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When you think about the pivotal moments within the Marvel Cinematic Universe, there’s one stretch in Phase One that comes to mind. Known as Fury’s Big Week, this one week within the timeline of the MCU is where Iron Man 2, The Incredible Hulk, and Thor all take place, with Fury having to juggle the crises that result from each film. The third episode in Marvel’s What If… posits the question of what would happen if the Avengers Initiative never got off the ground.
Spoilers ahead, so don’t read if you haven’t watched the episode.
The episode picks up during the memorable scene in Iron Man 2 where Fury confronts Tony Stark after the fight at his mansion with James Rhodes. The one twist in the story is that when Natasha Romanoff hits Stark with the lithium dioxide injection meant to abate the symptoms of his palladium poisoning, Tony dies suddenly and without reason. Natasha is immediately suspected by everyone, save for Fury who thinks something else is going on. The escape sequence where Natasha takes out a truck full of SHIELD agents felt very reminiscent of the elevator scene in The Winter Soldier, except Rumlow (Crossbones from Captain America: Civil War) wasn’t involved.
We cut to New Mexico where Thor’s hammer has landed. When Thor goes to retrieve Mjolnir, Hawkeye’s hand slips, causing him to shoot Thor in the heart, killing the Asgardian Prince in one shot. Hawkeye is later found dead in his cell, with no one having been allowed in. The bodies begin piling up, with Natasha and Bruce Banner joining the mix next. And to top it all off, Loki arrives with a legion of Asgardian warriors, under the pretense of seeking to avenge the death of his brother.
Instead of Fury’s Big Week, we get Fury’s Bad Week.
I enjoyed the subterfuge of this episode up until nearly the end. We’re made to think that this is a HYDRA plot and it only makes sense that this divergence from the established timeline would be from the machinations of that group. If any entity would want to prevent the Avengers from forming, it would be HYDRA. But we later find out that it is all down to one man on a deranged revenge kick. The reveal that the perpetrator is Hank Pym, decked out in the Yellowjacket suit developed during the first Ant-Man movie was a killer (no pun intended) moment. The start of his descent into madness and murder is also the most understandable motive: in this timeline, Hope Van Dyne (Hank’s daughter) didn’t join Pym Industries. Instead, she became a SHIELD agent but she died while on a mission in Odessa (the same mission Natasha mentions in The Winter Soldier where she first encountered Bucky Barnes as the brainwashed HYDRA assassin).
For anyone familiar with the comics, the descent into villainy for Hank Pym actually isn’t that far-fetched. In the comics, Hank Pym is not the most stable Avenger, particularly since he’s actually the creator of Ultron in the comics. There’s also been some seriously heinous actions taken by Hank in the comics (including committing spousal abuse with Janet Van Dyne, the original Wasp). In What If…, we see Hank truly unhinged and we see just how deadly someone with his skill set and suit can truly be. From being injected into Tony Stark to release a toxin to entering Bruce Banner’s bloodstream through a bullet wound to use an enlarging disk to cause the Hulk to explode, Hank Pym in this episode is absolutely terrifying.
The biggest twist is saved for the end of the episode, though. Since five out of the original six Avengers are now dead (and after assisting Fury in capturing Hank Pym), Loki decides to stay on Earth with his Asgardian army. He proceeds to conquer the planet in a single day, standing before the assembled countries at the United Nations headquarters and declaring himself ruler of Midgard. Without the Avengers to stand in his way, conquering Earth is a cakewalk for Loki, who gets to live out his mad power fantasies. While the idea of Loki conquering Earth in a single day is a bit too much, I went with it because it’s a What If… story.
The stinger at the end of Fury finding Captain America and the early return of Captain Marvel show that all is not lost in this alternate timeline. It’s an interesting thought experiment on who else would be included in the Avengers without the original core group. It also takes into account how unique and powerful these individuals were together in the original timeline. While this may have saved the world from the horrors of Ultron, it doesn’t mean that HYDRA wasn’t dealt with or that Thanos wouldn’t still complete his quest to acquire the Infinity Stones.