Marvel Revs Up New Chapter in Animation With ‘What If…?’

Brad Winderbaum, the newly promoted head of streaming, television and animation, talks the potential of live-action crossover: "It was a completely different muscle we were flexing."

Brad Winderbaum spent much of 2007 sitting in a hot trailer in Playa Vista, California, listening to Kevin Feige, Jon Favreau and Robert Downey Jr. hash out the story for Iron Man. Winderbaum, then an assistant to Marvel exec Louis D’Esposito, often heard the team posing a fundamental question of storytelling: “What if … this happened?” Now Winderbaum, recently promoted to head of streaming, television and animation at Marvel Studios, is about to ask that question again with What If …? (debuting Aug. 11), the studio’s first foray into animation on Disney+.

While animated series of Marvel comics have been made since the 1960s, this is the first animated show under the purview of Marvel Studios boss Feige, who gained oversight in late 2019 with a promotion that saw him take the TV reins from former television boss Jeph Loeb. In the wake of Feige’s promotion, Marvel shelved half of its slate of four planned animated series for Hulu (MODOK, starring Patton Oswalt, and the upcoming Hit Monkey, lived on).

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Like many things Marvel, What If …? in some ways aims bigger than other animated franchise extensions. The show borrows its name from the classic comics which takes famous Marvel storylines turns them on their heads. It poses questions such as, what if Guardians of the Galaxy leader Star-Lord were Black Panther protagonist T’Challa?

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The series has enlisted such big-name voice talent as Samuel L. Jackson, Jeremy Renner and the late Chadwick Boseman and already has a second season in the works. Winderbaum estimates about 85 percent of the voice actors are those who played the parts in live-action projects. (Scarlett Johansson, who recently sued Disney over Black Widow box office profits, Downey and Captain America actor Chris Evans are among those who were recast.)

“We prioritized performance over sound-alikes,” says Winderbaum. “We were trying to find people who could deliver some real depth to the voice acting beyond just sounding like an emulation.”

Animation proved to have a learning curve for the company and Winderbaum. Marvel’s live-action projects are surprisingly nimble, with screenwriters on set tweaking dialogue on the fly. “Animation requires so much more forethought. You have to lock a lot of things in place early on,” says Winderbaum. “It was a completely different muscle we were flexing.” Marvel now joins a growing stable of franchises using animation to extend installments in between live-action outings, such as Fast & Furious Spy Racers and Jurassic World: Camp Cretaceous for Netflix and Star Trek: Prodigy for Paramount+.

Creatives and executives also see these series as a way to bolster streaming services or to extend their brands to younger audiences. “We are doing something that will allow kids who may not quite be ready for Jurassic Park, which is a scary movie, to be able to get their dinosaur fix,” says Jurassic World filmmaker Colin Trevorrow, who executive produces Camp Cretaceous.

Comic book writer-artist Todd McFarlane spent years getting a Spawn movie (1997) off the ground but found his ’90s-era HBO animated series launched a longer-term relationship with fans. “The movie came out, had its run for two or three weeks and then the question is, ‘Now what?’” recalls McFarlane. “For the next three years, they were able to get their fix with animation.”

But unlike Universal’s Jurassic World or Fast, which could go years in between installments, Marvel has become a year-round provider of shows and movies. The studio is such a well-oiled machine that animation is in some ways more of a challenge than the live-action outings, which now boast about four films and five television shows a year. “It takes a long time to produce animation. Every single frame needs to be rendered at a certain quality,” says Winderbaum. “When you shoot something, you are capturing so much animation so much faster in live-action.”

Marvel is betting animated shows like What If …? might provide entry points for fans who weren’t born when Iron Man came out or entice audiences who might not have seen Captain America: The First Avenger (2011) and are encouraged to view it after seeing the premiere episode, which imagines Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) as the Captain America-esque figure Captain Carter.

For now, What If …? is focusing on characters who have already appeared in live-action. But animation history has noteworthy examples of popular characters who appeared in animation first before making it big in live-action. Harley Quinn debuted in the 1990s Batman animated series decades before debuting in Suicide Squad, while Ahsoka Tano, the fan-favorite Jedi, appeared in animation in 2008 before Rosario Dawson made the jump to live action in The Mandalorian season two. Now, Dawson is leading a live-action Ahsoka spinoff for Disney+, with sources saying Lucasfilm is looking for an actress to star opposite Dawson as Mandalorian warrior Sabine Wren.

But perhaps the closest analogue to What If …? is the ’60s Star Trek: The Animated Series, which featured the voices of the live-action cast. “It wasn’t canon and then it sort of became canon because so many things were done in that show that became part of the universe,” notes Michael Niederman, television professor at Columbia College Chicago.

Although more shows haven’t yet been made public, Marvel is ramping up its animation efforts for Disney+ as well. Winderbaum confirms there are opportunities for live-action and the animated series to cross over. “All Marvel Studios projects are in some way connected,” he says. “There’s always the potential.”

A version of this story appeared in the Aug. 11 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.

A previous version did not mention that the Hulu series Hit-Monkey is still moving forward.