WHAT IF…? S1E5 “What If…Zombies?!”
First a brief history lesson on Marvel Zombies!
The early aughts saw a renaissance for the zombie genre epitomized by movies such as Danny Boyle‘s 28 Days Later, the Dawn of the Dead remake, and Edgar Wright‘s triumphant Shaun of the Dead parody. And of course, a small franchise you may have heard about called The Walking Dead. There’s no shortage of research analyzing the resurgence of zombies in pop culture, Clemson University professor Sarah Lauro explains it best as a “historical trend that mirrors a level of cultural dissatisfaction and economic upheaval.”
It was during this time in the “Crossover” arc of Ultimate Fantastic Four #21-23 that writer Mark Millar and artist Greg Land teased the first-ever interaction between the Ultimate version of the characters and the original Earth-616 only to pull the rug under fans and reveal it was actually a trick by Earth-2149, a world inhabited by undead versions of your favorite Marvel heroes and thus Marvel Zombies were born.
The following year Marvel tapped writer Robert Kirkman (a no-brainer considering his acclaimed work creating the aforementioned Walking Dead) and artist Sean Phillips to launch a Marvel Zombies miniseries. It was a huge success spawning a litany of sequels and projects with various creators over the last two decades eventually leading to this very episode.
We open on a familiar scene from Avengers: Infinity War with Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) being transported by Heimdall from the stars to Doctor Strange’s Sanctum Sanctorum to warn everyone that “Thanos is coming!” However, something is amiss as both the Sanctorum and all of New York are completely empty. Events continue to play out like Infinity War with
Squidward Ebony Maw (Tom Vaughan-Lawlor) and Cull Obsidian demanding the Time Stone. The Children of Thanos are defeated thanks to the timely arrival of Iron Man, Doctor Strange, and Wong but not all is as it seems as Banner soon discovers that Earth’s Mightiest Heroes are in fact…zombies!
Before Banner is converted to one of the living dead he is saved by Hope Pym (Evangeline Lilly) and Your Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man (Thames Hudson). A flashback reveals the origin of the zombie plague. Two weeks earlier during the events of Ant-Man and the Wasp when Hank Pym traveled to the Quantum Realm to rescue his wife Janet van Dyne, she had contracted a Quantum Virus. So when a zombie Hank Pym returned, the virus quickly spread eventually infected the Pacific Northwest within 24 hours and most of the Avengers when they came to help. If they only knew the rules, the Avengers could have stood a chance.
We’re then treated to an orientation video made by Peter Parker (showcasing his advanced video editing skills since his video diary trip to Germany) with rules on how to survive the zombie apocalypse that would make Jesse Eisenberg from Zombieland proud. Banner (along with Doctor Strange’s cape who tagged along) meets the rest of humanity’s survivors that include Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau), Kurt (David Dastmalchian), Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan), Sharon Carter (Emily VanCamp), and Okoye (Danai Gurira). The group discovers a signal from other possible survivors emanating all the way from Camp Lehigh, New Jersey.
With the help of some Pym Particles and Happy Hogan’s driving skills, they arrive at Grand Central, and despite not heeding Peter’s sage wisdom gained from watching zombie movies in the AV Club they end up splitting up. As Peter, Kurt, and Banner try to hotwire a train, true to form they’re confronted by a zombie horde that includes Hawkeye and the Falcon, and Happy is infected.
As they make their way to Camp Lehigh after getting the train running, it seems a zombified Captain America sneaked aboard. It’s the “end of the line” for Steve Rogers as Bucky disposes of his best friend by slicing him in half with his own shield but not before Sharon is infected. Taking a cue from the infamous Ant-Man/Thanos meme, Hope manages to take Sharon out by entering her (orally!) and expanding inside her.
Sadly, it seems Hope was scratched in the process and the infection slowly seeps in. The train breaks down a short distance away from their destination with a zombie horde standing between the survivors and Camp Lehigh. Using the last of her strength, Hope uses her Pym Particles to grow giant to carry her friends through the horde and succumbs to the plague. It’s there they reunite with Vision (Paul Bettany) whose Mind Stone seems to emit a frequency that keeps the undead at bay. The plague is a form of encephalopathy (or “brain stuff” in layman’s terms) with the virus overwhelming the brain’s limbic system. Through experimentation, the Vision discovered that he was able to reverse the zombie condition and cured Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) albeit only as a disembodied head straight out of Futurama.
They devise a plan to cure the plague by broadcasting the Stone’s signal in Wakanda, the last human sanctuary on Earth. While searching Camp Lehigh, Bucky discovers an injured T’Challa/Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) and learns the horrifying truth. Taking a page from Terminus in The Walking Dead, Vision has in actuality been luring survivors in order to feed his love, the zombie Scarlet Witch. Wanda’s immense power apparently resists the treatment and Vision cannot bear to do the unthinkable to his love.
Deprived of nourishment for days, the Scarlet Witch awakens and makes quick work of Kurt and Okoye. Atoning for his actions, Vision directs the group to a Quadjet in a nearby hangar before ripping the Mind Stone from his forehead. Bucky remains behind to deal with the Scarlet Witch but is promptly tossed aside. Banner decides to face the zombie horde himself to buy his friends more time and finally manages to transform into the Hulk protecting him from infection. Just as it seems like they’ve escaped, Scott jinxes it as a now zombified Hope van Dyne grabs onto the ship but manages to escape thanks to a thruster boost.
Peter, T’Challa, and Scott (now sporting Dr. Strange’s Cloak of Levitation) make their way to Wakanda with the Mind Stone in tow unaware that awaiting them is a zombified Thanos sporting the Infinity Gauntlet with five of the six stones in his possession.
- Not an exact homage to Amazing Fantasy #15 but close enough!
- Uncle Ben is finally mentioned in the Marvel Cinematic Universe!
- This isn’t Danai Gurira’s first foray into surviving a zombie apocalypse. Besides Okoye, the actress is probably best known for her breakout role as Michonne in The Walking Dead.
- Wakanda doesn’t need horror movies as they have American reality TV shows. To quote Kurt, “Boom goes the dynamite! That was solid burn!”
- Bucky and Sam Wilson continue to be frenemies.
- Black Panther being kept alive as zombie nourishment is similar to what befell him in the Marvel Zombies comics where Hank Pym secretly fed on carved pieces of his body before Panther managed to escape.
- Vision keeping a zombified loved one locked up is a common trope in zombie stories like the Governor and his daughter/niece Penny in The Walking Dead.
- Kurt finally meets Baba Yaga!
- A zombie Thanos appeared in Marvel Zombies 2
New episodes of What If…? are available for streaming Wednesdays on Disney+.