We’ll admit we’re not the biggest fans of zombie fiction. It has its place and it is definitely a legitimate genre, to be sure. It just rarely engages us. Nevertheless, it is easy to see value in the Marvel Zombies concept and the absolutely advantageous way Marvel finally trademarked the term in the wake of The Walking Dead‘s initial comic book success. As a concept, there is also something to be said for the heroes’ powers and skills remaining in tact even after their bodies begin to decompose. It is a such an easy sell that it is surprising Marvel didn’t use the concept in the 1970s when it eased back into horror comics.
But as it appears in this week’s What If…?, the concept is (pardon the pun) lifeless. Beyond the notion that Zombie Strange could still use the mystic arts and Zombie Wanda proving to be Kurt’s (David Dastmalchian) long-feared Baba Yaga, the episode trudges along like many other zombie films and shows before it. It just fails to ignite the imagination. There is a saving grace, though, in the group of characters who managed to survive the initial outbreak to greet Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) upon his return from the doomed Asgardian ship — more on that situation later.
Hope Van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly), Peter Parker (ably voiced by Hudson Thames), Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau), Okoye (Danai Gurira), Bucky (Sebastian Stan), and Sharon Carter (Emily VanCamp) make for an interesting crew. All have Avengers ties, but not strong bonds with each other (except for Happy and Peter, of course). The interactions, then, are fun to watch; particularly in the case of Peter and Hope. There are great little moments like Okoye apologizing to Bucky for cutting Zombie Falcon in half. Bucky’s parting line to Zombie Cap is also pretty worthy. We also get a few more moments with Chadwick Boseman as T’Challa, whose lines take on an added significance in light of the actor’s passing, and an interesting role for Vision (Paul Bettany) as a classic zombie film archetype.
Nevertheless, this still feels lacking. Maybe that last image of a Zombie Thanos threw us off. As we alluded to earlier, the episode takes place within the early scenes of Avengers: Infinity War and Thanos’s imminent arrival hangs over everything Bruce and the others experience. We get that Zombie Thanos is more interested in grim subtraction than a grim calculus, but it somehow feels lesser than the Mad Titan’s real plan. Also, we’ll argue that the episode earned a happier ending (at least in the short term) with the surviving heroes using the Mind Stone to undo the damage. That a live Thanos still lurks in the futures feels like a more palpable dread than a brain-obsessed version of that character.
But again, we’re not fond of zombie fiction to begin with, so the thrills are probably just lost on us. That said, the sophistication found in the first three episodes continues to be absent from the more recent stories. And this week, the grimmer ending feels unearned. Hopefully, next week will be a course correction.
What If…? streams Wednesdays on Disney+