What If…? was the name of a series from Marvel Comics that kicked off in 1977, with the company eventually producing 13 volumes (the latest in 2018) and a bunch of one-shots and spin-offs.
The basic concept was to take a classic, iconic or pivotal moment in Marvel Comics history and change it, with stories ranging from the very first — “What If Spider-Man Had Joined the Fantastic Four?” — To later mind-benders like “What If the Vision Had Destroyed the Avengers?” and “What If the Venom Symbiote Had Managed to Control Deadpool?”
The concept has managed to stick around more than 40 years, but it was still something of a surprise when Marvel Studios announced a new Disney+ series called What If…? at Comic-Con 2019.
In addition to taking the same concept and applying it to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, What If…? is the first animated series produced by Marvel Studios as well as its first anthology — although as with all things Marvel, some episodes will find ways to connect with each other.
As executive producer Brad Winderbaum confirms to Den of Geek, it’s also no coincidence that What If…? debuts right after the previous Marvel series on Disney+, Loki, climaxed with the universe literally exploding into scores of new timelines and realities, turning the MCU into a multiverse — the bedrock of the idea behind What If…? itself.
“I mean, honestly, like many things that happen in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, we kind of stumbled into that smart idea,” laughs Winderbaum. “I don’t know if it’s born of just the collaborative environment that we’re all lucky enough to work in at Marvel or if it was just random. But we were aware of Loki, they were aware of us, we shared scripts just like we would on all the projects, and it just happened to line up perfectly. And multiverse storytelling is in the air, so there’s also that.”
The timing of What If…? coming right after Loki may have been something of a coincidence, though.
“The fact that it got to be the show right on the heels of Loki and the fact that it fits in lockstep…as we developed the shows, as we produced the shows, we realized what happened was as much serendipity and just kind of trusting the MCU as anything else,” Winderbaum says.
Even though Marvel (and to some extent, Sony Pictures) has been laying the groundwork for the introduction of the multiverse — first with the “fake” one in Spider-Man: Far from Home, then the branching realities of Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse and Avengers: Endgame, and now the explicit shattering of the Sacred Timeline in Loki — Winderbaum believes audiences are ready for the idea.
“What we found as we test projects that have a multiverse bend to their story is that the audience actually is really savvy and ready for this kind of parallel-reality type scenario,” he notes. “Luckily, maybe because it’s just in so many places in the culture, it’s actually not as heady a concept as we feared.”
The show, which premieres next Wednesday (August 11), is narrated by Jeffrey Wright (Westworld) as the voice of Uatu, a.k.a. the Watcher, one of a Marvel race of superbeings who observe events occurring throughout the cosmos without interfering.
In the first of the initial season’s nine episodes, S.H.I.E.L.D. co-founder Peggy Carter (voiced by Hayley Atwell, last seen briefly as Carter in Avengers: Endgame) takes the super-soldier serum instead of Steve Rogers, becoming the powerful Captain Carter.
Head writer AC Bradley says that when it came to selecting the stories for the show — some 30 were initially conceived and pitched, with many of those also earmarked for an already announced second season — it wasn’t just a question of remixing pivotal MCU moments from the movies.
“When it came to creating the first season of What If…?, we didn’t so much look back to the MCU or even the conflicts at times, we just went to the characters themselves,” she explains. “There’s a reason these movies have been so successful — it isn’t just the thrills and the chills, it’s the human connection, it’s watching their losses and triumphs and seeing ourselves in these characters.”
Bradley points to Tony Stark/Iron Man, who “birthed this entire multiverse,” as the template for the kind of character exploration we’ll see on What If…?
“Everyone knows the famous last line [in the first movie], ‘I am Iron Man,’” she says. “But the line right before that is, ‘I’m just not the hero type.’ It’s Tony’s flaws that we’re drawn to. So with each character, it was looking for what makes them human.”
Of course, getting the heart of these characters right is important, but the stories themselves still have to matter.
“The multiverse is perilous because you want to make sure everything has stakes,” says Winderbaum, who echoes Bradley’s comments about What If…? being driven by the characters established in the MCU. “We realized early on that as long as you’re focusing on the characters, it really doesn’t matter if that character exists in a parallel timeline or in the town next door. If you care about them, you’ll follow the story no matter where they live and who they are.”
As for the voices behind those characters, Marvel got many of its live-action stable of actors to get into the sound booth and play their roles in the animated format, a feat that Winderbaum says he might not have thought was possible.
“If you would ask me how much of the original cast I thought we would actually get to return for the show, I would have said we’d be lucky at 50%,” he says. “The fact that we got up to about 85% goes beyond my wildest dreams of what I thought we’d be able to achieve.”
Winderbaum reveals that Marvel co-president Louis D’Esposito was crucial in getting many of the actors on board for the show, including Benedict Cumberbatch, Benicio Del Toro, Chadwick Boseman, Chris Hemsworth, Don Cheadle, Evangeline Lilly, Jeremy Renner, Josh Brolin, Karen Gillan, Mark Ruffalo, Michael B. Jordan, Michael Douglas, Natalie Portman, Paul Bettany, Paul Rudd, Samuel L. Jackson, Sebastian Stan, and Tom Hiddleston
There are plenty more MCU actors involved as well — too many to list — although some notable absences include Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Brie Larson, and Scarlet Johansson. “It didn’t work with some of our stars,” Winderbaum admits. “But we made a choice early on to not make the stories reliant on what actors we thought we could get.”
More importantly, What If…? allows fans to see many of the characters in a whole new light, whether it’s T’Challa as Star-Lord instead of Peter Quill, Killmonger as the Black Panther and king of Wakanda, or Iron Man and Captain America as reanimated flesh-eating zombies.
“I hope as the audience, especially veteran MCU fans, watch the show, there are moments that surprises them and hopefully makes them choke on their beer,” says Bradley. “We have an episode coming down later in the season that’s pretty cameo-filled. That was our grab bag of all the characters, which I’m hoping people get a lot of chuckles from.”
Winderbaum, who has been with the MCU since the beginning, says moments like this are similar to when Marvel Studios first united its heroes in 2012’s Avengers.
“We knew then that, as comic fans, ‘Oh, it’s cool to see these characters come together from various franchises.’ But it was that first Avengers film that kind of let the audience in on how cool that was,” he recalls. “And I think What If…? hopefully does a similar thing with the fun of twisting stories that you know so well and how cathartic and euphoric that can be.”
What If…? premieres on Disney+ on Wednesday, August 11.