What If Lets Go of Marvel’s Cinematic Canon to Imagine Something More

What If Lets Go of Marvel’s Cinematic Canon to Imagine Something More
Screenshot: Disney+/Marvel

Though all of Marvel’s newer live-action shows were presented as stories that viewers could (in theory) watch without being deeply familiar with every detail from the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the studio’s comic book adaptations have become increasingly harder to just jump into in the buildup to Phase 4. The Disney+ animated What If — Marvel’s latest series and its first animated MCU project — understands this well.

What If — an anthology of tales set in the infinite alternate timelines of the MCU’s new multiverse — is arguably the most “out there” of Marvel’s Phase 4 offerings. That’s a result of its high conceptuality and a sheer number of “wow” moments which are better thought of as important narrative details than mere Easter Eggs. While the significance of What If’s metanarrative is certainly clearer the more familiar you are with the rest of the MCU, each of the episodes are crafted in such a way that an encyclopedic understanding of the canon isn’t really all that necessary.

What If understands that by this point, you probably know who the Avengers and their foes all are in a general sense — just enough to make the Watcher’s (Jeffrey Wright) guided tour through the multiverse all you need to dive in.

Screenshot: Disney+/Marvel Screenshot: Disney+/Marvel

What If eases you into the multiverse with a number of episodes that cleave close enough to the beats of movies like Captain America: The First Avenger and Guardians of the Galaxy to feel comfortably familiar, but not so much so that it feels as if head writer AC Bradley simply swapped characters around. Tonally and thematically different as each episode is, what becomes clear as you watch them is how What If puts the bulk of its energy into altering the contexts that its characters exist within rather than the characters themselves.

What If’s Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell), T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), and Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) all look, sound, and act like their live-action counterparts because the series leans into the idea of them being mythic concepts who, time and time again, find their lives intersecting in different ways. In terms of cameos and the number of actors who reprise their big-screen roles, What If has the rest of the Disney+ shows beat by a mile and then some.

It’s all made the more interesting by the fact that the tales are part of the MCU’s ever-growing canon. For figures who’ve been taken off the map by recent events — like T’Challa and Black WidowWhat If’s plays like another chance to see them in their prime. But for others, like Captain Carter and Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), it comes across as an earnest question about what the future holds for those characters (or at least their variants) in the grander scheme of the MCU.

The animated series’ examination of certain fine details — what Loki’s TVA would consider Nexus Events — shows you just how much there is to the multiverse now that it’s in play. But the multiverse is really only the backdrop to What If’s character-focused stories, all of which spotlight its stars with a grandeur that would be difficult to pull off outside of animation.

Because each episode tells complete stories that clock in around 40 minutes or so, the plots move with a swiftness that’s punctuated by splashy, action-heavy set pieces that would feel at home in a comic book. However, in terms of What If’s overall quality of storytelling, your mileage may vary depending on your feelings about the characters and places being spotlighted in each episode.

Screenshot: Disney+/Marvel Screenshot: Disney+/Marvel

Because many of What If’s characters feel more like slight deviations from their MCU counterparts, it’s the episodes that spend more time in generally unexplored areas of the multiverse that shine the brightest.

The questions raised by What If’s first couple of episodes aren’t exactly “What if Peggy became Captain America” or “What if T’Challa became Star-Lord,” but rather “What kind of heroes might these people become if destiny pulled them to the front lines of war on Earth, and in space?” Other episodes, like those about alternate versions of the MCU’s original core Avengers, fare slightly less better if only because we’ve already seen so much of them that their appearances here feel a bit like throwbacks.

Though it feels inevitable that What If will eventually play into the live-action space in a direct way, what’s exciting about the show is how Marvel seems keen on keeping it around for at least one more season. Regardless of what goes down with Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, What If exists in a space of pure possibility where basically anything could be on the table and explored from a variety of angles.

There doesn’t seem to be any one “right” way to watch What If, which might make it one of the easiest of Disney+’s Marvel shows for newcomers to try out, but it also makes it the sort of endeavour one can easily imagine Marvel plans to keep going well beyond the near future.

What If hits Disney+ on August 11.