The Watcher takes center stage on the show “What if…? ” from this week.
This article contains spoilers for Marvel episode eight ‘What if…?’
In physics, there is what is known as the “observer effect”, in which an object or system is changed simply by observing it. About Marvel What if…? each episode was seen by a seemingly omniscient narrator known as The Watcher, who apparently believes himself above this simple rule. He’s seen the murdered Avengers, zombies invade the galaxy, and Steven Strange completely destroy his own universe, but the Watcher has consistently refrained from doing anything that could change the outcome – until now.
The twist in this episode is that in Age of Ultron, the titular villain was able to take control of Vision’s body before he awoke as a hero we all know and love, taking him over, then the world and even winning the Infinity Stones. Somewhere in all of this the Avengers are killed with the exception of Natasha and Clint, finally giving us that Black Widow and Hawkeye adventure that we should have had years ago. I haven’t been the biggest fan of either character, but here they’re a lot of fun despite the grim circumstances.
The real star here, however, is Jeffrey Wright’s character Watcher. We still know little about him or the faction he serves. The Watchers, as a group, only appeared in live-action during one brief scene in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. What if…? was our first real introduction to the concept, and after eight episodes we’re still mostly in the dark about them.
But this week’s episode at least shed light. We know that our Watcher has taken an oath never to interfere with things he sees, although we still don’t know, nor are we made aware of the possible consequences of breaking that vow. And now we know he’s emotionally invested in the universes he observes, if only on the basis of his reaction to Clint not finding the file they need in the KGB archives (thankfully, Natasha is here to save the day).
However, this observer effect kicks in regardless of the observer’s intentions, as his omniscient narration is heard by the energized Ultron, which seeks him out and attacks. In the process, Ultron becomes aware of the multiverse, which explains his sudden appearance at the end of last week’s episode. The finale previews hint at some sort of multiversal team, one involving Captain Carter, Party Thor, and the other modified characters we encountered in the first eight episodes.
While this is certainly a fun concept, there is a whole series of comics called Exiles about a multi-reality team like this – it raises questions about the exact topic of season two. This has already been confirmed, but Marvel has shown that it is not really interested in running. What if…? as an anthology series like the comic book it’s based on. The example of its integration into the larger canon led the show to have its own internal continuity, although it is unlikely to be needed to understand the larger Marvel Cinematic Universe.
At least we hope this remains a side story of the MCU: The power levels in the battle between The Watcher and Infinity Ultron bring shame even to the massive conflicts shown in the last two Avengers movies. (Especially after Thanos stepped out unceremoniously.) It’s an odd escalation considering the teased Phase IV villain Kang the Conqueror hasn’t even made a proper appearance yet.
Marvel Comics has a deep and expansive mythology and it’s nice to see the MCU finally explore some of these outer expanses. But for now, the current approach to continuity feels a bit cramped and is likely to get in its way. Hopefully next week’s finale will see the Watcher completely break free from his oath and maybe help out. What if…? ditch his remaining ties to his live-action counterparts to do something truly new.
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