What If…? represents uncharted territory for Marvel Studios. After 13 years of major movie and, more recently, TV success, Marvel’s latest Disney Plus show messes with the tried and tested formula that’s turned it into a multi-billion dollar cinematic powerhouse.
Inspired by the 1977 comic series of the same name, What If…? is an anthology series that takes iconic MCU moments, such as Captain America’s creation, and reshapes them in unexpected ways. The opening episode, for example, looks at what would've happened if Agent Carter had received the super soldier serum instead of Steve Rogers and how this scenario affects the multiverse's parallel timelines.
What If…? does more than explore alternate MCU realities, though – it also marks Marvel's first foray into animation. Will fans who are so used to live-action, big-budget productions want to watch this? It's potentially risky, especially when its tales are standalone entries with little continuity tying them together, too.
Thankfully, Marvel’s bold decision has paid off. With its familiar yet novel take on the MCU, What If…? is a weird and surprisingly wonderful take on the superhero genre that feels like The Twilight Zone and Black Mirror in its narrative approach.
A Marvel-ous rebirth
What If…? stars Jeffrey Wright (James Bond, Westworld) as Uatu the Watcher, an omnipotent celestial being who watches over the Marvel Cinematic Multiverse (MCM) and guides viewers through the show’s nine episodes.
Each entry revisits classic MCU moments, such as the Avengers’ formation, but with a twist: each episode's events take place in alternate timelines to the MCU (as introduced in Loki’s season 1 finale) and subsequently play out with wildly different results.
Some viewers may wonder why What If…? is retreading old ground by going back to its superheroes’ roots, but it’s genuinely interesting to see what may have happened to the MCU’s most prominent characters if events had transpired in other ways.
It’s fascinating, for instance, to see how T’Challa would have affected the entire galaxy if he had been kidnapped by the Ravagers instead of Peter Quill. Or how Eric Killmonger saving Tony Stark might have altered Iron Man’s origins story (although we’re yet to see this particular episode).
Leaning into this type of limitless storytelling opens up many avenues for originality. Given how some viewers (and at least one creator who has worked in the MCU) feel bored by superhero offerings in 2021, the sheer amount of creativity within What If…? is no bad thing.
Altering these key moments in subtle ways not only puts an unexpected slant on events we’re familiar with, but also provides an opportunity to see characters mingle with others who they haven’t met, or will ever meet, in Marvel’s main timeline. Such moves allow for some very surreal character interactions but, given how we’re used to seeing various Earth-based and galactic superheroes conversing with each other by now, it doesn’t feel odd to see the likes of T’Challa and Yondu talk about things or exchange jokes.
Speaking of the show’s humor, What If…? doesn’t relegate the MCU’s funnier elements to the sidelines. Yes, some stories are more serious in tone than others but, by and large, there are amusing moments to enjoy throughout, even if a few jokes (mainly in the series’ premiere) are slightly corny.
What If…? won’t only comprise stories that Marvel movies fans know of, either. Other episodes will feature tales from the company’s illustrious comic history, such as its Marvel Zombies series, that audiences may not be familiar with. So even if you’ve read lots of Marvel comics, or seen every MCU movie or TV show to date, there’ll be plenty in What If…?’s episodes – and Easter eggs or MCU references, of which there are an abundance to look or listen out for – to keep you engaged and entertained.
So What If…?’s tales are inventive and absorbing, but what about the show’s animation?
Although it has its roots in 1920s and 1930s illustration – US artists including J.C. Leyendecker and Tom Lovell inspired its aesthetic – What If…?’s animated style fits pretty well for a 21st century production. The fluidity of character movements, from lip syncing to frenetic fight sequences, are a treat, while the show’s cel shaded look gives it a distinctive, almost 3D comic book flavor.
While other anthology series, such as Netflix’s Love, Death & Robots, whose tales are produced by a multiple studios, can get away with using a variety of visual styles and animation techniques, it’s pleasing to see that the same style and tone is utilized throughout here. Three other studios worked alongside Marvel’s in-house animation team to produce What If…? and, although it may have been more interesting to see those companies put their own artistic spin on the MCU, retaining an identical look feels necessary here for continuity purposes.
As enjoyable as What If…? is, it does have a couple of downsides.
For one, it’s jarring to hear other voice actors portray beloved characters including Iron Man, Black Widow and Steve Rogers. Many of Marvel’s past (and present) talent reprise their roles for the series but, in some instances, that wasn’t possible – and it shows.
Commendable as it is to try and replicate Robert Downey Jr’s famous turn as Tony Stark, hearing another actor recreate a star’s iconic performance makes for an uncomfortable fit. Sure, Marvel can argue that certain characters don’t need to sound exactly like their MCU counterparts – What If…?’s tales are multiversal retellings after all – but it’s easy to distinguish which actors returned to voice their MCU characters and which haven’t, and it’s somewhat unsettling.
What If…?’s episodes can seem a bit on the short side, too. Some stories only need 30 minutes to reach a satisfying conclusion. Others, though, could have used another five or 10 minutes – either to add additional context to proceedings, or simply because the adventures are so enthralling that you don’t want them to end. With weekly waits between new episodes landing on Disney Plus, the lean run time may leave some viewers disappointed and wanting more.
What we think
What If…? is a ground-breaking show for Marvel and the MCU in general. It may not be a direct tie-in (at least, Marvel hasn’t confirmed or denied as much), but it’s a sandbox of infinite possibilities that can only grow in its own unique way as more superpowered beings, worlds and universes become established in the MCM.
By exploring standalone stories set in a multitude of genres, What If…? arguably has the largest creative potential of all of Marvel’s upcoming productions. Leaning into the more bizarre elements of Marvel comics gives the studio license to do whatever it wants (within the series’ PG-13 rating), and explore the multiverse in as much detail as possible.
Marvel is already working on What If…? season 2 but, based on the first season’s early episodes, it’s a show that could become the studio’s longest running property if it ignites fans’ imaginations. What If…? feels like the start of something new for Marvel, and I’m excited to be along for the multiversal ride.
Marvel’s What If…? premieres exclusively on Disney Plus on Wednesday, August 11.
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