This article contains spoilers for Marvel’s What If…? episode 1.
Despite featuring a whole host of Marvel actors providing their voices to the iconic characters they’ve previously played, Marvel’s What If…? features only one starring role. And that role belongs to venerated actor Jeffrey Wright (Westworld, The Hunger Games) as Uatu a.k.a. The Watcher.
As his name implies, The Watcher watches the events of an unfurling multiverse unfold. In the series’ first episode, “What If…Captain Carter Were the First Avenger?” (good job by Marvel to use the subjunctive mood!), Uatu watches as Peggy Carter takes the super soldier serum and is transformed into a buff Nazi-killing machine. Future episodes of the series will feature T’Challa becoming a Ravager alongside Yondu, an updated Avengers story, and most thrillingly: zombies. Through it all, The Watcher will be there…watchin’.
If one narrator dispassionately watching outlandish events sounds like a familiar television trope, that’s because it is. Marvel’s What…If? borrows its frame story styling from one of the most iconic TV series of all time: The Twilight Zone.
“It’s an anthology, just like those Twilight Zones back in the day. You never know what you’re gonna get,” director Brian Andrews told reporters prior to the series premiere.
Jeffrey Wright took the comparison one step further, noting that The Watcher operates similarly to The Twilight Zone’s beloved creator and host.
“(The Watcher) plays somewhat of a Rod Sterling role here. He’s kind of narrating, kind of not. In some ways as maybe the biggest Marvel fan there is – watching all that transpires and dealing with certain temptations to involve himself.”
In addition to bringing superb sci-fi and horror stories to television when television desperately needed them, The Twilight Zone succeeded because of Rod Serling’s steadying presence as host of the proceedings. Serling began and ended each episode of The Twilight Zone with a brief monologue, first setting up the themes of what was to come, and then hammering their consequences.
Serling, a handsome man always wearing a suit, came to feel larger than life throughout the series’ run. These were big, interesting stories and yet here was someone who seemed powerful enough to observe them all, existing outside of time and narrating with little prejudice or interference.
Just like Serling, The Watcher begins and ends every episode with a monologue of his own. Each episode of What If…? screened for critics opens with The Watcher’s sturdy narration of the show’s premise:
“Time. Space. Reality. It’s more than a linear path. It’s a prism of endless possibility. Where a single choice can branch out into infinite realities, creating alternate worlds from the ones you know. I am the Watcher. I am your guide through these vast new realities. Follow me and ponder the question…What if?”
At the end of “What If…Captain Carter Were the First Avenger?”, The Watcher sums up the experience thusly:
“Her one choice gave birth to a whole new history and gave the multiverse a new hero. As for me, these are my stories. I observe all that transpires here but I do not, cannot, will not, interfere. For I am…the Watcher.”
The Watcher is a bit of a more active presence than Serling though. Near the episode’s beginning he helpfully identifies the very moment that our usual reality changed in favor of a new one.
“There, that’s the moment that created a new universe,” he says as Peggy decides not to seek shelter behind a blast door as Howard Stark’s experiment is interrupted.
Thus far, Marvel has found success on television by paying homage to what’s previously worked for the medium. WandaVision was one big love letter to the classic sitcoms of yesteryear. Loki raided the Rick and Morty writers’ room to find scribes well-versed in TV multiverses. It’s only natural that they would turn to The Twilight Zone for their fourth (and most experimental) effort.
Something tells me, however, that The Watcher won’t always be as content as Rod Serling to merely watch compelling new stories. When Uatu asserts that “I do not, cannot, will not interfere” it sounds like he’s trying to convince himself of that more than anyone else.
Marvel’s What If…? premieres new episodes Wednesdays on Disney+.