Marvel's animated series 'What if …?' is the comic book nerd's fanfiction

An ET looms large over the Earth
The Watcher (Jeffrey Wright) in WHAT IF ... 

Note: This spoiler-free review was written after seeing only the first three episodes of the series.

MCU Phase 4 continues their limited-series television series with What if …?, the first animated series produced by Marvel Studios. WandaVision cut the opening day ribbon on the world of the multiverse, Loki and the TVA gave the keynote address, and now What if …? stands ready to give the red-carpet treatment and lead us on a grand tour of the infinite hallways inside the Marvel multiverse. Directed by Bryan Andrews (storyboard artist for many of the MCU films so far) and written by a team lead by AC Bradley (Trollhunters: Tales of Arcadia), What if …? plays like refined fanfiction for the comic book and MCU fan.

The term fanfiction often gets thrown around to separate it from true or canon stories, but here it's truly not meant as an insult. The concept is based on previous material. Take it at the most prescriptive meaning of the term: people who know the official stories received an opportunity to mix up the story elements and play with their fandom.   

What if …? is based on a comic book series initiated in 1977 by Marvel Comics that has run off and on for 13 series, as well as occasional standalone issues. An all-seeing being named Uatu the Watcher narrates the stories. Each issue depicts an established narrative in the Marvel Comic canon, but a point of divergence creates a completely different situation and outcome. As a Watcher, the extraterrestrial being Uatu observes and records events that transpire on Earth and the surrounding solar system but cannot interfere.

In the television series, this level of detail is not provided. The narrator introduces himself as simply the Watcher. Voiced by a richly resonant Jeffrey Wright, the Watcher opens and closes each episode with brief comments, like Twilight Zone's Rod Serling. The outline of the Watcher's profile looms large over the galaxy, but we never see him full-on. The meat of each episode begins with a familiar scene from the MCU. Viewers don't need to be familiar with the comic book series at all; these moments all transpired in cinematic realm. The Watcher guides us into the moment, and the scene commences in the middle of the action, with the same dialogue and interplay from the live-action films. The Watcher points out the moment of divergence and the fun begins. Imagine an improv troupe made of comic book fans, and you can fathom the action about to take place.

A team of patriotic WWii militants prepare for battle
Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) and her team attack enemies in WHAT IF ... 
What a writer's dream job! Rather than attempting to recreate the comic book scenarios, the writers pitched original story ideas. For example, episode 1 introduces the possibility that an operative hijacks Steve Rogers' super soldier operation. Forced to act quickly or lose the opportunity to create a new kind of hero, Peggy Carter (voiced by Hayley Atwell) bravely takes Rogers' place, becoming Captain Carter (I would have liked something a little more on brand like Captain Britannia). This alteration opens up many questions that get covered in a compact runtime of about 30 minutes an episode. Ask yourself:

  • What does the shield look like?
  • How does the white patriarchy feel about a female super soldier?
  • What happens to the romance between Rogers and Carter?
  • Does Bucky Barnes (voiced by Sebastian Stan) still get rescued from the military prison? 
  • How does Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper) help the war effort?
  • Do the Avengers still become a thing in the future?
In addition to the dialogue and action used to build the main narrative of each episode, like most MCU narratives, the episodes are chock full of Easter eggs and clever asides that pop up unexpectedly. Many of these tongue in cheek moments happen quickly, so those fans dedicated to the hunt may need to rewatch several times before they catch them all. Being familiar with the totality of the MCU is necessary to get all of these jokes. 

One man punches another
An action scene featuring T'CHALLA/STAR-LORD and the COLLECTOR (Benicio del Toro) in WHAT IF ... 

Adding to the authenticity of the characterization, many of the original cast return to lend their vocal talents to the episodes. In fact, it's easier to name which actors are in absentia: Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Brie Larson, Anthony Mackie, Tom Holland, Scarlett Johansson, and Elisabeth Olson. But most of the major and minor cast reprise, including Benedict Cumberbatch, Chris Hemsworth, Jeremy Renner, Josh Brolin, Samuel L. Jackson, Michael B. Jordan, Tom Hiddleston, Michael Rooker, and even Chadwick Boseman, in his last role.

Lead character designer Ryan Meinerding based his style on classic American illustrators from J.C. Leyendecker to Norman Rockwell to Tom Lovell. Visually, each episode holds a slightly different look, depending on the genre and tone of the story. The groundbreaking animation makes use of a 3D technique in which the background becomes blurred, leaving the items in the foreground to pop out and appear even more vivid. This dynamic animation technique creates eye-popping action sequences.

What if … ? season 1 contains 9 episodes, of different genres. From tragic romance to political thriller to horror to heist, a literal treasure trove of stories awaits those who watch What if …?

Release date: What if …? premieres on Disney Plus August 11, 2021.