Marvel’s What If…? universe isn’t new per se, one-shots and miniseries in this vein have been around in comics and of course the fan conversations around our favorite heroes are a mainstay. That said, Marvel Studios’ first animated series Marvel’s What If…? is a venture into the Multi-verse that stands on its own without shadow nor expectations. That is due in large part to the heart it brings to examining characters behind their iconic status. At a press junket with Executive Producer Brad Winderbaum, the series’ Director Brian Andrews, Head Writer AC Bradely, and The Watcher himself, Jeffrey Wright, we got a chance to dive into the parts of the series that will make it a must-watch.
Inspiration from Classic Anthologies
First things first, What If…? is a 10-episode anthology series with each vignette exploring a different story in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. By embracing an anthology set up to the fullest, the team behind What If..? has been able to make a series that showcases superheroes in different genres. Director Brian Andrews explained, “We all love cinema. We all love movie-we love everything in it, whether it, you know, all the genres. And this gave us an opportunity to apply a little taste of a variety of genres into the Marvel cinematic universe, you know what I mean? So, one can maybe goes a little bit darker. One gets, like, a, even funnier.”
In the first three episodes alone, there is detective noir storytelling, pure sci-fi, and of course, the re-imagining of established superhero mythos. But what really seals the deal on the classic anthology set-up is how the Watcher’s slight narration, intros and outros, work with the subject matter to bring out the Rod Sterling at the core of this. Andrews said, “It’s an anthology, and part of the aspect of it being an anthology, just like those Twilight Zones back in the day, …you never know what you’re gonna get, you know. You might get an episode that’s comedy, you might get an episode that’s kind of dramatic and serious, like, super emotional, full of action.”
Stories About Connection
While the anthology set-up and delivery of multiple genres in one superhero package will get you in the door, it’s the connections that the folks behind What If…? have focused on creating that will keep you there.
Head writer AC Bradley explained the purpose behind the series, “When it came to creating an episode, like, figuring out the story of What If…?,, the last thing we thought about was the what if. I think what we all looked for was what’s the heart behind the hero? How do we get behind the shield? What’s a part of the story we haven’t told before?” She continued, “For me, these characters are iconic. We recognize their silhouettes. We recognize their taglines. But what’s important is how we connect to them. So, it was finding new ways to connect to Peggy Carter, to Thor Odinson [PH], to Dr. Strange. And, luckily, we have The Watcher to be our guide ‘cause he, too, is looking for a connection. ‘Cause that’s really what it-drove everything, was character. And then we kind of figured out the what if”
This connection is used between characters, between symbols and the audience, and ultimately between the Watcher and us.
Jeffrey Wright offered insight into his character, “I think [The Watcher], in some ways, he’s kind of defined by [the heroes]. It’s his life’s passion to observe and connect with them, with their heroicisms, with their flaws.” He continued, “without them, he’s nothing, in some regard…These characters and what they’ve come to represent for, you know, we who watch them, we, who are like The Watcher, and in some ways, I think that the passion behind fans’ connection to these characters is this level of trust.
“This level of understanding and of hope that is imbued in them in a way that they may have not found outside of this mythology. Particularly now, in this kind of, I don’t, upturned world and, you know, where trust is difficult to, um, to-to hold on to and to place in any individual. We can always place our trust in these characters. And the deepness of that connection, I think, for fans is a powerful one, and also for The Watcher…[The heroes] are him in some ways. And he needs them in order to be,” Wright said.
The omnipotent storyteller is a trope that goes hand and hand with anthologies ever since Rod Sterling’s voice granted viewers admittance to The Twilight Zone. Wright explained, “[The Watcher”] is a fairly dramatic guy. He’s a fairly powerful guy. He’s kind of overseeing the entire MCU. He’s overseeing the multiverses, and he plays somewhat of a Rod Sterling role here. Kind of narrating, kind of not. In some ways, as maybe the biggest Marvel fan there is, watching all that transpires. “
He continued, “But at the same time, just kind of living vicariously through these characters, these stories, this mythology, and-and taking it all in. He’s got probably the highest cable bill.” And that’s how Wright has brought the character to life, leaning into more than just the wise sage and instead, embracing The Watcher watching, being entertained, and he is there to be us.
But that omnipotence is also relatable for viewers. Andrews added, “[The Watcher] is us, we are him, right? Because he’s watching all these things the same way that we are watching these Marvel movies…So, in a way, he’s the audience…And that immediately makes it, to a certain degree, relatable to him.”
And to top it all off, The Watcher’s omnipotence also has a charm. In fact when describing who The Watcher is as a character, Bradley explained what she imagined as inspiration for writing the role with, well, a meme. “When we started talking about The Watcher, early on before Jeffrey signed on, I originally was always joking that it was the Pizza Rat meme. I was like, he’s a guy watching this rat pull a slice of pizza across a New York City subway platform. He does not want to pet the rat. He is not gonna take the rat home. He is not gonna become best friends with the rat. But it is fascinating for him to watch. And that’s-I was watching-that’s The Watcher watching humanity. And our heroes.”
She continued, “And then, when Jeffrey joined and we were talking. What struck me, Jeffrey, was the way you talked about your son and watching Marvel movies with him. And I was like, ‘Oh, my God. The Watcher’s a dad.’”
A New Kind of Hero
And this connection continued beyond showcasing the hearts of heroes, and continues into swapping their places. When asked about the decision behind putting T’Challa in Starlord’s role, Bradley explained, “…We realized that T’Challa and Peter Quill are the same age, or very close to it. So, spoiler, I think, Yondu tooks the-takes the wrong kid, who-other nine-year-olds are running around the MCU, around about the same time. And it was like, if he gets a little bit lost, the end up in Wakanda….And then, the question became, again, tryin’ to find the other side of the hero is the whole point of the show.”
But while the connection between them seems age deep, Bradley went a step further to explain the impact T’Challa would have as a character in Starlord’s place, “T’Challa is an interesting character because he’s not a character that arcs himself, he’s a character that changes the world around him. And he doesn’t go through a transformation, he transforms the world. So, then, taking a step back would be, well, how would T’Challa transform outer space? And that’s how you get that episode.”
As a series, What If…? allows the creatives to not only explore connections and the identities of heroes, but to explore a world impacted by them. In T’challa’s case, we see how he transforms the world, and also how this allowed the actor behind the character, the late-Chadwick Boseman to embrace a different kind of hero.
Andrews offered this anecdote, “[Chadwick] was excited to play this particular version of T’Challa [because] it was different. Because it was a version of him being able to play the king, but the king without the mantle, you know, of-the-the without the-the mantle of royalty and all the other things that go with it. Completely different spin, you know, he could lighten it up, he could get a little bit more jokey with it and stuff. He was excited to bring that-that flavor to T’Challa and-and give it to the audience, you know, so we can see a slightly different version of T’Challa.”
What If…? premieres on Disney+ August 11th and these 10 weekly episodes are just the beginning. Executive Producer Brad Winderbaum explained, “…It’s no coincidence that this show picks up right after Loki. You know, the, you know, spoiler alert, but the multiverse has now erupted in every possible direction. And What If…? gives us a chance to explore that. I think you can tell that in this next saga, the multiverse is gonna be crucial.” And with a second season order already on the way, there are only more stories to tell.
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Kate is co-founder, EIC, and CCO of BWT. She’s also a Certified Rotten Tomatoes Critic, host, and creator of our flagship podcast, But Why Tho? and Did You Have To?. She also manages all PR relationships for comics, manga, film, TV, and anime. She has an MA in Cultural Anthropology and Religious Studies focusing on how pop culture impacts society.