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What If...? proves that Marvel Studios will never be able to tell a stand-alone story:

There are a few things about Avengers: Endgame that set it apart from the rest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe canon, and one of them is the fact that it’s the rare movie in that series that has an ending. It is an ending, really. Endgame went to so much trouble resolving nearly every ongoing plot thread and character arc that it very much could have served as the final Marvel movie: The end to the grand experiment that started a decade earlier when Nick Fury showed up during the credits of Iron Man. But there will never be a final Marvel movie—at least, not if the studio has anything to say about it.

Marvel Studios and Sony had to get back together to plot what Tom Holland’s Spider-Man would do next. Marvel had to dip back in for more stories with Wanda and Loki and Sam Wilson. Even the trailer for Chloé Zhao’s Eternals—a movie about characters who exist far above and beyond the concerns of the Avengers—had a winky reference to the Avengers.

Black Widow was all about filling in a gap in the timeline while also introducing new characters to the larger mythology, and Shang-Chi snuck in a handful of familiar faces from the other movies (just on the off-chance you forgot you were watching something that was part of a larger universe). Even Venom: Let There Be Carnage, a movie tangentially related to the MCU, couldn’t resist the appeal of becoming slightly less tangential.

Disney+’s animated series What If…? seemed like a step away of this, or at least an opportunity for Marvel Studios to show that it can tell stories that aren’t all interconnected dots that reveal some grand design when you pull back far enough. However, last week’s episode effectively crushed any chance of that ever being true. Marvel Studios could tell standalone stories, but it won’t.

Before it premiered, What If…? was touted as an anthology series about alternate realities within the MCU’s multiverse. If the stuff that happens in the movies is one reality, specifically a reality where everything happened the way it was supposed to, then What If…? would feature multiple different realities where things happened differently, like Steve Rogers getting injured before he can become Captain America, Odin never adopting/kidnapping Loki, or Doctor Strange turning evil after realizing that no amount of magic could stop a specific tragedy from happening. Like “What If” stories in the comics, it offered a chance to tell stories that simply wouldn’t work in the main continuity—or maybe any continuity in the case of the Doctor Strange episode, during which his entire universe is wiped out.

But last week’s episode revealed that Jeffrey Wright’s The Watcher, the show’s “passive” narrator who has vowed to never, ever intervene in the affairs of the universes he’s tasked with watching, is now very close to breaking that vow. The evil Doctor Strange actually survived the complete disintegration of his universe and has been biding his time in some pocket dimension.

Now, with one reality’s Ultron possessing both the unlimited power of the Infinity Stones and the knowledge that he’s part of a multiverse full of realities to conquer, The Watcher has no choice but to get the evil Strange’s help in assembling a team of multiversal What If...? Avengers. In other words, the previous episodes weren’t stand-alone stories that were simply having fun with the MCU’s toy box, they were serialized adventures introducing characters and worlds who could—and apparently now will—come back.

This may be a betrayal of the basic premise of What If…?, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a bad idea. Hell, it’s kind of a fun tweak on the MCU structure itself, somewhat accidentally stumbling into a shared universe, as if the fate of every reality in the multiverse is to eventually build toward an Avengers-style team-up. There’s definitely some playful meta-commentary in that.

It does indicate a somewhat disappointing lack of vision from Marvel Studios, which established the shared universe stunningly well, better than any one before it and any who have tried it since. But is that all the studio can do? Did What If…? really need to come together for an epic superhero team-up when it could’ve served as Marvel’s reaction to epic superhero team-up fatigue?

Head writer A.C. Bradley told Entertainment Weekly that this was all part of the plan, with The Watcher subtly taking a more visible presence as the season went on as a clue to his slight growth as a character, but she tries to have her anthology cake and eat it too by suggesting that (other than the finale) there are still episodes of What If...? that work as stand-alone stories.

That’s the problem, though: If the upcoming season finale is really good, you won’t be able to recommend it to someone who hasn’t seen at least one or two of the other episodes that set it up. Which, even if you don’t think it’s a big issue, has been an issue with the MCU for a long time. (Try explaining a single plot point of Endgame to someone who hasn’t seen at least two or three of the other movies.)

It’s fitting that this is all Ultron’s fault, at least. After all, it was in Age Of Ultron that the MCU really started to buckle under the weight of its obligations as a franchise. Thor’s trip to the magic cave wasn’t part of that story, it was part of the next story, which only hurt the second Avengers film.

What If...? is still a fun way to spend 30 minutes, but it’s now in danger of making that same mistake by insisting that everything needs to be one small piece of the next Avengers-style crossover event to justify its inclusion in the MCU—even an alternate multiverse offshoot cartoon of the MCU. But if every story is just part of the next story, why bother paying attention to any story at all?

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