Updated: Sep 4
Some heroes are paragons. Some heroes kind of suck. We can fall in love with either. The trick after that isn’t making the protagonist awesome. The trick is giving them an appropriate challenge. A great protagonist requires great opposition. A lesser protagonist requires…less. The story of the elephant crushing the ant is not interesting. The story of the ant crushing the elephant is. And so is the story of the elephant crushing the dinosaur. It’s not about how great the hero is, it’s about the greatness of their trials.
The What If…? Series plays with alternate realities: how one small change to the Marvel Universe would butterfly effect into a completely different outcome. It’s a challenging storytelling format, as it requires referencing and inverting stories that already exist. It can be easy to get so caught up in subversion that you forget to tell a good story of your own. Episode two of What If…? explores what would happen if T’Challa, the noble Wakandan prince, was accidentally abducted by aliens in the place of the charmingly flawed Peter Quill from Guardians of the Galaxy.
Quill is an extremely flawed protagonist. Each Guardians movie is themed around coming to terms with family, loss, and parenting. Which is a trait he shares with T’Challa, who spends Civil War wrathfully pursuing his father’s killer, and then spends Black Panther confronting his ancestor’s bad decisions. These guys actually have a lot in common thematically, but those themes are not explored in this episode of What If? Instead, a great deal of time is spent establishing just how much better of a Starlord T’Challa would be, and while a lot of the gags are funny, once that is done T’Challa is set on an adventure that would be fine for a different alternate Starlord, but is beneath a hero of the stature established in the opening act.
We join T’Challa where we met Peter Quill in the first Guardians of the Galaxy. He is on the ruined planet Morag in search of the power stone. Just as in Guardians, when T’Challa steals the power stone, he is confronted by Korath, the machine-headed Kree that didn’t recognize Starlord in Guardians. Not only does Korath recognize T’Challa as Starlord, he is also a gushing fanboy who wants to work for him. When they do finally fight, T’challa, a human who has not gone through the ritual of the heart-shaped herb to become the superpowered Black Panther, breezily beats a superhuman Kree in hand-to-hand combat. Quill, on the other hand, fled from Korath.
He carries Korath from the ruins and encounters an army of Ronin’s troops, who are quickly slaughtered by Yondu. T’Challa and Yondu discuss the good they’re going to do with the power stone. Yondu Odanta, a heavily traumatized former Kree battle slave, appears to have a fantastic healthy relationship with T’Challa, and thanks to the Wakandan prince’s positive influence, he has given up his wicked, selfish ways. It took Quill two movies to fully connect with Yondu and recognize him as his adoptive father. T’Challa has already done it off-screen.
Flashback to 1988, young T’Challa is going through an explorer phase. He is abducted by Yondu, but unlike Peter Quill, he is completely unfazed. The young prince embraces his new Ravager family and the life of a space explorer without skipping a beat. I wonder if Yondu ever joked about eating him like he did with Quill?
We return to the present. T’Challa and the Ravagers go to a space club. Everyone in the club loves and respects T’Challa. Drax is a bartender. He asks for a selfie. Thanos, having been dissuaded from his mad quest to kill half of all life by T’Challa, now works for this flawless manifestation of Starlord.
All told, this episode spends eight minutes explaining to the audience how amazing of a Starlord T’Challa could be, without taking a moment to set up a flaw or a need. They also don’t bother to explain why he is called “Starlord”. That was Meredith Quill’s nickname for her half-alien son. Why is T’Challa called Starlord in this reality?
Glam Nebula shows up. She has a job for him: steal the seeds of genesis from the Collector to heal other worlds. Nebula tells him (and the audience) that he does that because Wakanda was destroyed. We just had eight minutes of opportunities to show that T’Challa is homesick in some way, but instead a supporting character tells us.
The Collector was not threatening in previous appearances in the MCU, and so needs to be established as an intergalactic mob boss. This is achieved by having Yondu fear him, and refuse to go on the mission. T’Challa must convince him. T’Challa isn’t afraid to enter the Unknown. A supporting character sets the stakes.
After eight minutes of YOU, the episode spends three minutes on a NEED that has no meaningful connection to the contents of YOU. T’Challa wants the seeds of genesis because he’s just a really good guy. We are shown no signs that being stolen from his family as a boy damaged him in any way, or that he struggles at all in achieving anything he desires. Why would the audience think that the guy who talked THANOS out of genocide can’t pull off a little heist?
The problem isn’t that T’Challa would be a better Starlord than Peter Quill. He would! The problem is that after spending a great deal of effort establishing him as a better Starlord, he goes on a heist mission that isn’t meaningfully connected to his past or is a worthy challenge for him and his team of top-tier alternate reality antagonists.
Can T’Challa, Yondu, Nebula, Korath, and THANOS steal some sci-fi junk from the Collector?
Yeah. They can.
They use the trusty heist trope of transitioning from planning the heist to executing the heist by intercutting the two. Thanos and Korath fake a fight outside, while Yondu and Nebula smuggle Starlord in inside a crate. T’Challa enters without any problems and begins searching through a labyrinth of floating displays.
This is not a compelling Unknown for our hero. This is a man in his element.
T’Challa frees Howard the Duck, who leads him deeper into the collection. Outside, Proxima Midnight busts up Thanos’ distraction and sets off the alarm.
This would normally be the point in the story in which the hero needs to adapt to the Unknown, but as has already been established, T’Challa is darn near perfect, and so the adaptation is as simple as asking for help.
This is the best beat in the whole episode. T’Challa enters a special wing of the collection. His vibranium necklace begins glowing. He has entered a Wakanda display. A Wakandan ship activates and begins playing a message from King T’Chaka. Wakanda has not been destroyed! His people have been sending messages to the stars looking for their missing prince. T’Challa’s father pleads for any sign of his son.
There is an alternate reality in which the first half of this episode was better executed, and this moment has the impact that it ought to, but unfortunately, we have been given no indication in the preceding sixteen minutes that T’Challa missed Wakanda.
Nebula “betrays” T’Challa to the Collector (don’t worry, it’s all part of T’Challa’s plan). T’Challa is locked in a cell with the other Ravagers. He confronts Yondu, who admits to having lied to T’Challa about the destruction of Wakanda. They have a confrontation, but once again, there was no hint of disfunction in their relationship up to this point, and no signs that Yondu felt guilty over having lied to T’Challa.
The Collector then puts T’Challa in one of his display boxes and gloats.
This beat, like FIND, is solid on its own, but isn't supported by the first half of the episode.
Nebula frees the Ravagers and reveals that her betrayal was part of the plan. The Ravagers all gush about how great T’Challa is at planning heists.
T’Challa busts out of the display using his vibranium necklace, which is another awesome beat that connects him to his past but is unsupported by the first half of the story. Give us a moment at the beginning in which he looks at it wistfully! Compare T’Challa’s necklace in this episode to Peter’s Walkman in Guardians. Both are items that connect the hero to their past. The Walkman is essential to the story of Guardians and is carefully involved in the story. T’Challa’s necklace gets two important payoff beats (here and when it glows near the Wakandan ship), but there is no time spent setting up these payoffs.
He battles the Collector, who pulls various pieces from his collection to arm himself against T’Challa. Which is cool! I wish I were a bit more invested at this point. Yondu joins T’Challa, and together they outsmart and defeat the collector, repairing the damage in their relationship from a few minutes ago.
This is also another section of the episode that is disproportionately long. Some of the action could have been shaved to free up time for other equally important parts of the story.
Starlord and Yondu are friends again! They return to Wakanda and T’Challa is reunited with the family that he didn’t appear to miss. That’s all the change we can get, because the protagonist has already effected all the change off-screen. He already knows what the power stone does. He’s already pacified Thanos, Yondu, and Nebula. He’s already a legendary outlaw. He wasn’t emotionally scarred by being abducted by Yondu. He never went to the ruins of Wakanda to mourn. He is a better Starlord than Peter Quill could ever dream of being.
T’Challa already succeeded without the thing he was supposedly missing, and the conclusion is less satisfying as a result.
In the MCU we have seen T’Challa as a mourning prince consumed by vengeance. We have seen him as a naïve young king who realizes his great nation turned their back on a world that desperately needs them. Both of those stories depicted him as strong, intelligent, and noble, while still finding important lessons for him to learn and matching him against worthy struggles. I’m glad we got one last performance from Chadwick Boseman as T’Challa, but in spending so much effort setting up our Wakandan prince as a better Starlord than Peter Quill in every way, the episode completely undermines its protagonist’s arc, as well as a great deal of the MCU!
There were so many cool stories implied by this episode. Tell me the story of T’Challa rehabilitating the Mad Titan. Tell me the story of how, as a boy abducted by aliens, he tempered the spiteful Yondu Ondanta. Tell me how Nebula got hair and gave T’Challa the nickname Cha-Cha. Tell me the story of how he happened to get the name Starlord! There are so many cool ideas in this episode, but their arrangement makes the story fall flat. A hero doesn’t start the story complete. The story is what makes them complete.