FULL SPOILERS AHEAD
Breaking the tradition of the last two What If…? posts, this is not my newest favorite episode of the series. By process of elimination I think it’s actually my least favorite? But that’s not the same as “the worst”–just “my fifth favorite out of five episodes.” This wasn’t too much of a surprise, as episode 5, “What If Zombies?!” goes all in on the reanimated dead, and I’m typically lukewarm towards zombies. And for reference, Otto; or, Up with Dead People gets a pass on how gay it is and because it came out before zombies oversaturated the media landscape.
The episode opens with Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) crashing back on Earth from the beginning of Avengers: Infinity War, but finding Doctor Strange’s Sanctum Sanctorum oddly empty. Heroes do show up to stop Black Order members Ebony Maw and Black Dwarf, but Bruce’s joy turns to horror when he realizes that Iron Man, Doctor Strange, and Wong are actually eating the aliens. Welcome to a zombie apocalypse! With the Hulk still not wanting to show up for reasons I’ve never felt were explained well, Bruce is rescued by the last uninfected heroes: Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan), Wasp (Evangeline Lilly), Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau), Okoye (Danai Gurira), Sharon Carter (Emily VanCamp), Spider-Man (now voiced by Hudson Thames) and… Kurt (David Dastmalchian) from Ant-Man? Oh, he’s definitely not surviving this episode. Turns out the virus started when Hank Pym rescued Janet Van Dyne in Ant-Man and the Wasp, but her survival in the Quantum Realm in this universe was due to her contracting a zombie virus. It spread all over, and now the world is doomed. A possible cure lures the heroes to Camp Lehigh (the camp where Arnim Zola’s brain patterns were stored in Captain America: The Winter Soldier), but they lose Happy, Sharon, and Wasp. Turns out the Vision (Paul Bettany) has developed a possible cure thanks to the Mind Stone, and has even cured Scott Lang (Paul Rudd)! Well, Scott Lang’s severed head in a jar, but still. The surviving heroes also find a half eaten Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) and learn the dark truth: Vision has been feeding pieces of people to a zombie Wanda because she’s too powerful for the cure and he can bring himself to kill her. She breaks free and pretty quickly kills Kurt and Okoye. Vision sacrifices himself out of shame, giving the heroes the Mind Stone with a plan to use Wakandan technology to broadcast the cure. Bucky and Bruce–now able to summon the Hulk once again–sacrifice themselves to allow Spider-Man, Black Panther, and Scott Lang’s head to escape. The episode ends much like “What If T’Challa Became a Star-Lord?” in that the day looks about saved, but an unseen threat–in this case a zombified Thanos with five Infinity Stones–could lead to an even greater catastrophe.
The summary I gave makes this sound like the whole thing was very grim, but it was actually one of the more comedic episodes yet. Bucky quips that he’s not all that broken up when Okoye kills a zombie Sam “Falcon” Wilson, highlighting the issues the two had with each other all the way up to The Falcon and the Winter Soldier. Happy, having no powers, is given one of Iron Man’s blaster gauntlets and actually says, “Blam!” when he fires. He continues to do that after he becomes a zombie. And then just about every one of Scott’s lines ties into him now only being a severed head. I think the jokes messed with the overall tone of the episode, but I’m a horror fan with messed up movie tastes.
So what were the rules for these zombies? In the Marvel Zombies series–more on that below–the zombie heroes and villains retained all their memories and ability to speak, but had their personalities twisted by an unceasing need to eat living flesh. Pretty sure the only zombie who said anything intelligible in this episode was Happy, related to an earlier gag. But these zombies definitely retain their abilities–Zombie Doctor Strange and Wong are able to create their sling ring portals and Wanda had her full powers. Hell, she might’ve been even more powerful since she had no humanity holding her back. And at the end we have to wonder, did Thanos become a zombie after acquiring five Infinity Stones–a presumably easier task when Earth has no real defenders–or did a zombified mad titan have to finish his quest, suggesting that despite being dead he still remembered his goals? A lot of questions come to mind, but that’s probably why there are so many damned Marvel Zombies comics…
There have been zombies here and there in Marvel Comics for decades–to say nothing about the amount of heroes and villains who come back from death in a multitude of ridiculous ways–but Marvel Zombies as a franchise began in Ultimate Fantastic Four #21 (2005). Long story short, the Ultimate Universe was a relaunch with new histories for recognizable heroes, and the Fantasic Four were reimagined as teens going to a school for the gifted. “Gifted” like they’re super smart, not that they are secretly mutants. What at first appeared to be Ultimate Reed Richards (AKA Mr. Fantastic) contacting the Reed from the regular Marvel universe turned out to be a trick to lure the teen to a universe where nearly all the heroes and villains had become the living dead. The outbreak started very similarly to how it happened in this episode: the Avengers were first on the scene and with them infected, the world never stood a chance. The whole thing eventually was revealed to be weirdly recursive, with the zombie virus spreading on one world after an insanely powerful and insanely insane hero named the Sentry showed up from a different Earth and bit the Avengers, leading to that world’s Spider-Man eating and absorbing the powers of Galactus, then traveling to the Sentry’s Earth where he ended up spreading the zombie virus there, which led to the Sentry traveling back to blah blah blah. Comics are dumb, but sometimes they’re very dumb. This zombie-infested Marvel universe spawned a bunch of crossovers as well as the dedicated titles Marvel Zombies (2006), Marvel Zombies 2 (2007), Marvel Zombies 3 (2008), Marvel Zombies Return (2009), and a few more (mostly one-shots). There was even an Evil Dead crossover with Marvel Zombies vs. Army of Darkness (2007), because sure, why not. And in case you start thinking all this sounds like Marvel’s attempt at making their own The Walking Dead, Robert Kirkman wrote Marvel Zombies and Marvel Zombies 2. Because of course he did.
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