Surprisingly, the season one finale of Marvel’s animated Disney+ series — “What If… the Watcher Broke His Oath?” — managed to bring the show’s debut to a satisfying close by foregoing any pretense of being about what might happen. Instead, the episode shifts focus to what’s actually happening in the moment… at a time when the multiverse needs another team to keep it from collapsing.
Part of what’s made the first season of Marvel’s What If somewhat difficult to get a read on has been the anthology’s inability to even pretend that any of its disparate tales set in various branches of the universe are true one-and-done stories that you’re meant to move on from at the end of every episode. Even though Marvel’s What If comics often came to abrupt ends after plunging characters into deep existential crises, the animated adaptations have been very careful to seed the ground with the potential for follow-ups. While promising in theory, the series’ unsubtle clues about building to a yet another major crossover event has robbed some of the first season’s chapters of a certain degree of their finality. It also begged the question of whether the climax the show’s been building towards would be worth it.
Out of the whole of What If’s first season, episodes four, five, six, and eight stood out from the rest because of the objectively dark and hopeless places they ended in before the Watcher regretfully turned his gaze elsewhere in the multiverse. As the stories have grown more dire as the season progressed, the Watcher’s questioned whether his oath to never intervene in the lives of others is truly worth keeping given how prone to losing control and breaking reality powerful figures — like the demonic Doctor Strange and the Infinity-powered Ultron — have proven to be. While the Watcher could rest somewhat easy knowing that the demonic Strange sentenced himself to an eternity trapped in a magical prison of his own making within a completely dead reality, the nigh-omnipotent being has had a legitimate reason to be concerned about the homicidal synthezoid introduced in last week’s episode.
Like the demonic Strange, Ultron was able to attain so much raw power that he instinctively gained an awareness of the multiverse’s existence, his placement within it, and the presence of an all-seeing being watching everything play out from a place beyond time and space. Because Ultron is Ultron — a robot who’s defined by his fondness for murder and an innate curiosity — the promise of figuring out who the Watcher is and what his whole deal is by beating him up was too good an opportunity to give up, and their first fight left the Watcher in desperate need for an escape.
“What If… the Watcher Broke His Oath?” opens with the Watcher having recovered physically from his confrontation, but being so shaken by it that he’s finally able to stop lying to himself about being satisfied simply observing things from the sideline as multiple realities to go hell. While he might not be meant to intervene, the situation at hand calls for a certain degree of rule-breaking, especially considering how most of what’s happened hasn’t exactly been the Watcher’s fault. The Watcher doesn’t quite say it to the different heroes he plucks from their respective realities, but you can see that he’s genuinely excited and geeked at finally being able to reach down and touch the living legends whose various existences he’s been obsessively consuming as entertainment for eons. In moments lifted from previous Marvel movies like Captain America: Civil War, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, and Black Panther, the Watcher makes himself known to Captain Carter, Star-Lord T’Challa, King Killmonger, Party Thor, and a new variant of Gamora (Cynthia McWilliams) who’s known for killing her universe’s Thanos and wearing his armour.
As prominently as the new Gamora was featured in What If’s advertisements, it’s interesting to finally see how small a role she plays in this story given how reluctant Marvel’s seemed to be when it came to fully moving on from the Thanos-focused Infinity Saga. Like everyone the Watcher appears before in this episode, this Gamora — and a Tony Stark variant sporting a blue-accented Hulkbuster-like armour — underreacts when the eggheaded being pops up out of nowhere, and the Watcher doesn’t really bother trying to explain what’s going on. All the Watcher thinks these heroes need to know is that it’s Gamora, and not Tony, that the multiverse needs, and it’s one of the finale’s first beats that feels like a nod toward the next season’s stories.
After the Watcher collects all of his champions, they’re transported to a magical space the demonic Strange has bewitched to resemble a bar, which is enough to put Thor at ease, but Peggy’s feelings about the place are somewhat more complicated. Because Strange modelled the magic bar after the same watering hole where she used to get drinks with her universe’s Steve Rogers, the place both warms her heart and puts her on alert just moments before the lights start flickering, and the Watcher manifests himself. As he lays out the situation and explains why he needs the heroes to become the Guardians of the Multiverse, “What If… the Watcher Broke His Oath?” shifts into classic MCU mode complete with an inspirational swell of triumphant music emphasising that the Good Guys have a fighting chance. But the rah-rah-ness of the moment is shot through with the unsubtle promise of a sinister turn whenever the camera’s trained on Killmonger, who quickly shows a fascination with an Ultron skull Party Thor brings to the bar.
Compared to how everyone tried to stop Thanos in Avengers: Infinity War, the multiversal Guardians’ plan to defeat Ultron is simple enough. By spiriting them away to a universe that’s devoid of any other intelligent life, the Watcher is able to hide the Guardians from Ultron’s reality-piercing vision and prepare an ambush. What If’s “quiet” moments have had a tendency to feel a bit hollow compared to its more action-packed moments, but the reflective stillness between the Guardians before Party Thor accidentally gives their location away feels natural and necessary. Even though we really haven’t had all that much time to spend with this specific team, you can easily see how an entire live-action feature built around them might be legitimately watchable if only to see Marvel go all-in on a big-budget project that was this out there. Little things like seeing Killmonger take a shine to a version of his cousin who’s down with a little crime, and Gamora solemnly carrying the weight of being the deadliest woman of her native reality feel like the details that What If’s needed more of to make you care about the show beyond its ability to bring fan favourites back to life for epic fights. With Party Thor around, though, that sort of ruminative calm isn’t sustainable, and he can’t stop himself from drawing Ultron’s attention.
Once Ultron melodramatically arrives at the once-uninhabited universe in an ominous sequence that echoes some of the more majestic beats from Digimon Adventures: Our War Game, the episode shifts into action mode and does its best to top both Infinity War and Endgame. By shielding them all with protective magic, the demonic Strange makes it possible for the Guardians to withstand some of Ultron’s more devastating attacks, but it’s still a struggle for them to properly hold their own against him. To their credit, they keep it together much better than the Sacred Timeline’s heroes did as they flailed around trying not to be murdered by Thanos — especially Captain Carter and Star-Lord T’Challa, who team up to basically pickpocket the Soul Stone right off Ultron’s chassis.
Losing one of the six Infinity Stones is enough to make Ultron do a double take (and remind everyone how the Soul Stone’s kind of the dullest of Marvel’s MacGuffins), as well as give the heroes an opportunity to escape to another reality. In a nice nod back to Endgame’s foreshadowing of what a force the Scarlet Witch was destined to become, the demon Strange comes up with the idea to slow the villain down by dropping an entire universe of zombies onto him with a portal, and when Ultron explodes out of the horde, he’s greeted by an undead Wanda Maximoff. As was the case with her Sacred Timeline counterpart’s one-on-one fight against Thanos, the zombified Wanda actually seems to cause a bit of grief for Ultron, who’s shocked when a blast of chaos magic manages to make him a little uncomfortable. However, zombie Wanda being a zombie, she doesn’t seem to have enough thinking power to intelligently use her magic beyond wielding it with brute force, and after Ultron absorbs a blast, he responds by simply obliterating Wanda and the rest of that universe.
Of all the realities the Watcher could have taken the Guardians to, he specifically chose the one in episode eight, “What If… Ultron Won?” because of the unique weapon that Black Widow managed to piece together there to stop his spread. But when the Guardians are all finally together in this universe — the one this Ultron originally hailed from — and they first meet this Natasha, her immediate instinct is to shoot at them because everyone else on the planet’s meant to be dead. Before the Watcher scoops Peggy up in this episode, you see how she went on to become quite close with a Black Widow variant she worked with as an Avenger. Though it definitely feels as if there might be some sort of romantic chemistry between the two women, the episode makes a point of reminding you that Captain Carter still carries a torch for Steve Rogers. But the women’s interactions have the overall effect of making you feel the history that exists between them, which is why Peggy imploring another Widow to trust that they’re allies works so effectively.
Using an arrowhead “poisoned” with Arnim Zola’s digital consciousness, Black Widow and the other Guardians of the Galaxy are able to take Ultron down with a single, impossible trickshot that leaves his synthetic body immobilized. The relative simplicity of their victory is enough to unnerve all of the Guardians who are shocked that it would be that easy to take down the biggest threat to the multiverse — that shock proves to be well placed as the true danger makes itself known. When the Watcher began looking for champions to fix the mess he easily could have averted, his goal wasn’t to put together a team that could “win” a fight against Ultron, but rather one that could simply separate him from the Infinity Stones.
This dawns on the demonic Strange as Killmonger, who somehow found the time to fashion a new suit of Ultron-like armour, uses his new duds to take hold of the Stones and make the case that the Guardians should use them to heal their damaged home realities. Given the circumstances, it’s a little difficult to see why the Guardians wouldn’t want to put things “right” as their Sacred Timeline counterparts did by reversing Thanos’ snap. But Killmonger’s power-hungry nature seems to be a corrosive element of his identity across all dimensions, and something that other people unfailingly recognised as a threat.
Whatever King Killmonger’s plan is, it’s cut short when the Vision body — now controlled by Zola — gets up and begins calling out for the Stones, setting off a power struggle between himself and the prodigal Wakandan. Perhaps because of his own experience with being corrupted by unlimited power, Strange realises that so long as Killmonger and Zola are free, they’ll stop at nothing to get ahold of the Infinity Stones. Because destroying them wasn’t an option, apparently, Strange instead decides to encase both Killmonger and ZolaVision in a pocket dimension where the pair are forever frozen in time, and volunteers to keep watch over them back in his dead universe once it’s clear that the multiversal trouble is finally over.
It really does feel like the Guardians of the Multiverse got the short end of the stick as the Watcher explains how he plans to return them each to their home realities right at the very moment he first whisked them all away. While the others all accept their fates, the Widow from the Infinity-powered Ultron’s Earth refuses because she literally has no real life to return to, something the Watcher can’t really debate her about. Throughout What If’s first season, there were a number of scenes that served as reminders of the sacrifice the Sacred Timeline’s Widow made to make sure that her fellow heroes could destroy the Mad Titan but the finale gives this Widow a chance at starting fresh. Figuring that he’s already broken more rules than he’d ever care to admit, the Watcher gives Natasha something to live for by dropping her into the reality of “What If… the World Lost Its Mightiest Heroes?” where that Widow and the other early would-be Avengers were murdered by Hank Pym. Being back on a SHIELD helicarrier in the midst of a battle is all it takes to give this Widow a renewed purpose and reason to keep on living, and that’s more than enough for the Watcher to consider his job done for the time being.
The sense of closure and finality that settles in as What If comes to an end is fleeting. The series’ first mid-credits sequence reveals that Peggy Carter returns to her home to defeat Batroc the Leaper (Georges St-Pierre) and discovers that Steve’s old Hydra Stomper has been found with someone still inside it. As Marvel mid-credits sequences go, it’s one of the studio’s less compelling given that What If’s next season was already a foregone conclusion, and the episode doesn’t actually tell us who’s in the powered suit of armour.
Having seen what all this series felt comfortable trying to do this season, it now feels like What If has proven it can mix up people’s favourite scenes from movies and other TV shows, and present them as stories that feel new enough to warrant being considered their own thing. But even now, What If’s really only just scratched the surface in terms of mining Marvel Comics’ deep catalogue for wild stories that genuinely would be impossible to realise with flesh and blood actors. As the studio marches deeper into its fourth phase and keeps introducing more characters into its interconnected universes, What If’s going to have more chances to wow audiences with things they haven’t seen before. Hopefully, when the show returns, it comes ready to deviate even further from the established canon in search of new surprises.
What If’s first season is now streaming on Disney+.