The row between Martin Scorsese and the extended universe of comic-book fandom has roared back to life. Chucking a gas canister on the bonfire is the Guardians of the Galaxy/Suicide Squad director James Gunn. In a recent podcast he suggested Scorsese's criticism of Marvel movies as "not cinema" was a "cynical" attempt at publicity by the renowned film-maker.
Whatever about the substance of the complaint, Marvel and its peers have clearly divided the world in two. There are those who regard superheroes as a Spandex-wrapped scourge upon entertainment. And those who can't wait to see what Iron Man, Captain America and the others get up to next. No Infinity Stones for guessing at which demographic Marvel's What If…? (Disney+, streaming from Wednesday) is pitched.
This is Marvel through the looking glass, where familiar plots from the Marvel Cinematic Universe are given a counterfactual twist. What if the part of Star-Lord in Guardians of the Galaxy was filled not by Chris Pratt’s Peter Quill but by Chadwick Boseman’s T’Challa (aka Black Panther)?
What if Captain America's girlfriend, Peggy Carter, had taken the supersoldier serum instead of weedy Steve Rogers? And what if Marvel needed a cheapish, 10-episode stopgap between Black Widow and next month's Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings?
What If...?'s returning stars include Mr Love/Hate himself, Tom Vaughan-Lawlor, as the voice of Ebony Maw – which, as coincidence would have it, sounds better in a Dublin accent
"Stopgap" is a little unfair. Considerable care has been lavished on the animated series, for which Marvel has brought back many original cast members. Returning stars include Benedict Cumberbatch, Benicio del Toro, Sebastian Stan and – Mr Love/Hate himself – Tom Vaughan-Lawlor (as the voice of Ebony Maw, which, as coincidence would have it, sounds better in a Dublin accent).
The opportunity to hear Nidge in space will be a draw for some Irish viewers. Yet most of the attention will be on the late Chadwick Boseman, who reprised the part of T'Challa shortly before dying, from cancer, last year. He features in instalment two, in which the Guardians of the Galaxy are headed by the noble Wakanda (rather than the wise-cracking Quill).
It is obviously haunting to hear Boseman from beyond the grave. The episode itself is quirky with a vengeance. With T’Challa kidnapped from Earth in place of Quill, the universe is tilted on its axis. Instead of becoming Death Destroyer of Worlds (and Snapper of Fingers), for example, Thanos is just another dude hanging out at Knowhere space station. And Star-Lord remains on good terms with his blue-in-the-face abductor and mentor, Yondo. It’s all neatly executed. Just not especially mind-blowing.
What If…? opens with the much more satisfying premise of Peggy Carter transforming into a supersoldier. Soon she is romping around Nazi-conquered Europe, biffing the bad guys with a vibranium shield emblazoned with the Union Jack. Pummelling Peggy wears a Rule, Britannia bodysuit, too. She is, however, referred to as Captain Carter rather than as Captain Britain. Perhaps Marvel was anxious not to step on the toes of its existing character of that name. Or maybe the idea of Hayley Atwell running amok on the Continent, biffing people's heads open with a weaponised Union Jack, was Brexity enough already.
Either way, the idea works a treat. It also lifts liberally from Mike Mignola’s Hellboy and from the Atomic Robo comic strip.
And it slithers its way to a Lovecraftian finish as Peggy and Steve (back in the saddle thanks to Stark Industries) fight an extraplanar monstrosity from beyond time and space. Even Cthulhu has seemingly been incorporated into the MCU. That will delight many. But for those on Scorsese’s side of the fence it will serve as just one more reminder of the cosmic horror Marvel has unleashed.