job of building an alternate reality from an early moment in MCU history. And in diverting the course of Iron Man entirely, a sense of dread permeates the story. Killmonger only knows how to destabilize countries and keeping Tony from that cave in Afghanistan is, we think, the most destabilizing action the wetworks operative could ever take. And for most of the episode, the consequences of that change are brilliant and startling. Inspiring direct military conflict between the US and Wakanda is the absolutely right coup-de-grace as it makes both nations he feels wronged by attempt to destroy one another. Although, we gather, Wakanda will prove the victor as he has designs on the throne.
But then, after all that setup, the story just stops.
We get that What If…? is supposed to leave the viewer (or reader) wanting more, but in this case, the hints of what is to come are unsatisfying. We fully expected Killmonger’s folly to come from the things he could not anticipate, like Loki or Thanos, but the episode suggests different possibilities we do not necessarily agree with. Shuri (voiced by Ozioma Akagha) and Pepper’s (voiced by Beth Hoyt) suspicions could lead to him faltering on the world stage, but we imagine that would just accelerate his plans to eliminate T’Chaka (John Kani) and claim the throne for himself.
Beyond that, though, is the fact the episode does not end at a reasonably satisfying place — either just after his talk with T’Challa or after Ross’s failed invasion. And it’s a different of just a few minutes which keeps this episode from being a complete return to form for What If…? All that said, though, we definitely appreciate the episode for giving us some moments with Ramonda (Angela Bassett) in battle.
What If…? streams Wednesdays on Disney+