This recap of What If…? season 1, episode 9, “What If… The Watcher Broke His Oath?”, contains spoilers.
All throughout Marvel’s What If…?, which has rested entirely on the idea of alternate events and infinite possibilities spun off from recognizable moments in the MCU, has maintained one narrative constant: The Watcher. That guy’s whole deal is that he sits around keeping an eye on things but he absolutely cannot, under any circumstances, intervene. He can’t determine the outcome of any event. He has to remain impartial and impassive. Only, in last week’s penultimate episode, he broke his own rule to try and thwart a universe-destroying Ultron. Just like that, the show’s anthological, speculative underpinnings have been abandoned. “What If… The Watcher Broke His Oath”, the season finale, begins with the Watcher arriving in various places, at various times, “choosing” the heroes we have seen develop in previous episodes: Agent Peggy Carter’s Captain America, T’Challa’s Star-Lord, Gamora, Killmonger, and the immature only-child version of Thor. Meet…. the Guardians of the Multiverse.
What If…? season 1, episode 9 recap
The Watcher assembles everyone, along with Depressed Doctor Strange, in a pub, for a briefing about how all their worlds are either under attack or about to be under attack from Ultron, his army of killer robots, and the Infinity Stones. The plan is to locate Ultron, separate him from the Stones, and then destroy them in the Infinity Crusher. Simple!
While this setup kind of betrays the show’s essential premise, it’s a good excuse for everyone to get together and discuss the differences in their various realities. It’s also a way to call back to and build off the events of previous episodes. Getting the recognizable voice cast together is good value, and it’s fun to see the various heroes play off one another, both in terms of personality and ability. This especially comes together — along with the visuals, sparing no expense as ever — when the team heist Ultron’s Soul Stone and drop all the zombies on his head, including a particularly pissed-off undead Scarlet Witch.
You’ve seen “Earth’s mightiest heroes all take on a much more powerful single foe while trying to retrieve an object” as an action setup in such movies as Avengers: Endgame, but “What If… The Watcher Broke His Oath?” has a really good version of it; the animation is a joy here, and we get a lot of mileage out of the new versions of these characters, such as Doctor Strange’s corrupted tentacular interior coming out to restrain Ultron while everyone else crushes the Soul Stone, even if his “protection spell” is plot armor made literal. There’s even a redo of that instantly iconic panning shot of the Avengers standing in a circle during the Battle of New York.
But these iconic beats and ideas are also tinged with the new complexity of the Multiverse, the door to which was opened in Loki and doesn’t seem to be closing anytime soon. It adds a new contour to played-out moments and dynamics, justifying all these speculative scenarios and building on not just the familiar history of the MCU but the recent history of What If…? specifically. Black Widow implanting an AI version of Arnim Zola inside Ultron’s circuitry using Hawkeye’s bow, for instance; Killmonger donning the fallen Ultron’s armor; Zola and Killmonger fighting over the stones. Like it or not, this is a unique form of long-form storytelling that builds on over a decade of tentpole franchise filmmaking and dense, interconnected continuity. It knows exactly when to spell things out and when to allow the audience to figure out the implications on their own. The whole thing’s exceedingly clever.
It also, in the end, doesn’t matter much. The Watcher locks the entire event away in a crystallized pocket dimension and leaves Doctor Strange to monitor it; the heroes all return to their respective universes, with no knowledge of what happened, what they did. It’s Black Widow who vocalizes the problem with the Watcher’s hands-off approach, and she makes some good points, though the Watcher compromises by depositing her in a universe that lost their Widow, where she can continue to fight as she once did, alongside the people she remembers. Perhaps in the end the power of a universe with infinite possibilities is that it can always contrive, in one way or another, for things to stay more or less the same.