Marvel’s What If…? Sets the Stage For A New Era Of Comic Book Movie Storytelling
Legend has it that DC Comics folks wanted Christopher Reeve’s Superman and Michael Keaton’s Batman to meet in a movie. However, this crossover was eventually dismissed because executives didn’t think that audiences would understand the movie, especially since it required them to have seen both the Batman and Superman film series. Fast-forward to 2021, and we’re at a point in comic book storytelling’s mainstream acceptance where we’re reaching the deconstructionist stage. From stories like Watchmen to The Boys to Invincible, we’re getting adaptations of the “what if superheroes were not good, really?” stories. Marvel’s What If…? is similar, but rather than deconstructing the superhero story, it’s showing just how versatile they are.
First, some housekeeping. We’re going to have reviews for each episode on the day they’re released. These reviews will have spoiler-free introductions, and then dive into the episode in subsequent sections. This review, of the first three episodes, contains precisely zero spoilers and is more of a guide into the concept of alternate reality comic book storytelling. Marvel Studios expects their audience, to include mainstream moviegoers, to not only follow the in-film continuity but the idea that there are infinite alternate realities where the same stories play out much differently.
Thanks to the marketing for Marvel’s What If…?, we know that there will be some in-series continuity as well. Yet, the true beauty of this series is that it can give even more continuity to the canon-obsessed or simply be enjoyable one-off 30-minute MCU adventures. At the very least, as the final Marvel appearance by the late Chadwick Boseman, the What If…? series is a gift for that alone. However, this series does not disappoint. In fact, it shows that Marvel dominance may continue for a long time, because their stories are very remixable.
How Marvel’s What If…? Came to Be
Image via Marvel Studios
The seed for this show was planted in the Marvel Bullpen back in 1975. Former Editor-in-Chief of Marvel Roy Thomas dreamed up the series for a little freedom. There have since been many volumes of What If? comic books, including some stories and characters that made their way into mainstream Marvel continuity. (Thus, the possibility for a variant MCU figure to debut in this show and return in a film is very high.) Yet, what these stories gives fans are very high stakes and, incongruently, no real tension about their favorite characters. It’s also a place where Marvel storytellers can have fun.
As Thomas told SyFy.com:
“I came up with another way to handle major characters and yet not have to coordinate my stories with those of others, which I wasn’t particularly in the mood to do just then…. With What If?, I would have a different cast, even a different artist virtually every issue, and regular Marvel continuity wouldn’t be affected…. I included the idea that the Watcher would be the narrator because that would create a connection with the ongoing Marvel Universe.”
What Thomas created was something very strange. He could tell a story about Spider-Man, and it didn’t “count” as “real,” in terms of what was going in the Spider-Man books at the time. However, when something terrible would happen to him, it would still feel as shocking and worrisome as it would have in a regular comic.
Is The Show a Part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe?
Image via Marvel Studios
Insofar as everything produced by Marvel Studios has been a part of the MCU, this series is no different. It includes actors reprising their roles, sometimes exactly, from the films. And thanks to the events of the season 1 finale of Loki, we know that the Marvel multiverse is alive and well. So, while these stories don’t place in the once-sacred timeline, they are a part of the MCU, or perhaps more accurately, the Marvel Cinematic Multiverse. What makes this exciting is that, like the comics that inspired it, we can get spinoffs or crossovers into the live-action side of things. Just as in the comics, Marvel’s What If…? is a testing ground and incubator for excellent future ideas.
Not only that, this may already be in the works. We know that Marvel’s Zombies universe is going to show up in What If…? Perhaps, during Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness, which began life as a “horror” film, will find the good Doctor landing there for a sequence in the film! Perhaps an avenue to get original Avengers actors like Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, or Robert Downey Jr. back in their suits would be to introduce a variant version of them in some future film? The point is, while the possibilities were pretty limitless before, they are even more so now.
Yet, the episodes I’ve screened already have shown that they are just as much a standalone experience. We see different versions of familiar stories from the movies that need no follow up, no matter how enriching future stories might be. If you only like Captain America: The First Avenger and couldn’t care less about the rest of the MCU, there is a What If…? episode for you.
What If…? debuts August 11, 2021 with new episodes to follow every Wednesday on Disney+.
What do you think about Marvel’s What If…? Do you like alternate reality stories or do you think this is too much looking backwards for Phase 4? Share your thoughts, theories, reviews, and what stories you hope to see in the comments below.
Joshua M. Patton is a father, veteran, and writer living in Pittsburgh, PA. The first books he read on his own were comics, and he's loved the medium ever since. He is the greatest star-pilot in the galaxy, a cunning warrior, and a good friend. His book "What I Learned: Stories, Essays, and More" is available in print from Amazon and from all electronic booksellers.