What If…? (2021) s01e05 – What If… Zombies?!

Even with the trite, albeit genre-appropriate conclusion, this episode of “What If…?” is definitely the series high. And not just because Jeffrey Wright barely has any lines. It’s an actually good script—credited to Matthew Chauncey—with good action set pieces, better voice acting, and some good twists and turns. However, after a strong start with Mark Ruffalo, it turns out—once again—the secret to the success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe is Tom Holland’s Spider-Man.

Even if Tom Holland’s not playing him. Instead, they get Hudson Thames, who does a fine Tom Holland impression. The episode takes place when Ruffalo arrives on Earth in Avengers: Infinity War and discovers the world overrun with zombies. Worse, they’re superhero zombies. Turns out the original Avengers (we miss the Captain America and Iron Man reuniting, once again) went to save the day in San Francisco where the outbreak starts—tying into Ant-Man and the Wasp—only to get immediately taken out.

So when Ruffalo’s got to warn the world of Thanos’s impending arrival… turns out they’ve got bigger problems. Ruffalo teams up with Thames and the rest of the, ahem, new Avengers, like Sebastian Stan, Danai Gurira, Emily VanCamp, Evangeline Lilly, and then superhero adjacent Jon Favreau and David Dastmalchian. It feels like an on-a-budget Disney+ kind of cast, but not in a bad way. All of the voice acting from the survivor team is great. Of course, the opening titles have given away three more big Marvel movie superhero appearances, but the action’s so tense I forgot to wait for them to arrive.

When they do, it’s with multiple good surprises.

Marvel Zombies was a comic book sensation (of sorts), riffing on Marvel fans being called “Marvel Zombies,” complete with an Evil Dead crossover series (and an excellent fan-made short film), and this “MCU Zombies” is way better than the comic. Again, the ending’s a bit pat and undercooked—having Wright narrate it doesn’t help—but “What If” finally doesn’t seem cheap. If only Bryan Andrews’s directed every episode as well.

It might also help they’re not jockeying a PG-13 line either. The zombie gore is a lot more than I was expecting. Great voice performances from pretty much everyone, including the three not-surprise surprise actors. But Ruffalo, Gurira, Lilly, and VanCamp are standouts—besides Thames, of course, whose Tom Holland is the web fluid holding it together. The big surprise is Ruffalo being so personable since his last appearance on “What If” was so blah.

A New Avengers is a fantastic idea, but they really need to get Holland signed up for more than one. Or maybe they can just CGI him and have Thames do the voice?

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