The whole selling point of the Marvel Cinematic Universe is its interconnectedness. Over 13 years and dozens of projects, the franchise has successfully preserved the sprawling, immersive feel of reading comics, while adding the scale and star power of modern movies. Just as heroes like the Hulk and Thor could meet up for a crossover issue, they could do the same for a blockbuster like Thor: Ragnarok. Weaving plots together also set up climactic films like Avengers: Endgame, which could draw on not just a couple of prequels, but an entire constellation of stories, each with their own setup and exposition.
This very strength can also be a liability. Consider the recent finale of Loki, the Disney+ show that follows a version of the trickster god into a brain-bending tangle of timelines overseen by the Time Variance Authority. Loki told its own affecting story about finding redemption through love, but for its finale, the show abruptly pivoted to laying out the stakes of the next set of MCU movies. A Jonathan Majors monologue makes for a handsome delivery device, but ultimately, the episode was just that: a vehicle for information about the Marvel multiverse, its history, and the backstory of new villain Kang the Conqueror. Loki’s Glorious Purpose supplanted its status as a stand-alone adventure. The series is an especially obvious example, but its approach is practically endemic to the MCU, which constantly works to strike a balance between the whole and its parts. Captain Marvel is a piece of ’90s nostalgia that also exists to set up the title character as a deus ex machina in the Avengers films; WandaVision explores grief while introducing the Scarlet Witch in time for Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness.
Creative shortcomings aside, this tension hasn’t kept the MCU from keeping its uncontested place at the center of popular culture. But even if audiences themselves haven’t shown signs of fatigue, there are now some to be found in the most unlikely of places: within the MCU itself. The animated anthology What If…?, now two episodes into its nine-part first season on Disney+, is the structural opposite of its umbrella brand. Every episode sketches out some alternate-universe hypothetical, all outlined and explored in the space of half an hour. It’s the rare MCU exercise that shrinks its scope and lowers its stakes—a counterpoint to Marvel’s mission creep that also underscores the status quo.
Sandwiched between the conclusion of Loki, which further established the multiverse, and Hawkeye, which will follow up Black Widow’s introduction of Florence Pugh as the assassin Yelena, What If…? is deliberately closed off. The first three episodes each have a counterfactual at their core: if Peggy Carter became a super soldier instead of Steve Rogers, if T’Challa became Star-Lord instead of Peter Quill, if the Avengers fell victim to a murderous conspiracy before they could ever come together. These story lines don’t even overlap with each other. Instead, a celestial narrator, known only as The Watcher (voiced by Jeffrey Wright), introduces every episode—and even makes the occasional cameo as a looming, spectral presence.
As with other episodic anthologies like High Maintenance and Black Mirror, What If…? varies in quality from week to week. It’s a subjective measure that also depends on your specific interest in the subject at hand. The Avengers episode, for example, is a compelling murder mystery and a nice break from the other episodes’ basic role-swapping. But, personally, I’m far more intrigued by Peggy Carter taking up the vibranium shield in a series where female heroes remain in the minority—even if it only drives home that Peggy-as-Cap is the departure, and Steve the norm. The T’Challa space romp features a posthumous voice performance by Chadwick Boseman, to whom the episode is dedicated, meaning it’ll likely attract the most attention.
What If…? is, of course, not entirely independent from the rest of the MCU. Our very understanding of the plots as alternate scenarios depends on presumed knowledge of the canonical versions. The Star-Lord episode includes an epilogue that directly alludes to Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 with a brief appearance by Kurt Russell’s Ego the Living Planet; the Avengers whodunnit incorporates characters from Ant-Man. Even if the series is relatively stand-alone, there’s an emphasis on “relatively.” What If…? may not have the butterfly effect on the MCU its predecessors have, but it’s still very much a part of it.
Despite this, the show’s ability to influence Marvel’s approach going forward seems as limited as its thought experiments. What If…? may be a noted departure, one significant enough that it feels like an implicit comment on the MCU’s narrative context. But it doesn’t feel like a signal of what’s to come. In its bigger-budget, higher-profile efforts, the MCU is in the midst of rolling out its pandemic-delayed Phase 4, marked by the proper introduction of the multiverse and new-to-the-screen heroes like Shang-Chi and the Eternals. Producer Kevin Feige isn’t shrinking his fiefdom anytime soon, nor is he breaking it up into more manageable parts. He’s continuing its forward march—an expansion that What If…?, with its anomalous format and visual style, also plays into, even as it embraces the finite.
At times, What If…? can even make its own case for continuity, if not intentionally. As onerous as the MCU’s sheer size can be, it also provides real estate for longer-term stories. (It’s not a freedom the films always take advantage of, forcing WandaVision to essentially retcon an entire relationship, but it’s still there.) It’s an opportunity you’ll sometimes wish What If…? also had. In its way, it’s just another form of the speculation that gives the show its name: What if the murder mystery has more time to build tension and drop clues? What if Peggy Carter got more than one episode to be the hero of her own, non-network TV story? What if T’Challa and Thanos is really the buddy-cop comedy the universe needs? These stories probably don’t need to be drawn out over several movies; it’s equally probable they could last for more than just one episode.
Anthologies, too, have their limitations, a truth that only adds to the growing sense that it’s increasingly hard to match a story to its ideal form. For all that What If…? gains in the liberty to do what it wants without disrupting the MCU’s all-important continuity, it also loses the chance to give itself much heft. (Though the minimal commitment does allow for an all-star voice cast.) Such is the trade-off, in the MCU as anywhere else: You can get weird, as long as you don’t disrupt the main event.