What If…? – Season 1 Episode 8
What If…? explores how events would have played out if Ultron had succeeded in implanting himself in the body that became Vision.
I’ve mentioned in previous reviews that there’s a tendency on this show to try to do too much. This certainly appeals to some but it also runs the risk of what is being presented becoming overblown the point of being nonsensical. This episode very much reaches that point though that isn’t always necessarily a bad thing.
The premise is that instead of stealing the cradle that was creating a Vibranium body housing the Mind Stone for Ultron to inhabit, the Avengers fail and Ultron follows through with his plan which makes the events of Avengers: Age of Ultron play out in a very different way. Ultron very quickly gains control of all of the nukes, launches them at Humanity and all but wipes them out leaving almost nobody to retaliate and very little hope. Comparisons to the Terminator franchise are immediately obvious with this acknowledged by the episode itself.
Not stopping at Humanity, Ultron (Ross Marquand) learns of other worlds after Thanos appears looking for the final Infinity Stone and is quickly dispatched before Ultron adds the other five stones to his arsenal. Thanos being killed so easily by Ultron was one major red flag thrown up by the episode. With four infinity stones in Thanos’ possession, Ultron in the body viewers know belongs to Vision in the main continuity would be absolutely no match for him. He was barely able to handle one of Thanos’ henchmen and they had no Infinity Stones at their disposal so Thanos being taken out with no effort by Ultron was a conceit that was difficult to accept. It’s clear this was done to move the story forward in the limited running time but there must have been a better way for Ultron to gain possession of the Infinity Stones.
His campaign across the observable universe made for some strong destructive visuals that made good use of the expansive cosmic side of the Marvel Cinematic Universe with the known planets being visited then destroyed. The brevity of the storytelling means that the destruction has minimal impact outside of the shock value of so much destruction has been seen. There is an attempt to encourage attachment to the death and destruction by briefly focusing on the perspective of familiar characters witnessing it before they meet their end but it doesn’t land as well as it needs to because it’s an extended montage of wanton destruction with no exploration of what that destruction means. The episode never sets out to be about that but having it barely be remarked on is very jarring.
In general the episode suffers from a persistent problem of being a constant procession of events with very little weight behind them. A vast chunk of the MCU toybox is thrown into the episode through developments or Easter Eggs that highlights the problem of the general What If…? setup throwing so much into the episodes. For a writer it will be undeniably tempting to make use of everything that’s on offer but it often comes at the expense of the elements having any weight attached to them. The destructive montage illustrates that perfectly with familiar planets and characters obliterated while the viewer recognition is expected to do the heavy lifting in assigning the impact. Another issue is the scale of the destruction is so unfathomable that it’s practically impossible for it to take on any heft beyond it being an obviously terrible thing.
The rest of the episode plays out largely as a collection of events that move very quickly. Character perspective shifts too frequently to get a true sense of any of them though some come off better than others. The events themselves can be interesting but the episode is always in a rush to get to the next plot point so most of the associated potential is lost by the lack of time taken to fully explore them.
A good example of something that had a great deal more potential than the episode allowed was Clint Barton aka Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) and Natasha Romanoff aka Black Widow (Lake Bell) finding the previously unknown second copy of Arnim Zola’s (Toby Jones) digital consciousness. Instead of exploring the existential questions of what it might mean for someone to upload their consciousness to a computer. As I’ve repeatedly mentioned time is a factor but with Ultron being a major player in this story the question of what defines life is implied by his presence so Zola could have been a fascinating counter to that idea with his consciousness being a copy of one that once belonged to a living person. The running time wouldn’t have allowed for much more than a passing mention but addressing it would have been better than ignoring it as the episode does.
There is strong material on display when it comes to the characters. Despite the divided perspective this does make for a strong Clint/Natasha showcase. Their friendship has always been an engaging one when depicted in the films they appear in and it’s used well here. Natasha being the driving force keeping them on task while Clint constantly looks to give up strongly defined their dynamic for the purposes of a few relatively short scenes. The moment where Clint was ready to give up even looking for a solution because he has all but given up hope was strongly performed by Jeremy Renner and hit hard. It’s the most emotionally resonant moment the episode has and hammers home the idea that Clint feels they are totally alone doing nothing more than staving off death minute by minute before the inevitable happens. Natasha being driven to do what she can to resolve the situation fits with her personality as established in the films and there’s a sense of her avoiding facing up to the reality of the situation at hand by keeping her attention focused on a task. Clint is far less motivated so all but gives into despair with Natasha keeping him going.
Clint’s death scene is another strong moment that mirrors Natasha’s sacrifice in Avengers: Endgame nicely. It’s an appropriate and welcome callback that showcases the strength of their connection and their willingness to make sacrifices in favour of the other. It feels earned even if some of the impact relies on prior investment in the friendship. The episode does enough to establish that they are close so Clint’s loss is believably impactful for Natasha.
Ultron himself is a very shallow character who is little more than an engine of destructing laying waste to the universe before setting his sights on the multiverse. He has plenty of personality however one note and there is a singular moment following him achieving wiping out all life that isn’t himself -except Clint and Natasha- where he questions his purpose now that he has achieved his goal. This is punctuated by Uato flatly stating this which certainly draws attention to the idea but it’s a seldom seen example of absolute victory on the part of an antagonist and the realisation that there may be nothing more to focus on. It’s short lived because he becomes aware of Uato’s presence and forces his way through to the multiverse but for that brief moment there was an open question around what a malevolent megalomaniacal entity does upon achieving their goal.
Uato has far more focus than any previous episode. Ultron becoming aware of him almost provokes him into taking action by pointing Clint in the direction of the file that might provide a solution to the problem. Jeffrey Wright’s vocal performance as Uato agonises over whether to interfere is excellent and his decision not to step in at that point was a genuine surprise. It clearly establishes how seriously he takes his oath with him not breaking it even when he’s in danger of being discovered. It’s a really tense sequence that combines nicely with Clint’s breakdown.
His hand is forced when Ultron discovers him which leads to an entertaining and stunningly animated fight sequence where they move universes with every punch. It’s creative, exciting and really impressive. As stated at the beginning of the review it isn’t always a bad thing for an abundance of content becoming overblown and this action sequence is a great example of when overdoing it can be a good thing on a pure enjoyment level. The power levels on display from both combatants are unimaginable but it boils down to a simplistic brawl between two undefinably poweful beings that is easy to follow and makes great use of the visual flair that an animated show with no inhibitions can offer.
There is some mention of an external perspective on what Uato does through Ultron pointing out that to wield his power and use it to do nothing more than watch is a waste as well as being creepy. One episode remains so it’s possible that an interrogation of Uato’s motivation is coming but there are a few questions around how he found himself in this position. He narrates the show for the audience benefit but is there an in universe reason for this? An oath logically should be pledged to someone so there remains a question around who or what he pledged the oath to as well as what the consequences of breaking it might be. With a confirmed second season there’s time for this to be explored but I’d be surprised if it doesn’t come into play in some form in the final episode. Uato is a mysterious character by design but his actions in this episode draw attention to these questions surrounding him.
The events of this episode present a turning point for Uato who now has no choice but to interfere following Ultron’s promise to lay waste to the multiverse. He goes into hiding in the collapsed universe inhabited by the Stephen Strange from a prior episode and is actively challenged to break his oath. Ultron has to be stopped and presumably a team will be recruited consisting of characters that were introduced in the earlier episodes. It’s a compelling setup and could elevate What If…? beyond being fun yet disposable alternate takes on familiar characters and events.
A fun yet overly chaotic episode that excels in characterisation but is far too liberal in deploying the MCU toybox with little weight attached to the abundance of content. Ultron campaign across the observable universe makes for some impressive destructive visuals that make good use of the cosmic side of the MCU. The destruction itself has minimal impact beyond the obvious shock value because she sheer scale of it is unfathomable though there is an attempt to encourage viewer engagement by briefly showing it from the perspective of familiar characters. The audience has to bring the investment with them which is true of most of these episodes and the attempt doesn’t entirely work. In general the episode plays out largely as a collection of events that there isn’t time to fully explore.
Characterisation fares a lot better especially where Clint and Natasha are concerned. Their friendship is consistent with prior depictions and having them neatly positioned on distinct sides of the problem they’re facing works well. Clint’s breakdown is well performed and hits hard as does his death scene that mirrors Natasha’s sacrifice in Avengers: Endgame. Ultron amounts to little more than an engine of destruction but there is a brief moment of intrigue where he has succeeded in his task and briefly ponders what his purpose is. It is quickly discarded in favour of his campaign across the multiverse but it was compelling when it was portrayed. Uato receives more attention here than he has previously. His temptation to intervene to point Clint in the direction of the necessary file was incredibly tense and compliments Clint’s breakdown nicely. The fight between Uato and Ultron was excellent. It was creative, visually stunning and entertaining. Uato’s presence in the episode draws attention to the open questions that surround him and his decision to step in feels appropriate.
- the showcase of the Clint/Natasha friendship
- Clint’s breakdown countered by Natasha’s fixation on solving the problem
- Clint’s meaningful sacrifice
- the tense moment where Uato agonises over interfering
- Uato and Ultron’s multiversal bout
- drawing attention to the open questions surrounding Uato
- meaningless destruction on an unfathomable scale
- events playing out with no associated weight
- Ultron being little more than an engine of destruction
- the jarring constantly shifting perspectives
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