MCU: What If...? (2021) | poster excerpt

‘What If…?’ Marvel Studios Tries Something Completely Different?

Marvel Studios’ What If…? on Disney+ is an intriguing animated and narrative exercise in the MCU, but why isn’t it as exciting as we anticipated?

What If...?
A. C. Bradley
MCU / Disney+
11 August 2021- (US)

Shortly after the Walt Disney Company announced their streaming service, Disney+, in 2018, the various companies under the Disney umbrella began developing original series and films to stream exclusively on that service. While Marvel Studios initially announced three live-action limited series, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier (2021), WandaVision (2021), and Loki (2021), they also began developing an animated series titled What If…? This series would deconstruct characters and concepts from the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) by imagining what would happen if key events had occurred differently. The series was proposed by Marvel Studios President Kevin Feige, who felt that the 23 films constituting the first three “phases” of the MCU provided enough material to create interesting alternate narratives. 

In Marvel Comics, What If is an entertaining anthology narrative exercise that imagines alternative outcomes if certain events in the Marvel Comics Universe had played out differently. The original conceit was that Uatu the Watcher, one of an omniscient alien race who observes Earth from his post on the Moon, is aware of alternate realities where events on Earth played out differently. In each issue, Uatu is the narrator, guiding the reader through the major change and the ramifications. Often the alternate events initially seem better, but the ripple effects of the change result in a far worse outcome than in the original story over time. This reinforces that the main Marvel Universe, for good or bad, is the best possible version of events. The worse outcomes result in many issues seeming a bit bleak, leaving alternate versions of favourite characters in terrible situations.

Some issues, however, are lighter or play up the comedy of an alternate series of events. On a more macro level, What If…? built out the multiverse concept in Marvel Comics. The regular comic continuity was designated  “Earth-616”, whereas every alternate series of events occurred in its own numbered universe. This meant that everything that occurred in these alternate stories was as “real” as the events in the main Marvel Universe (616), and popular or exciting elements could be moved into the 616 universe through some comic-book conceit if a writer so desired.

But the multiverse aspects are just some geeky nuance for what was always a series of narrative thought experiments. In What If…? #1 (February 1977), MCU writer Roy Thomas and artist Jim Craig asked, “What If Spider-Man Had Joined the Fantastic Four?” Spider-Man attempts and fails to join the famous superteam in Amazing Spider-Man #1 (April 1963), so this was a perfect alternate outcome to explore. In What If…#10 (August 1978), “What If Jane Foster Had Found the Hammer of Thor?”, Thor’s longtime girlfriend, Jane Foster, gains his powers as opposed to Donald Blake in the original comics. This is the most significant example of a What If…? story happening in the main Marvel continuity, as Jane Foster is Thor for several years, beginning in Thor Vol. 4 #1 (December 2014).

What If…? Vol. 2 #105 (February 1998) introduced May “Mayday” Parker/Spider-Girl, the daughter of the original Spider-Man. This concept was so popular that it launched several books that take place in a future version of the Marvel Universe, including a 100-issue Spider-Girl series. This possible future universe is designated as “Earth-982”, by the way. The first volume of What If…? ran for 47 issues from 1977 to 1984, and the second ran 114 issues from 1989 to 1998. There have been 11 short-lived revivals since then, making 200 issues of What If…? over the past 45 years.

In October 2018, A.C. Bradley, best known for writing Trollhunters: Tales of Arcadia (2016-2018) for Netflix, was hired as the head writer of What If…? and her team began brainstorming ideas. They aimed to tell stories within the MCU that were “unbounded” by continuity (because they existed in alternate timelines) and by visuals (because they were animated). They outlined numerous ideas, eventually presenting 30 to Feige from which he chose his favourites. The writers then narrowed the choices down to a ten-episode first season.

There were some parameters. For example, Bradley and the writers used only characters, locations, and other elements that had already been introduced in the MCU films. Elements that existed in the comics but had not yet been adapted to film might be introduced in later films, so they were avoided. Cases in point, some of the rejected ideas included an elderly Captain America (who would appear in Avengers: Endgame, Russo Brothers, 2019), the Jane Foster version of Thor (who would appear in Thor: Love and Thunder, Waititi, 2022), and reportedly much of what will be the main plot of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 (Gunn, 2023). Delays related to the Covid-19 pandemic resulted in a comedic episode involving Iron Man and Gamora being pushed to Season Two, reducing What If…? Season One to nine episodes. This delay minimized the role of Iron Man, arguably the central character of the MCU up to that point in the show, as he is absent or killed in every episode.

Structurally, What If…? is heavily inspired by The Twilight Zone (1959-1964). In that show, creator Rod Sterling introduces and concludes each episode, establishing and contextualizing the show’s trademark twists and morals. In What If…?, Uatu serves this function. The showrunners cast Jeffrey Wright to voice Uatu, citing his powerful, charismatic, and warm voice as the perfect balance for the most passive, compassionate observer of events. Indeed, many actors from previous MCU films returned to voice their characters.

Most notable is Chadwick Boseman, who died unexpectedly in 2020, making What If…? his final performance. However, many notable MCU actors did not reprise their roles for the show. Some had ended their characters’ journeys in the Marvel films, such as Scarlett Johansson, Robert Downey Jr., and Chris Evans, so it made sense that they did not return. Others, such as Dave Bautista, Brie Larson, Rachel McAdams, Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, and Letitia Wright, appeared in future MCU live-action films, so their absences are strange. The showrunners cited scheduling conflicts, but Bautista, for one, claims he was never asked to appear in the show. Therefore, the result is not as special as it could have been, which is a pretty apt description of the overall show.

For Marvel fans, it is exciting for well-known characters and stories in the Marvel Cinematic Universe to be skewed and played out differently in an animated show. It is fascinating for alternate events to cause unexpected characters to collide or outcomes to change. Hiring so many live-action stars to voice the animated cast adds to the excitement, making the show more of a piece with the films. But when certain key characters are voiced by different actors (undeniably talented but just doing impressions), something seems off, and the whole show is a bit less special. This “unbounded” show becomes far more restricted than the premise’s promise. Limiting What If…? to previously-appearing characters makes sense to ground the episodes at first, but few of the episodes seem like they had licence to go truly wild with their ideas. At times the show is restrained when What If…? should be anything but restrained.

Even the animation style is underwhelming. The showrunners discussed using different styles or techniques for each episode or using a look reminiscent of the art of Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, the creators of most of Marvel’s characters in the ‘60s. They instead chose a cell-shaded animation style that looks striking and unique but not quite as interesting as what might have been. The show aims to be “unbounded” by visuals because animation, much like comic book art, is not constrained by budget or reality in the same way as live-action.

Another Marvel animated project, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (Perschetti, Ramsa, and Rothman, 2018), took full advantage of this freedom with visuals that were wholly unique, abstract, and technically ingenious. That film toys with colouring styles, frame rates, mixed animation media, and depth that make it alive and unique. With very few exceptions, What If…? ends up fairly flat, with visual elements that would be perfectly achievable in a current CGI-heavy blockbuster. They did not push the limits.

These issues matter less when the project is fun or entertaining. Once again, in that regard, What If…? falls short. Many Marvel fans, myself included, believe that while most superhero blockbusters based on comic books are well-made silly fun, some can still have depth, intelligence, and a meaningful point to make. More licence is given to more artistically ambitious comic book films to be self-serious or portentous in service of a higher goal. But What If…? is an inherently goofy exercise, playing off fans’ knowledge of the characters and films to surprise them with different outcomes. It should be primarily fun and entertaining. While some episodes strike the proper tone, enough of them are too bleak and serious to be purely enjoyable.

It is here that I need to pause and reflect for a moment. It is easy for a critic to fall into the trap of declaring what they thought a piece of art should have been and criticizing it for not being that thing. It is easy to say I wanted all the original actors in the voice cast, but that could not and did not happen. It is easy to say that the show should have taken more licence to introduce new, different concepts or make the show weirder, but it did not. I can say that I wanted more dynamic animation and visuals, but that is not the show they made. It is not as fun as I hoped.

A piece of art should be judged based on whether the creators succeeded in what they set out to do, not based on what the critic wanted or hoped it would be. On the other hand, as a viewer, I was thoroughly underwhelmed by What If…? It is the least of Marvel Studios’ shows on Disney+ and is not as special as it could or should be. If Marvel intended to make a show that felt “unbounded”, they fell short.