HEAT VISION

How 'What If?' Could Become Marvel's 'Twilight Zone'

The alternate reality animated series has years of stories it could explore on Disney+.
Hayley Atwell will play Peggy Carter in an episode of Marvel's 'What If?'   |   Paramount Pictures/Photofest
The alternate reality animated series has years of stories it could explore on Disney+.

Marvel Studios will incorporate animation into its cinematic universe for the first time, starting with What If…? One of five Disney+ streaming series Marvel Studios touted at San Diego Comic-Con, What If…? is inspired by the fan-favorite comic of the same name and will take a look at how some of the MCU’s events and characters could have turned out differently. Like the comic, The Watcher, voiced by Jeffrey Wright, will lead us through these alternate realities, featuring familiar faces and the voice talents of the actors who played them onscreen. The series will not affect the canon of the films, but the proper introduction of the multiverse in the upcoming Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, and the fact that this series was included in Phase 4, suggest its place within the larger MCU.

Hayley Atwell will reprise her role as Peggy Carter in an episode imagining that she received the super soldier serum rather than Steve Rogers (Chris Evans). Over the years, a number of What If? issues like, What If the Hulk Had Always Had Bruce Banner’s Brain? (1977), and What If Jane Foster Had Found -- the Hammer of Thor? (1978), have provided the inspiration for canon stories, and the films that followed. While the MCU itself will provide the primary inspiration for the series, there’s a library of What If? comics that be great to be adapted and tailored to fit into the larger multiverse.  

What If The Avengers Had Never Been?

What If? No. 3 (1977), by Jim Shooter and Gil Kane, saw the early Avengers disband after the Hulk leaves the team. Thor went back to Asgard, and Ant-Man and the Wasp settled on being civilians. Only Tony Stark refuses to let go of the notion of superheroism. When the Hulk teams with Namor and turns against the world, Stark builds new suits of armor for himself, Rick Jones, Ant-Man and the Wasp. During their battle with the Hulk, Ant-Man is critically engineered, and Tony uses the energy of his arc reactor to give Ant-Man the boost he needs to defeat Banner but dies in the process. Although the MCU’s original lineup of Avengers is different, it would be interesting to see what would have happened had these heroes never been able to come together after the Helicarrier attack seen in The Avengers (2012) — whether this would mean Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), pre-Hulkbuster armor, having to face down an out-of-control Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), or Thanos (Josh Brolin) achieving his goal much earlier and without resistance. A world without the Avengers is certain to be a downer.

What If Captain America and Bucky Had Both Survived WWII?

The death of Bucky Barnes, and Captain America getting frozen in ice at the end of World War II, helped define these characters. But What If? No. 5 (1977), by Don Glut, Roy Thomas and George Tuska, supposes that the heroes had returned from the war safely. As Captain America and Buck, the two fight Communism in the '60s until President Johnson offers Steve Rogers the position of Director of SHIELD. Within this continuity, Nick Fury died in the Korean War. Rogers accepts and Buck becomes the new Captain America, and Rick Jones the new Bucky. But when Zemo returns, Steve Rogers sends Buck into battle where he and Zemo are killed. An aging Steve honors Buck’s sacrifice while Rick Jones considers picking up the mantle and becoming the figure that the world will always need.

It’s fascinating to think of an alternate MCU reality in which Evans' Steve Rogers leads SHIELD alongside Atwell's Peggy Carter, perhaps driving HYDRA out early on, and Bucky (Sebastian Stan) never becomes the Winter Soldier. While BuckyCap could come into play in The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, it would be interesting to see the kind of Captain America that Barnes would have become without all the baggage of the Winter Soldier. And it could be that Rogers finds himself morally compromised when forced to make some of the tough decisions Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) had to make. Of all the What If? stories, this might have their clearest concept for adaptation.

What If Dr. Strange Had Never Become Master of the Mystic Arts?

What If? No 40 (1983), by Peter Gillis and Jackson Guice, still saw Stephen Strange seeking out the Ancient One in order to fix his ruined hands. But before completing his training, he finds peace with himself and decides to teach medicine. Baron Mordo takes Strange’s place and becomes a Master of the Mystic Arts, defending the world from magical threats. But Strange’s peaceful life is interrupted by nightmares that threaten to send his life off course. He contacts Mordo to help him, but it turns out Mordo has made a deal with Nightmare. Strange uses his raw magical talent to defeat Mordo, but an ensuing battle against Nightmare and Dormammu over the Eye of Agamotto requires all of Strange’s lifeforce and skill, and he dies saving the world and earning his role as Sorcerer Supreme.

An MCU version of this could play out in very much the same way. Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) never completes his training and decides to settle down with Dr. Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams), while Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) misuses his talents and kills the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), forcing Strange to come back to magic. Ultimately, Strange cannot escape his destiny, but an attempt to do so would result in his untimely death — a recurring theme within these What If? stories.

What If the Vision Had Conquered the World?

Vision is one the most honorable Avengers, but what if his concern for humanity was taken too far? In What If? Vol. 2 No 19 (1990), by Roy Thomas, R.J.M. Lofficier and Ron Wilson, Vision figures out how to solve all the world’s problems by dismantling nuclear weapons, keeping the poor fed, and giving underdeveloped countries the skills they needed to stand on even footing with the rest of the world. He even solves the education problem by teaching the masses himself through his mainframe. The result is a utopia that lasts centuries, long after the deaths of all Avengers save Thor. But the mutant country of Genosha becomes unhappy with Vision overseeing their territory and destroys Vision’s mainframe, resulting in absolute chaos. In order to regain control, Vision builds robot armies, each overseen by a supervillain who help maintain the Vision’s fascist hold over the world for their own gain. When the Kree and Skrulls attempt to invade Earth, Vision defeats them each by turning himself into a virus and defeating the Supreme Intelligence, and getting the Skrulls hooked on drugs.

The MCU’s multiverse could adapt a version of this story by way of Age of Ultron (2015). With the Avengers already unsure of what a new android means in the face of Ultron (James Spader), Vision (Paul Bettany) can still prove himself worthy, but also go a step further and decide he knows what’s best for the ever fallible humanity. In this scenario, Thanos never becomes a real threat because Vision is the dominant threat in the universe, all for the sake of creating peace on Earth.

What If…Civil War?

While Civil War in the MCU was drastically different from the comic, the scenario provides plenty of fertile ground for a What If? scenario. In What If? Civil War No. 1 (2008), by Ed Brubaker and Marko Djurdjevic, Tony Stark mourns the death of Captain America while The Watcher reveals how things could’ve gone differently. In the first scenario, Stark dies before the conflict begins and Captain America leads all of the heroes against the Registration Act. But without Stark, the government comes down harder on the heroes, resulting in many of their deaths. In the second scenario, Stark expresses his doubts about the Registration Act to Captain America and the two discuss it. Instead of fighting, they come up with a plan they both agree on that ensures the safety of the public and the superhero community.

There’s a multitude of possibilities I could see surrounding the MCU Civil War, and perhaps it will constitute for multiple episodes ranging from “What If War Machine or Black Panther Switched Sides?” or “What If Captain America Killed Tony Stark?” But the most interesting route may be “What If Civil War Never Happened?” While most of the Avengers made it out of Endgame, an earlier reconciliation between Tony and Steve could have seen a united force stop Thanos before the decimation, and perhaps prevent deaths, like Gamora’s (Zoe Saldana) and Natasha’s (Scarlett Johansson).

Disney+’s What If…? series is one of the more exciting projects to be announced for the streaming service, and its format presents a new creative playing field for the MCU. Hopefully What If…? lives up to the long legacy of imaginative stories from the comics, essentially becoming the MCU’s own version of The Twilight Zone, and able to venture across multiple tones.

  • Richard Newby
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