Review: ‘What If…?’ Episode Five – ‘What If… Zombies!?’
Marvel Studios’ What If…? went heavy on the horror this week as we explore a universe where zombies invade Earth.
Fans have been waiting to see the zombie-centric episode of What If…? ever since zombie Cap was first teased in the trailers, and it doesn’t disappoint. This episode was heavily inspired by Robert Kirkman’s Marvel Zombies comic series, one of the most popular alternative universe Marvel stories out there, so a number of comics fans likely knew what they were getting from this installment.
As the episode’s title and source material suggests, this is a world where Earth gets overrun by a zombie virus. These zombies are much like the classic shambling walkers we see in The Walking Dead and classic zombie films, except with one key difference: these ones retain a semblance of intelligence and their skills and powers, making our former heroes much more dangerous prospects in their zombie forms.
The remaining survivors band together not just to survive, but to track down a signal suggesting there could be a cure to the zombie apocalypse. The tone in this one is just as dark as the previous Doctor Strange-centric episode, befitting that of an apocalyptic film. Aside from the superheroes, it doesn’t feel too far removed from that of Dawn of the Dead.
The standard of voice acting is great across the board this week, with Sebastian Stan improving greatly after his mediocre performance in Captain Carter. Unfortunately, Spider-Man is not voiced by Tom Holland, though Hudson Thames does a great job filling in.
One of the joys of this kind of story is the unnatural character pairings, as heroes who don’t normally interact with each other are forced to band together. This meant that the writers were able to essentially cherry-pick which characters survived and which ones didn’t. I’ll list the ones who did make it:
- Bruce Banner
- Hope Van Dyne
- Peter Parker
- Happy Hogan
- Bucky Barnes
- Sharon Carter
- King T’Challa
- Kurt (from the Ant-Man films)
The biggest surprise for me right out of the gate is when this story is set in the MCU timeline. The writers decided to set it right at the beginning of Infinity War, so Bruce Banner acts as the audience’s cipher as he gets sent back to Earth via the Bifrost to find out that his old friends have been overcome by a flesh-eating disease. It makes for a nice twist in itself, as the biggest threat the MCU has ever seen is immediately pushed aside for something even more terrifying.
The origin of the virus is interesting too; we learn that Janet Van Dyne had contracted a “quantum virus” during her 30-year stay in the Quantum Realm, and infected Hank Pym when he found her at the end of Ant-Man and the Wasp. The naming of the virus seems a little lazy, though in line with Marvel’s tendency to slap the word “quantum” in front of anything scientific in the Ant-Man films, but to be fair to the writers, it’s not overly important what the virus is called, so it doesn’t matter too much. We then learn that, once the Avengers contracted the virus, it was basically game over.
Though the overall tone of the film is appropriately grim and dour, it thankfully still finds time to insert Marvel’s trademark brand of humor throughout its runtime. Early on, Happy Hogan is typically hilarious with his grumpy dad routine before he inevitably bites the dust at the hands of ZombieHawkeye (excitedly yelling “Blam!” each time he fires the Iron Man gauntlet). Okoye is back with her trademark no-nonsense banter, while Peter Parker’s home video zombie intro is perfectly in line with that character’s youthful exuberance and sense of humor. David Dastmalchian also returns as Kurt with great comedic success, bringing back his superstitious fear of Baba Yaga once more.
The opening act sees the characters trying to escape New York City via train, which is full of fantastic superhero zombie action as they are pursued by undead versions of Hawkeye, Falcon, and Captain America. This actually leads to something I was hoping to see in the MCU years ago, as Bucky takes Captain America’s shield and uses it himself. In the regular MCU, Sam Wilson is absolutely the right choice for a new Cap, but in this apocalyptic landscape, it feels like the right environment for Bucky to have the shield.
The intriguing stuff comes with the twist in the episode’s final act, however. After Hope Van Dyne sacrifices her life to get her friends to Camp Lehigh safely, they discover that Vision has been working on a cure this whole time. Or at least, he appears to be; while he managed to reverse the virus on the disembodied head of Scott Lang, which is now kept alive inside a jar (Paul Rudd is hilarious with his constant head and zombie-related puns), he appears to have devoted his energy to feeding ZombieWanda, whose power makes her resistant to his attempts to cure her.
It’s this twisted development on their relationship that makes Zombies!? such a dark and grim episode. Vision can’t bring himself to kill Wanda, so has resorted to feeding her human limbs to sustain her, as we discover when T’Challa is revealed to be alive but with an amputated leg. I expected Vision to be the main villain for the rest of the runtime, but he is pushed to the side as ZombieWanda escapes from prison and the story once again becomes about escaping her wrath.
Okoye is killed, Vision commits suicide by wrenching the Mind Stone from his head (another sign of how his love for her has twisted him inside out), while the Hulk finally reemerges to fight ZombieWanda while Peter, Strange’s cloak of levitation, T’Challa, and Scott’s head escape in a Wakandan ship. Surprisingly, the story is then left on a cliffhanger as we see them bound for Wakanda, where a zombified Thanos is waiting with five Infinity Stones.
Presumably, we will get an outcome to this in the series’ final episode, but this cliffhanger felt like the episode’s one stumbling block. This story arguably could have done with an extra 15 minutes to really build out the world and give us more time to breathe with the characters; it’s the main criticism I have of this installment. There also appeared to be a number of minor continuity errors in order to get these characters all in certain places, but not large enough to ruin the story.
I can’t wait to see what’s in store next Wednesday as What If…? tells more mature stories with every passing week. It would be good to get something a little more light-hearted next week, but as long as the quality keeps on being this good, I won’t complain.