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Marvel’s ‘What If’: a refreshing take on Marvel stories

The newest addition to the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) takes the characters we know from the films outside of the MCU and into the Marvel cinematic multiverse. Each episode of this series takes place in a different universe, where one alternate event leads to an entirely different outcome for that universe. The series also offers some great references to the Marvel comics. As someone who has been recently suffering from Marvel fatigue, a condition derived from being overloaded with mainstream Marvel material, I found the “What If” series a refreshing breather from the main MCU continuity.

I read a few of the old “What If” comics, the series the TV show is based on. These stories were told from the perspective of the Watcher, a godlike being sworn to watch the events of the universe, but never intervene. Each issue of the comic proposed a question that began with “what if…” For example, there were issues like “What if Spider-Man joined the Fantastic Four?” or “What if the invisible girl of the Fantastic Four married the Sub-Mariner?” These what-if scenarios were usually things that would drastically change certain characters and therefore were stories that could not be told in the main continuity. But the fact that these characters were not canonical means that the writers had free reign to take these stories in new and exciting directions and ask increasingly amazing what if scenarios.

The MCU’s take on “What If’’ shares a lot with its comic book counterpart. The series is narrated by the Watcher, who in the MCU watches over the multiverse. Like in the comic, the watcher is sworn not to interfere as he views the often tragic events of the many universes he views. Each episode takes place in the MCU, but always with a slight change. The first episode follows the plot of “Captain America: The First Avenger,” but instead of skinny Steve Rogers undergoing the process that would make him Captain America, his love interest Peggy Carter becomes the Super Soldier. This first episode is a perfect example of how a “What If” scenario should be applied in the MCU. For the most part, the episode follows the events of the film it is based on. However, it doesn’t simply repeat the beats of the film; the show actually takes into account what huge changes would happen to the timeline if Steve Rogers wasn’t Captain America. In a clever reversal of their usual dynamic, the episode ends with Carter in the future and missing her dance with Steve instead of the other way around. This episode takes characters and stories we already know and adds new elements that make it familiar but refreshingly different.
Some episodes, on the other hand, take a different approach. For example, the episode “What if Zombies” goes very off book by having Bruce Banner return to earth as he did in “Avengers: Infinity War,” only to find out that most of earth has succumbed to a zombie outbreak. The episode is clearly a reference to “Marvel Zombies,” a comic book series with a similar undead premise. In the episode, the zombie infection begins during the events of “Antman and the Wasp,” when Hank Pym goes to the quantum realm to find his wife Janet. She has been infected by a quantum virus and infects Hank. As the contagion spreads it quickly infects the Avengers and turns earth’s mightiest heroes into earth’s mightiest monsters. The result is the few remaining heroes having to race to find a cure. This is a storyline that could have worked in the mainstream MCU and shows how the “What If” series can encourage unique and captivating stories within the MCU but without the limitations of being a part of a greater narrative. In a sense, we don’t have to worry about how this story will affect the greater MCU, we can just sit back and watch the Hulk fight zombies.

The absolute highlights of this series are the final two episodes. The first shows us a universe where Ultron defeated the Avengers and then gained the infinity stones. As a result the newly god-like Ultron is able to shatter the boundaries of the multiverse and threaten the very Watcher who is telling the story. This leads to the final episode where the Watcher must break his vow to not interfere. As a comic book fan I found this moment amazing. The idea that the Watcher would break his vow is simply astounding. However, I was a trifle disappointed that when the Watcher, who is a cosmic entity, fought Ultron, it resulted in a visually spectacular fight, but ultimately came down to punching each other really hard. The final episode more than makes up for the first fight, when the Watcher gathers characters from each of the previous episodes in order to fight Ultron. This was a clever way to connect all the episodes together in a manner that made sense thematically; however, like many parts of the MCU, I would not recommend thinking about the show’s internal logic too much and just enjoy it for what it is. 

Marvel’s “What If’’ tells new stories with characters we know and love. The very nature of the show encourages unique and innovative stories that turn the worlds we know upside down. The show more than lives up to its premise and pays proper homage to its source material through its alternate takes on what might have happened in the MCU. After “Avengers: Endgame,” I was stuffed with Marvel content, but this series served as a nice palate cleanser that reinvigorated my love for the Marvel Cinematic Universe or, I guess, now the Marvel Cinematic Multiverse.


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