How What If…? Season 2 Premiere Homages Blade Runner


  • The Season 2 premiere of What If…? takes a surprising turn by focusing on Nebula’s role in the Nova Corps, delivering a cyberpunk thriller reminiscent of Blade Runner.
  • The episode explores Xandar in a way that hasn’t been seen before, showing the darker side of the planet and the challenges it faces under a planetary shield.
  • The inclusion of familiar Marvel characters like Korg and Howard the Duck adds a touch of humor and keeps the episode true to the Marvel style, while still incorporating the neo-noir aesthetic.

The following contains spoilers from What If…? Season 2, Episode 1, ” What If… Nebula Joined the Nova Corps?” now streaming on Disney+.

Marvel fans awaited the return of What If…?, and the Season 2 premiere delivered a surprising episode to kick off the new run of stories. Instead of focusing on some major Marvel Cinematic Universe event, the first episode is a question, arguably, no fan has ever asked. Still, the story of Nebula solving Yondu’s murder as a member of the Nova Corps feels a lot like the Marvel take on Blade Runner. What’s even more surprising is how well it works.

With both the What If…? comics and Disney+ series, Marvel fans turn to the Watcher for insight into branches of the multiverse that explore often-asked questions. Fans may have expected stories focusing on a road not taken for a recent MCU release like Thor: Love and Thunder or Spider-Man: No Way Home. Instead, they get a quiet, cyberpunk thriller following one of the more nebulous characters. In the proper MCU timeline, Nebula’s redemption happened because her sister, Gamora, never gave up on her. In “What If…Nebula Joined the Nova Corps?” Gamora, and Thanos, are dead at the hands of Ronan the Accuser. This story, from Nebula’s arc to the overall tone, highlights why What If…? stories are so versatile. The most interesting episodes aren’t the ones remixing a familiar MCU scene, but the stories like these no one sees coming.

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Ridley Scott’s cult classic Blade Runner may not be the first science fiction neo-noir story, but it’s easily the most iconic. As far as the story goes, Nebula’s life as a member of the Nova Corps on Xandar doesn’t align with Rick Deckard’s. Nebula is solving murders while Deckard is arguably committing them as a means of taking out replicants. She’s personally recruited into the Nova Corps by Nova Prime, who still looks like Glenn Close but is played by Julianne Grossman. She is cahoots with both Jude Law’s Yon-Rogg and Peter Serafinowicz’s reprisal of Garthan Saal.

From the composition of the shots to Nebula’s flying police car the episode seems to intentionally evoke the Blade Runner aesthetic. Even the episode’s score, by spouses Laura Karpman and Nora Kroll-Rosenbaum, evokes the creepy synth excellence of Vangelis. Unlike Deckard, Nebula knows she’s not an artificial lifeform, but she’s also not fully organic either. She is driven by her desire to uphold the oath she took when she signed on with the Nova Corps. One crucial difference is that, unlike Deckard, Nebula’s mission is pure. She’s trying to solve a murder and save the people of Xandar from some unknown catastrophe.

She also is motivated by the faith Nova Prime showed in her, despite knowing early on the Xandarian leader had failed to uphold her own. While the plot is very different from Blade Runner, she is a police officer on her own and trying to survive. Instead of the vague threat of rogue replicants, Nebula wants to protect Xandar from decimation and invasion if Ronan the Accuser is able to get through Xandar’s planetary shield. She is instructed to go outside the bounds of the law, but she never crosses into a true moral gray area. Everything Nebula does is to save lives, not take them.

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Nova Prime activates the Xandar shield in What If Season 2


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Despite being a significant location in the first Guardians of the Galaxy, there’s not much known about Xandar. It seemed a mostly pleasant society, save for those who fall on the wrong side of the law, though their prison system is notably bad. It was a bright, futuristic alien world that even the outlaws felt was worth defending. Essentially, it’s the opposite of the future corporate megalopolis in Blade Runner. Nova Prime and Garthan Saal weren’t really characterized enough to be called “heroes” or “villains.”

Still, they seemed like people who took their oaths to protect and serve seriously. In a branch of the MCU multiverse where the Guardians never unite, Xandar gets there in just five years. The planetary shield traps people on the planet, making everything darker as it blocks out the sun. Outside that energy barrier, Ronan and his forces remain an ever-present threat in the sky. Resources grow scarcer over time, and the population grows restless as the authority figures turn into authoritarian figures.

Those who remember Xandar as it used to be feel that life has become worse since the shield closed. Yet, Nebula doesn’t remember Xandar, nor does she have bones. Her life was already in a bad place, so anything different would be considered an improvement. Nova Prime’s belief in her ability to be a positive force in the universe drove her to live up to that ideal. As she navigated Xandar under lockdown, she was perhaps the only person on the planet who knew how good everyone had it. Perhaps this is why Officer Nebula was on such good terms with society’s outcasts.

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Part of the fun for MCU fans is seeing familiar characters, even if their universe is utterlly different. How Howard the Duck escapes the Collector, or how Korg and Miek end up on Xandar isn’t important. Their brand of galaxy guardians is almost as if Deckard turned on the police and teamed up with J.F. Sebastian, Roy Batty and the rest of the replicants. Again, there aren’t true parallels in the narratives, and that’s for the best. The Blade Runner homage comes through the look and tone of the episode. The characters, other than Nebula, however, help keep it decidedly Marvel.

The use of sillier characters like Korg and Howard the Duck are the perfect counterbalance to Nebula’s neo-noir stoicism. The inclusion of Groot, and Nebula’s Yondu-inspired look near the end, makes them more Guardians of the Galaxy than a group of Blade Runners. Seth Green and Taika Waititi provide crucial comic relief, lest the episode become too self-serious. Similarly, Karen Gillan plays Nebula very close to how she played her in the films. While the concept for this story may come out of left field, the choice for the central character makes perfect sense.

There isn’t any one single element that makes a story feel like a “Marvel story.” If there was, however, it would probably be how it approaches its ending. Kevin Feige is a big Star Trek fan, and the one that makes that universe different from other sci-fi epics is its sense of aspirational optimism. Perhaps even more so than the comic books themselves, MCU movies and shows don’t typically have a downer ending. The whole point of superheroes is the fantasy that the heroes always defeat the villains for a better tomorrow.

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Despite not really aligning with the plot of Blade Runner, Nova Prime’s and Yon-Rogg’s plan is dubious, at best. Cut off from the rest of the galaxy, it’s easy to understand how Xandar would have problems. However, considering it’s a whole planet with sci-fi technology and its own resources, it’s unclear how Nova Prime could flip sides after just five years. As fun as Nebula and her Guardians’ antics were, Marvel Studios could return to Xandar, in the prime timeline.

It was a paradise before, but Thanos decimated off-screen in the beginning of Infinity War. That’s a society that could support a Blade Runner-esque storyline. As an alternate MCU reality story, “What If…Nebula Joined the Nova Corps?” was a fitting premiere for Season 2. It’s a reminder of just how versatile the Marvel Universe can be, and a strong argument for why the Multiverse Saga should never end. Not bound by MCU canon, What If…? storytellers can highlight what makes a character a hero in boundlessly different ways.

The show also serves as a test kitchen for the types of stories that audiences want to see more of, like the forthcoming Marvel Zombies or The Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man. However, this concept works well enough to make the jump into live action and the proper MCU timeline. A Disney+ series for adults revisiting Xandar would expand the MCU beyond what audiences expect. There have been rumors of a Nova series or film in development for years. Perhaps the right approach is a neo-noir sci-fi thriller like the What If…? Season 2 premiere.

What If…? Season 2 will release one episode per day until the full season is streaming in its entirety on Dec. 30, 2023 on Disney+.

What If...?

What If…?

Exploring pivotal moments from the Marvel Cinematic Universe and turning them on their head, leading the audience into uncharted territory.

Release Date
August 11, 2021

A. C. Bradley

Jeffrey Wright , Sebastian Stan , Stanley Tucci , Chadwick Boseman , Josh Brolin , Kurt Russell , Samuel L. Jackson , Jeremy Renner , Tom Hiddleston


Number of Episodes

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