“WHAT IF…?” TCHALLA as STARLORD Episode Pushes the “WHAT-IF” Envelope Further

Last week, Marvel Studios released their MCU animated anthology, “What If…?” on Disney+ streaming. The show features episodic vignettes of how certain characters and events in the Marvel Cinematic Universe timeline can be altered by points of divergence, creating new versions of familiar faces and happenings. Their debut episode, about Agent Carter getting the super-soldier serum and becoming Captain Carter, was the original teaser visual for “What If…?” when introduced, but the actual product was deemed “too safe” and less divergent than advertised. Any doubts about just how alternative the series can get with the MCU may have been laid to rest with the second episode, which came August 18.

“What If T’Challa Became a Star-Lord?” is as said in the title, a divergent story where T’Challa of Wakanda took the place of the would-be founder of the Guardians of the Galaxy. That comes about at the time when Yondu Udonta of the alien Ravagers goes to Earth on a job for Ego, to abduct his son. He leaves the task to his flunkies, who instead of taking the boy Peter Quill abduct the young Prince of Wakanda instead. T’Challa is surprisingly cool about what happened, asking Yondu to let him join the Ravagers so he can explore the galaxy.

Two decades later, T’Challa has become a famous space mercenary, dubbed Star-Lord. Unlike the explorer-bounty hunter-rogue that Peter Quill was, T’Challa is very humanitarian in his endeavors, helping planets in need and saving them from threats. He even manages to convince Thanos that his plan to erase half of all life in the Universe using the Infinity Stones was flawed. Shortly after finding the Power Stone on Morag (per “Guardians of the Galaxy” canon), T’Challa and the Ravagers are approached by the mysterious Nebula, who offers them a heist job.

Their mission; to steal from The Collector’s treasury an artifact called the Embers of Genesis, capable of fast terraforming and thus has the potential to end galactic hunger. Of course, due to the divergences the Collector’s collection is even more heavily guarded than before, in the form of Thanos’ former lieutenants the Black Order. T’Challa also has been working all these years under the false assumption (planted by Yondu) that his home Wakanda had been destroyed, leaving him no immediate reason to return to Earth. Should he discover the deception, what would T’Challa do? And will the theft of the Embers of Genesis even succeed?

As long advertised by Marvel Studios, this episode of “What If…?” had the bittersweet fortune of featuring the last voice-work of Chadwick Boseman as T’Challa before he died of cancer back in 2020. Quite the number of MCU cast members also returned to reprise their characters here no matter how significant their screen-time might be. Notable performances include Josh Brolin as a “chill” Thanos and Karen Gillen as a femme-fatale Nebula instead of a bitter cyborg hunter. This time, the “Guardians” cameo of Disney-problematic character Howard the Duck even gets voiced courtesy of Seth Green.

More impressive, perhaps, is how this “What If…?” episode really delves into the “what-if” of its plot. One criticism of the “Captain Carter” episode was that in spite of all the changes the narrative still follows “Captain America: The First Avenger.” This time, the divergence really throws the world-building off the rails. How about that Thanos becoming a Ravager after a talk with T’Challa? Who would have thought that possible? “What If T’Challa Became a Star-Lord?” has done a good job with viewers in assuring that the premise can work to deliver a still-familiar but more-new experience to the MCU.

“What If…?” stars the voice of Jeffrey Wright as narrator/presenter The Watcher, who observes the various alternate universes the episodes are set in, but cannot and does not interfere. Check out the MCU series more every Wednesday on Disney+ streaming.

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