‘What If…?’ Blows the Doors Open for ‘Doctor Strange 2’

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[This story contains spoilers for the premiere episode of Disney+ and Marvel’s What If…?]

It’s time to experience the Marvel Cinematic Universe through new eyes. The doors of the multiverse have been blown open thanks to the events of Loki, and with that Marvel Studios takes its first foray into animation with What If…?. While animation is certainly a new medium for the MCU, one that comes with its own expectations and pre-conceived notions about essentiality, What If…? has the potential to be just as crucial to Phase 4 as every other Marvel Studios project we’ve seen on Disney+.

Based on the long-running comic series that debuted in 1977, What If…? reimagines the familiar events of the MCU if different choices or mistakes had been made. It is a tour through the chaos He Who Remains (Jonathan Majors) was so afraid of unleashing in the season finale of Loki. The Watcher (Jeffrey Wright) serves as a tour guide through these new branches of reality, and anyone who’s read Marvel Comics long enough knows that the appearance of The Watcher signifies a massive shift in the universe. That shift comes in the form of numerous Variants of familiar Marvel characters, some of whom may eventually make their way into the live-action series and films. First up, and already confirmed to play a significant role across future seasons of What If…? is Captain Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell).

Atwell has been a mainstay in the MCU since her debut in Captain America: The First Avenger (2011). Since that time, she’s gone on to star in a Marvel One-Shot short film, two seasons of the ABC series Agent Carter, and made appearances in everything from Ant-Man (2015) to Avengers: Endgame (2019). The fan-favorite character gets a new lease on life in the first episode of What If…?, directed by Bryan Andrews. When Steve Rogers is injured before receiving the Super-Soldier Serum, fasting-acting Peggy steps in to take his place becoming the Allied forces’ first Super-Soldier. This version of the character resembles the alternate universe version (Earth-86315 to be exact) of Peggy Carter who served as Captain America instead of Rogers, and first appeared in Saladin Ahmed and Javier Rodriguez’s Exiles No. 3 (2018).

In the first episode of What If…?, viewers are eased into a world that is largely familiar to the one they saw in Captain America: The First Avenger. These are the same characters we know from the films, guided by the same principles, but Steve and Peggy’s roles have been switched up. Overcoming the sexism of top-brass holding her back, Peggy, with the help of Howard Stark, Bucky Barnes, and a Steve Rogers in a mechanized Stark Suit dubbed the “Hydra Stomper,” take on the Red Skull and his forces. The episode, in both style and tone, feels quite similar to Max Fleischer’s 1940s Superman cartoons, and the showdown at Castle Red Skull during the climax harken back to old superhero serials and comic books in a way that made me wish The First Avenger had featured a similar set piece.

Events take an interesting turn when the Red Skull uses the Tesseract to open a doorway to unleash a Lovecraftian creature he believes to be HYDRA’s ultimate power upon the world. The tentacled beast could be a reference to the Marvel Comics event Secret Empire, which saw HYDRA Cap and the sorceress Elisa Sinclair aka, one of the numerous iterations of Madame Hydra, in league with the Great Old Ones. HYDRA Cap is a character on many Marvel fans’ radars given rumors that Chris Evans may return to the MCU in some capacity. Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness seems like the logical place for such an introduction. But the HYDRA beast may signify a larger and more significant threat to the MCU.

Recent rumors suggest that Shuma-Gorath will be the ultimate villain in the Sam Raimi film. Shuma-Gorath is one of the Great Old Ones, an embodiment of chaos with the power to destroy the realities of the multiverse by using his tentacles to create a ball of energy that rips apart a dimension. It’s wild stuff. The character has not only had numerous encounters with Doctor Strange in the comics over the years, one of which resulted in the Ancient One’s death, but was also summoned by Nicholas Scratch, the son of none other than Agatha Harkness of WandaVision fame.  Chthon is the Great Old One most often associated with chaos magic, the Darkhold (the book of dark magic Wanda has in her possession at the end of WandaVision) and Wanda Maximoff.  But MCU may trade one for the other or combine the two villains, as they’ve done with Zheng Zu and The Mandarin to create Wenwu (Tony Leung) for Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. What If…? may have given us a sneak peak of the villain at the center of >Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness and Wanda’s (Elizabeth Olsen) growing powers. Or it may have just given us a really cool Lovecraftian monster for Captain Peggy Carter to hack apart with a sword. Either way, it’s a win.

But leaving tentacled cosmic beings behind for a moment, Captain Peggy Carter seems like the most likely candidate to make a live-action appearance in the MCU. Atwell hasn’t given any indication that she’s ready to leave the MCU behind, and she clearly has a deep love of the character. There’s a lot of fun that could be had in exploring Peggy Carter as a full-blown superhero. (The What If…? team has told The Hollywood Reporter they’d love to see that.) From team-ups with Captain America (Anthony Mackie) and Captain Marvel (Brie Larson), to being audiences’ anchor to the multiverse, there’s a lot of Captain Peggy Carter stories that can be explored in both animation and live-action. The episodes of What If…? not only stand as their own stories of merit, but may also be a testing ground to see which characters and concepts viewers gravitate towards. There’s little doubt that Captain Carter will be high on that list.

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