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With Marvel’s ‘What If…?,’ Comic Book Storytelling Has Come to Television

The MCU has long employed methods from the work of legends like Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, but the upcoming animated series that imagines alternate superhero story lines is its biggest swing yet

Marvel Studios/Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Ever since the Marvel Cinematic Universe took off with the 2008 release of Iron Man, much of Marvel Studios’ success has been indebted to the comic books that came before it. Beyond bringing to life so many of the characters that Marvel legends like Stan Lee, Steve Ditko, and Jack Kirby created years ago, the MCU crafted its blueprint on some of the most foundational elements of the business model of comics. Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige and Co. certainly did not invent the concept of a franchise crossover, but their unwavering commitment to establishing an interconnected universe over a decade of films made their crowning blockbuster achievement an inevitable outcome. And as Marvel Studios continues its nascent transition into the television industry, it dives deeper and deeper into the ink-splashed territory of comic books—in both style and substance. With the upcoming release of the animated anthology series What If…?, the MCU is leaning further into its comic book storytelling than ever before.

Comics can be defined in any number of ways, but the medium ultimately boils down to the unique blend of prose and visual art that taps into a reader’s imagination in ways that novels or movies can’t do as seamlessly, quickly, or—in the case of the latter—as inexpensively. As we’ve all come to learn during the explosion of crime-fighting content in the 21st century, the superhero genre in particular tears down the limitations of human potential, transforming often unsuspecting and otherwise unspectacular protagonists into uncanny beings of incredible power. Under absurd pretenses like being bitten by a radioactive spider, these stories often transport their heroes to distant worlds, alternate dimensions, or various eras across history.

Superhero stories, as well as the collective narrative they’ve told across generations, have grown and evolved as new writers and artists have brought in their own ideas and perspectives to build upon the work of their predecessors. Changes can be as small as a costume adjustment, or as significant as an entire update to a character’s backstory. And while at its worst retconning can result in a confusing puddle of colliding details, it has both become part of the fabric of comic book storytelling and one of its greatest strengths. The “anything can be tweaked” ethos of comic books has allowed creators to revise elements that simply didn’t work in the first place, revive fan favorites from the dead to tell new tales to a new generation of readers, and ultimately provide the chance to experiment without the fear of costing a Hollywood studio millions of dollars at the box office.

The MCU has applied much of comics’ methods to its films over the past decade-plus, and thrived off its episodic storytelling format well before it actually started releasing its narratives in weekly installments. Even as the credits for each of its films began to roll, there was always a mutual understanding between Marvel’s creatives and the viewing audience that the story was never truly over, as every stinger since Nick Fury’s first mention of the Avengers has had fans ravenous for more content. At times, being part of a greater narrative that fits neatly into the Sacred Timeline of the MCU has been detrimental to its individual stories, as films like Avengers: Age of Ultron have struggled to carry their own plots as they take on the task of introducing new characters and conflicts to be developed later on. But even the greatest missteps can find some semblance of redemption when every story contributes to a larger history; six years after the release of Ultron, WandaVision took one of the film’s minor characters and turned her into the star of one of Marvel’s most critically acclaimed projects to date. Without the relationships that Wanda Maximoff formed and lost in Ultron, the grief she carried throughout her own series wouldn’t have been nearly as resonant.

The upcoming series What If…?, which premieres on Disney+ on Wednesday, builds upon the MCU’s history like no film or TV show ever before. Director Bryan Andrews and head writer A.C. Bradley are taking some of the biggest events that have occurred in over 50 hours of screen time, reimagining how they occurred, and letting the stories take on new lives of their own across nine self-contained serials. One episode swaps out Captain America for Captain Carter, transforming Peggy into the beefed-up First Avenger while giving (a likely deathly skinny) Steve Rogers an original Iron Man-like suit years before Howard Stark even had a son. The show borrows its premise—as well as its narrator, Uatu the Watcher—from its namesake comic book anthology series that began in the late ‘70s, and which centered its first issue on the question: “What if Spider-Man had joined the Fantastic Four?”

Marvel Comics

What If…? started off as an experiment that allowed Marvel to rewrite its comic book history without any consequences to its canonical storytelling, providing a chance for its creators to take iconic characters and run wild with them. After releasing more than two dozen films and TV shows, the MCU now has more than enough of its own established lore that it can employ the same approach to its own history. And thanks to the events of Loki, the upcoming series isn’t even just a simple thought experiment, or an indication that Feige and Co. are running out of fresh ideas.

Beyond capping off a delightful first season in its own right, the Loki finale paved the road for future movies and TV shows to walk down. Head writer Michael Waldron catapulted his series deep into the realm of comics, introducing terms like “Nexus event” into the lexicon of the MCU and establishing the concept of “variant” beings existing in parallel universes, all while featuring a protagonist who had already died in the main canon. When Sylvie drove a sword firmly into the chest of He Who Remains, she shattered the so-called Sacred Timeline, causing a countless number of realities to branch off of their normal paths and begin colliding into each other. While the bureaucratic Time Variance Authority once ensured that every story across the multiverse would develop in one specific way, alternate events like a young T’Challa getting abducted by Ravager aliens instead of Peter Quill are now fair game, repositioning our heroes onto entirely new journeys.

When What If…? arrives on Wednesday, it will also mark Marvel Studios’ first attempt at an animated series. While this may reflect a larger cultural shift toward animated storytelling that’s been booming since the start of the pandemic, it’s also just the logical progression for the studio after more than a decade of live-action movies. Even with an unprecedented track record of retaining stars on multi-film contracts that span years, it would be implausible to try to bring back the likes of Chris Hemsworth, Michael B. Jordan, and Natalie Portman for 30-minute live-action episodes just to simply remix the greatest hits. By turning to animation, What If…? can dream as big as its artists and director desire and explore an untapped medium, all while returning the vast majority of its movie stars—including the late Chadwick Boseman in his final turn as T’Challa—for its voice cast without running into a bloated budget or logistical nightmare.

Over 13 years after Tony Stark introduced himself to the world, the MCU is still constantly searching for new ways to maintain its level of success. But by drawing on its own comic book origins, Marvel is showing that sometimes the smartest way to move forward is by taking a lesson or two from the past.