What If…? Season 1 Episode 9
“…The Watcher Broke His Oath?”
What If…? closes out its first season by bringing together a collection of characters from the previous episodes to face a large threat to the multiverse.
I’ve long held the belief that What If…? would build to a crossover of some sort that would bring together the universes depicted in its episodes. The threat of Ultron (Ross Marquand) as shown in the previous episode is one that Uato considers to be significant enough to break his oath of non interference in order to solve that problem.
This episode amounts to a team-up consisting of characters lifted from the prior episodes. Uato assembles Captain Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell), Starlord T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), the corrupted Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) party Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and a version of Gamora (Cynthia McWilliams) who teamed up with Tony Stark (Mick Wingert) on Sakaar before killing Thanos to form his team that he dubs the Guardians of the Multiverse. No in universe reason is given for his selection process. It’s likely he has watched countless other universes beyond those depicted in this season of television so it’s curious he would choose this group without explaining why he didn’t choose others from the infinite possibilities he has access to. Of course the reason he chooses this group is because the show has detailed their stories -except from one- meaning the audience is in theory invested in those characters. Perhaps if effort had been made to connect these characters to the Ultron plot in a meaningful way making them more obvious candidates it would have been less jarring for their participation to be unexplained.
In a lot of ways it’s disappointing that What If…? isn’t simply an anthology show used to explore alternate possibilities. Broadly that has been the case but there have been repeated hints that Uato was headed for a decisive moment where his non interference oath would be broken. Having him as the connective thread through the episodes along with constantly referencing that he can only observe sets up a scenario where that oath will be broken so it makes sense that the season culminates in him doing that.
There are issues with that by itself as it really goes nowhere. He breaks his oath and there are no consequences for it at this point. It remains unclear who this oath was pledged to and why he was so committed to upholding it. These and more remain open questions at the end of this season though there will be another one to potentially address them. The lack of real development for Uato stands out because the entire season pointed in the direction of his character learning something profound through watching these various universes unfold so to end without that happening leaves the season feeling incomplete. What he does in this episode is a means to an end with a brief suggestion that he has become invested in what he has been watching which is far less than satisfying.
The Guardians of the Multiverse is a wasted opportunity as the time isn’t taken to make this team-up a meaningful one. The Avengers spent a great deal of its running time celebrating the fact that these characters were interacting for the first time where this episode has a brief recruitment montage then a quick briefing of what they are expected to do followed by an extended action sequence where they use their skills and powers to fight Ultron. It’s the equivalent of mashing action figures together which is undoubtedly fun but the lack of meaningful character work results in a superficial finale that wastes much of the potential that exists within these characters.
It isn’t entirely bereft of meaningful interactions. Most notably Peggy receives a great deal of attention with her prologue showcasing a slightly altered take on the opening of Captain America: The Winter Soldier serving as a reminder of Peggy being a character who is out of time and feeling that she has lost something important in her life while also establishing her strong friendship with Natasha Romanoff aka Black Widow (Lake Bell). Both details are carried into her contribution to the episode in different ways in an attempt to give the chaotic events some form of emotional grounding.
Her friendship with her universe’s Natasha is shown briefly but it is very quickly established that they are close and have become comfortable around one another through working together. Their banter is natural and their dynamic is very watchable. This carries into her interactions with the version of Natasha introduced in the previous episode. The history doesn’t exist between them but Peggy is able to use what she has learned to gain her trust and they build up a very quick battlefield rapport. They are also connected through their own experiences of loss which makes the speed of this believable.
The loss of her version of Steve Rogers due to skipping over the decades since the second world war weighs heavily on her as well. Before returning to her own universe and time she stares at the picture of him and pleads with Uato to allow her to have her happy ending. Uato tells her that her universe and time period needs her which Peggy doesn’t question because she understands the necessity of sacrifice for the greater good. The fact that this doesn’t make it any easier for her to live with that sacrifice is powerful and gives Peggy a great deal of depth. It isn’t enough to carry the episode or make the overall scenario more worthwhile but as a continuation of this version of Peggy Carter it works very well.
Natasha from the universe that birthed this version of Ultron is another attempt at an emotional grounding. In theory her being present for this battle and being the one who delivers the killing blow -sort of- should be meaningful. As with much of what this episode offers it doesn’t reach that point though there is mention of Ultron taking everything from her and the victory being a hollow one because she remains the only living person on Earth. Uato takes pity on her and transports her to the universe from the third episode because the native Natasha was lost. She seems to end the Asgardian invasion by stopping Loki and is immediately accepted by Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson). This acceptance is clunkily executed but it’s reasonably satisfying to see Natasha transported to a universe where she’ll have company and the chance to find a sense of purpose rather than facing a lonely world alone.
As for the rest of the Guardians of the Multiverse there isn’t much to say. Stephen Strange gains the most attention and ties into the loose theme of loss explored through Peggy and Natasha. His motivation is to redeem himself in some way for his mistakes and he achieves this to a degree though it does take a half baked reference to sacrifice to make this clearer. Stephen points out that it doesn’t feel like a sacrifice because he doesn’t think he has anything to lose. His penance is to watch over the pocket universe containing Ultron/Zola (Toby Jones) and Killmonger. It turns out this was the plan all along but Stephen is happy to accept it because it gives him purpose and allows him to make up for his mistakes in a very small way. He is similar to Uato in that he has pledged to keep watch without interfering. This could have been a very interesting comparison if more time had been spent cultivating it then it could have achieved greater impact but it amounts to little more than an incidental detail that could have been more.
Party Thor, Gamora and Killmonger are largely non entities beyond what they contribute to the battle. Gamora stands out because her story was never seen and Killmonger’s betrayal is a surprise because prior to that point you’d have been forgiven for forgetting he was there at all. His betrayal exists as another manufactured point of tension as to the ongoing threat and it doesn’t really work particularly when it’s revealed that Uato always planned for this to be the end result.
The worst part is that there was so much potential for meaningful interactions between these characters. For example this version of T’Challa is friends with Thanos so there was definite scope for that to result in a compelling conversation with a version of Gamora who killed Thanos. Similarly there was potential in a version of Killmonger who murdered the T’Challa from his universe talking to a version of his cousin who didn’t grow up in Wakanda. The conversations simply don’t exist so the characters largely fail to come to life.
Another problem is Ultron who still fails to be a strong threat. He’s powerful and the action sequences are incredibly creative on the whole but he doesn’t rise above the maniacal engine of destruction bent on bringing down the multiverse. I’ve said in prior reviews that the production team take every opportunity to use the vast resources of the MCU but it’s rare for them to be deployed in meaningful ways. The action becomes white noise after a while because there’s very little weight behind it.
It’s unclear at this point what season 2 will offer. If every season is a collection of rapidly told alternate takes on familiar stories culminating in some of those characters teaming up at the end of the season then the formula will become stale. The show can only sustain the novelty of events playing out differently for so long. As I’ve repeatedly mentioned the pace of storytelling is a consistent issue and much of the content is very superficial. A second season has the opportunity to iron out the issues that this one had so a superior second season is very possible but the production team needs to practice greater restraint and concentrate on making meaningful character stories rather than throwing every possible element into the mix because it is believed it will be fun. There’s no denying that on a superficial level it is fun but it’s not a sustainable model long term.
An uneven finale that has some strong characterisation but fails to capitalise on a lot of the potential and leans into the superficial far too heavily. One thing that stands out is the lack of development of Uato. Who he pledged his oath to, his motivation for upholding it and what consequences he might face for breaking it remain open questions that can be picked up next season but amount to a lack of meaningful content for him in this one. The Guardians of the Multiverse is an undoubtedly fun idea but the coming together of the different characters is something that the episode fails to do anything with for the most part. Peggy Carter and the version of Natasha from the same universe as Ultron is an engaging dynamic and the biggest attempt the episode makes for emotional grounding is through Peggy which works well but isn’t enough to carry it. Natasha being moved to a universe where she doesn’t have to be alone is mostly satisfying as a conclusion Doctor Strange accepting penance for his mistakes and being positioned similarly to Uato is potentially interesting but isn’t explored in detail.
The rest of the characters are basically window dressing. Killmonger’s betrayal is a surprise because he fades into the background that it’s easy to forget he was present. T’Challa’s presence brought a lot of potential with it that the show does nothing with such as talking to a version of Gamora who killed Thanos when he’s friends with the version native to his universe or talking to Killmonger with the background of the major differences in their personal histories. Ultron remains an underwhelming and uninteresting threat. He’s powerful and the action sequences are creative but without any weight behind them they become white noise after a while. For season 2 lessons need to be learned about restraint and concentrating on meaningful characterisation rather than throwing every possible element into a given story because of how fun it might be. It’s undoubtedly fun but there needs to be greater weight.
- Using Peggy to create emotional grounding
- The Peggy/Natashas dynamic
- a satisfying resolution for Natasha
- Doctor Strange gaining purpose
- creative and impressive action sequences
- many of the characters being little more than window dressing
- no meaningful development for Uato
- Ultron failing to be an interesting threat
- superficial storytelling
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