The first 5 episodes of What If have been pretty solid, largely flittering between retellings with surrogate characters to throwing curve balls into the “sacred timeline” MCU to hand us some interesting results that are varying degrees of out there.
Episode 6 however was in short, a bit of a let down. An episode that centres around the fan-favourite villain Killmonger may have been a huge draw to those who felt he brought depth to the MCU. In the end though the limitations of a 30 minute format really brings to attention the difference between a deeply layered character and a cartoonishly irritating one.
A Not-so-Stark contrast
Ultimately the What If element of the episode is straightforward. Instead of Tony Stark being hit by the missile in Afghanistan, he is instead saved by Killmonger. As we see throughout the episode, Killmonger’s grand plan is to befriend Stark, only to use the weapon-maker to create friction between the US and Wakanda. Killmonger would utilise the tensions to reunite with Wakanda as the prodigal son.
It’s not a dissimilar plot to Black Panther, which too saw Killmonger falsify a conflict with Ulysses Klaue (who enjoyably returns) to depose T’Chala and take control of Wakanda. It’s the inverse situation to episode one, as the character and motivation remain the same, only with a different journey.
As a concept it’s interesting, exploring the theme of fatalism already explored in the show thus far, seeing many characters arrive at similar ends regardless of the journey. T’Chala was always meant to be a leader even when he became Starlord, and Killmonger was always going to be driven to avenge his father and seek power to fight, as he saw it, oppression.
This did however make for a disappointingly one note plot that we’ve already seen, and unfortunately the differences weren’t necessarily for the better.
A Box of Scraps
The biggest mistake in Episode 6 is trying to cram the first 2 hours worth of Black Panther scheming into a 30 minute block. In a blockbuster film where character development and pacing have room to breath, the methodical planning of Killmonger works. We see him building trust with Klaue, toying with T’Chala and though there were certainly plot holes, at the time the machinations are somewhat believable.
On the whole the plot of the episode was at best silly and at worst, not very good. The quick dispatch of T’Chala was too easy – this is a super powered, trained individual with advanced technological armour after all. The Obadiah Stane reveal felt awkward and Killmonger is continually at the scene of every crime without a trace. This is in a world where Nick Fury knows what hair products you used that morning. It is a cartoon, but a cartoon that delves into adult themes, so it should make a degree of sense.
And it didn’t. Killmonger’s three steps ahead untouchability drained any intrigue from the plot. A non-super powered person seemingly fooled everyone with a plan that can only be described as anti-deus-ex-machina – requiring dominoes to fall upward as required. It doesn’t help that as this happened 10 years earlier it puts Killmonger in his mid 20’s. Not usually one for continuity, but given the disparity in timelines you do have to wonder how much this works in context.
The biggest crime may be the misuse of Tony Stark. Without the time to show just how clever Killmonger is, the only option is too dumb down the other characters to the point of stupidity. Tony Stark, whilst narcissistic, solved time travel in a night and near unlimited power in a cave, with a box of scraps. What we see here is some kind of idiotic trust fund baby who makes stupid decisions at every turn. Perhaps his friendship with Killmonger is believable at a push, but super weapon genius Tony Stark being bested inside 30 seconds by a man with a spear killed my immersion. Yes Tony did not become Iron Man, but he didn’t become braindead either. On a side note, did they teach spear throwing in the Marines?
By the time a final gratuitous battle swung round, I was looking at my phone, which is a first time occurrence for What If.
Michael B Jordan’s Killmonger has been heavily praised as a complicated, layered villain in the MCU, which admittedly lacks them. He certainly does have more to his persona than an Aldrich Killian (wants power), Ronan (wants genocide) or Ivan Vanko (wants bird), but any more than a moments reflection on the character and his motivations are quite problematic.
Killmonger’s stated goals are to avenge his father and fight the oppression of black people around the world. How does he want to do this? Well by killing a lot of people, of course. It’s thrown me a little in the past how well regarded the character is for complex motivations, as in reality he is little different from Thanos. His actions are backed by a logic, but ultimately reprehensible and quite mad.
Watching this instalment was a Thanos-like transition from Infinity War to Endgame for Killmonger, lacking the subtle moments that defined the deeper sentiment and removing the trace of empathy that was created in Black Panther. At least Thanos’ mad plan was bedded in science fiction. Killmonger’s was not, and unfortunately human history has seen too many crimes committed under the guise of fighting oppression for this character’s motivations to be understandable.
With this in mind watching the episode was at times uncomfortable. Though What If has let the baddies win before, watching an entire episode of a thoroughly unlikeable and increasingly unsympathetic character triumph over beloved ones made for an unsatisfying experience.
What If is a hard premise to balance, and for the most part the show writers have done a good job findings interesting stories for the Watcher to share. There have been hints that in some way the different stories will collide, which may make a downer episode like this one pay off. For the time being though this is the only real bump in an otherwise solid season.