And just like that, What If…? stopped being an anthology show. Oh, you thought these were self-contained stories about alternate realities within the Marvel Cinematic Universe multiverse, built around a framing device where an extra-dimensional being called The Watcher sits back and observes what happens? Nope, those self-contained stories were really monster-of-the-week episodes, building up to this full-on mythology episode (in the parlance of The X-Files).
The story begins like a pretty standard What If…?, with Hawkeye and Black Widow running from Ultron drones in the snow-covered ruins of a city. As The Watcher helpfully explains, this is a world where Ultron was able to upload his evil brain into the Vision body before the Avengers could steal it and put the Jarvis AI in it (as seen in Avengers: Age Of Ultron), which made him way more powerful. He’s been able to kill all the Avengers and most of all of mankind—except for Nat and Clint, who happened to be in a jet at the time and therefore dodged the nuclear destruction of the Earth.
Then Thanos shows up, as he always does, and in the split-second that it takes him to clock that Earth’s Mightiest Heroes are dead and a robot who sounds vaguely like Robert California is standing in front of him, Ultron slices him in half with his forehead laser and gets all of the Infinity Stones. I like this beat, because “someone else gets the Infinity Stones” is a weirdly untapped story idea for What If…? (not to mention that Infinity Ultron looks a lot like his design from the excellent Annihilation: Conquest event in the comics). But Ultron is definitely lacking Thanos’ vision when it comes to the Infinity Stones. (Let’s just say that’s a pun and move on.)
He gathers up a bunch of Ultron drones and flies up into space, obliterating every planet he can find in the name of “peace.” He destroys Asgard. He kills the Grandmaster on Sakaar. He blows up Ego The Living Planet. Eventually he heads to Xandar and gets briefly held up by a pissed-off Captain Marvel, who says she saw the movie about the killer robot and doesn’t think it needs a sequel. A little cheesy, but it’s a cute joke (because Carol Danvers was captured by the Kree in the late-’80s, so she never got to see Terminator 2, which is generally regarded as the better movie).
Ultron kills her, and as he looks out into a peaceful universe—save for the two Avengers back on Earth that he forgot about—The Watcher appears behind him and starts offering grim narration about the violent path of destruction that Ultron has carved through the universe. But something’s different: Much like when Bad Strange had begun to destroy his reality in a previous episode, Ultron can hear The Watcher narrating his life. When The Watcher lets slip that this universe has gone off the rails, Ultron realizes that there must therefore be other universes, and using the power of the Infinity Stones, he breaks through the walls of reality and confronts a horrified Watcher in his own domain.
The thing is, the multiverse that we’re observing in What If…? is supposed to be the same multiverse that spilled out from the end of Loki, right? But Loki established, in one of its great early twists, that the Infinity Stones of one reality are useless outside of that reality. That should mean that Infinity Ultron shouldn’t even be able to exist outside of his reality because his brain is powered by the Mind Stone. That’s some hyper-focused nerd stuff to point out, but we’re talking about What If…? here, and this show is built to acknowledge and address details like that. It’s fudging the established canon of the MCU, and if there’s one show that needs to be very careful about doing that, it’s this one.
The Black Widow/Hawkeye storyline doesn’t really go anywhere from there, with the two of them discovering that they can use the AI version of Arnim Zola (as seen in Captain America: The Winter Soldier) to infiltrate the Ultron hive mind and shut him down from the inside. They successfully put Zola’s brain in an Ultron drone, but since Infinity Ultron is outside of this reality at this point, they can’t connect to the hive mind. Clint ends up sacrificing his life so they can escape, and that’s the last we see of them.
That would be a bigger problem if this were an anthology show with self-contained stories, but the end of the episode finally reveals that that’s not the case. Ultron and The Watcher fight through the multiverse, knocking each other into different realities while Ultron complains about how The Watcher has infinite power and doesn’t do anything with it. The fight scene should be better and more creative than it is, and eventually Ultron wins and tries to crack open The Watcher’s big head like an egg. He manages to escape, hiding in some kind of little pocket reality, where he’s approached by none other than Bad Strange from that aforementioned previous episode. Apparently The Watcher allowed him to survive his crumbling reality and now needs him to help save the entire multiverse from Ultron.
The episode treats this like a huge twist, keeping Benedict Cumberbatch’s name out of the opening credits and saving it for the big reveal at the end, but Marvel and Disney already spoiled this twist weeks ago with their mid-season What If…? trailer that revealed a full group of What If…? Avengers. It’s supposed to be a huge moment, since it breaks the very format of the show (and breaks The Watcher’s one big rule about not intervening), but it fell a little flat for me because I was just waiting for it to happen the whole time. If the show had done a little more legwork to foreshadow that The Watcher had maybe been pulling certain people from these realities for a while or established how and why Ultron was able to break out of his universe it would all work better, but it seems like What If…? is simply trying to tell way too much story in 30-minute episodes.
What’s the What If? What if… Ultron was able to get the Vision body before Vision could?
Did they cheat? I think they broke the rules of how the Infinity Stones work, but in terms of how the What If? works, I think they’re fine.
Did The Watcher interfere, even though that’s the one thing he must never, ever do? There’s a good scene where The Watcher really wants to point Widow and Hawkeye in the right direction, and he narrates his own issues with struggling to do that, but he ultimately decides not to. Until the end, of course, when we find out that he saved Bad Strange and is going to team up with Bad Strange to do a hell of a lot of interfering.
I feel like I’ve brought this up a lot, but the voice acting here is disappointingly bland. Lake Bell returns as Black Widow, and while her version of the character is fine, it never really feels like the Black Widow from the movies. Ross Marquand’s Ultron is even less convincing, coming across less like James Spader’s deliriously unhinged robot from the movie and more like… a very tired James Spader impersonator.
I’m sorry for spoiling Annihilation: Conquest up there, but you should read it anyway. It’s the origin of the modern Guardians Of The Galaxy, and you’ll come away with a newfound appreciation for characters you may have never heard of like Phyla-Vell and Adam Warlock.
By Sam Barsanti