|Producing||Kevin Feige, Bryan Andrews, A.C. Bradley, Victoria Alonso, Louis D'Esposito, Brad Winderbaum|
|Writing||A.C. Bradley, Matthew Chauncey, based on characters created by Stan Lee, Jack Kirdy, Steve Englehart, Steve Gan, Steve Gerber, Val Mayerik, Joe Simon, and Jim Starlin|
|Starring||Jeffrey Wright, Chadwick Boseman, Samuel L. Jackson, Jeremy Renner, Danai Gurira, Mark Ruffalo, Ross Marquand|
|Genre||Animated, Action, Adventure, Fantasy, Sci-Fi, Comic Book|
|Release Date||August 11th, 2021|
What If..? is an American animated series produced by Marvel Studios and distributed by Disney’s streaming service, Disney+. The series was created and executive produced by A.C. Bradley. Bradley serves as the show’s head writer along with Bryan Andrews as the series director. What If…? is based on the long-running Marvel comic book series of the same name. The Marvel comic series showcased alternative, single-issue stories in the comic book world of the Marvel universe. These stories had no consequences and did not affect the main comic book stories in any way. Just as the comic book issues would explore radical alternative stories in the Marvel universe, Disney+’s animated What If…? series features alternative stories based on the current Marvel Cinematic Universe. Following the events of Disney+’s Loki series and the discovery of multiple timelines, What If…? explores events in those timelines if characters made difference decisions or events played out differently causing alternative realities.
What If…? serves as Marvel Studios and Disney’s fourth series based in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and is the streaming services’ first MCU animated project. In the fall of 2018, Marvel Studios announced the production of several series for Disney+ which will be cannon and take place within the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Along with the announcements of the streaming projects, it was announced Kevin Feige would act as executive producer for all of the series and have a hands-on approach to their development and creative choices. One of the projects announced was the animated anthology series What If..? which is based on the characters of the MCU, yet exists outside of the canonical universe. After successfully pitching story ideas for the series in the summer of 2019, Marvel Studios and Disney announced A.C. Bradley as the series’ showrunner and Bryan Andrews as the series’ director due to his storyboarding work on many of the Marvel films.
In April 2019, production on the animated series began under the art direction of Johel Rivera and the production design of Paul Lasaine, with Stephan Franck as head of animation. All of them followed the animation style of Marvel’s head of visual development Ryan Meinerding. Marvel Studios partnered with animation studios Blue Spirit, Squeeze, and Flying Bark Productions to fulfill the series order. The series animation style features a cel-shaded technique set to capture the likeness of the actors who portray the Marvel Cinematic characters.
The animation style was to reflect classic American illustrations with a modern flare. The animation uses 3D models rendered with 2D lighting, giving the animation a unique look somewhere between 2D and 3D. The animation team heavily relied on colors and tone from the cinematic films to enhance the context of the series. The series brought back most of the on-screen talent to reprise their roles for the animated versions of their characters. Jeffery Wright was cast as The Watcher, a character who appears throughout the entirety of the series. Wright joins the vocal talents of Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury, Jeremy Renner as Hawkeye, Danai Gurira as Okoye, Mark Ruffalo as Bruce Banner, Hayley Atwell as Peggy Carter, and many other familiar voices from the Marvel Cinematic Universe, including the late Chadwick Boseman as Black Panther in his last credited role.
What If…? premiered the first episode of its nine-episode season on Disney+ on August 11, 2021. As Marvel Studios’ first entry of an animated series in the MCU, What If..? was highly anticipated. Upon the release of its season finale on October 6, 2021, the series as a whole was met with generally positive reception. Critics are in agreement that What If…?‘s animation is a standout; however, many critics disagree as to whether each episode sticks its landing. Rotten Tomatoes scores the series at a 93% critic rating with a 94% audience score. Metacritic scores the series at a 69 and IGN rates the series with a mediocre 6 out of 10. Although critics may not agree on the quality of every episode, it is clear audiences love the series. In spite of the series mixed reception, a nine-episode second season of What If…? is in production and set to premiere in 2022.
Spiritual Content: The character named The Watcher acts as an all-knowing deity who observes the multiverse outside of time.
Violence: The series is filled with animated violence such as hand-to-hand combat, gun violence, and animated gore.
Language/Crude Humor: There is no foul language featured in the series, nor is there crude humor.
Sexual Content: There is no sexual content in the series.
Drug/ Alcohol Use: There is no drug or alcohol use in the series.
Other Negative Themes: A number of characters sacrifice others for selfish means.
Positive Themes: Themes of teamwork and undying love are featured throughout the anthology series.
Marvel Studios What If…? follows The Watcher, a god-like entity who observes all of the worlds in the multiverse. Following the events of Loki, where multiple timelines and alternative universes were created, What If..? explores these alternative worlds. The Watcher follows an oath to only observe events in these universes and has vowed to never interfere. These worlds in the multiverse follow familiar characters from the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Though the characters are familiar, their stories are very different from what we have seen thus far. What If…?‘s anthology format allows for every episode to explore one of these possible worlds in the multiverse. These events may follow how one seemingly inconsequential decision subsequently leads to a cascade of events which alters the time line.
The series pilot follows Peggy Carter at the moment when Steve Rodgers was set to receive the super-soldier serum. She instead decides to stay in the lab as opposed to her observing the experiment from the observation room as seen in Captain America: The First Avenger. This simple choice leads to Carter receiving the super-soldier serum as opposed to Rogers. Now, with enhanced strength, speed, and agility, Carter takes up the mantle as Captain Carter, the ultimate weapon to fight against the Red Skull and his army. Other episodes feature larger consequences from alternative events in the multiverse. One episode follows an unlikely team-up of survivors as they try to find a cure for a global virus. This virus has infected the vast majority of the population of the planet and changed them into flesh-eating zombies, including many of our favorite super heroes. Every episode follows vastly different stories of potential possibilities. Some feature slight differences, while others feature world-ending events.
As Marvel’s first step into canonical animation in the MCU, What If…? meets every expectation of its production. The series animation is absolutely beautiful. The animation style featured in the series echos that of classic Disney animation with a heroic flare. The characters are represented as hyper-realistic versions of the actors from the films. The colors and tones match their cinematic counterparts, allowing the audience to immediately identify and relate What If…? with the cinematic universe. The series captures a stunning combination of realistic, idealized, exaggerated, and stylistic animation style without looking too wacky or “cartoony.”
Marvel Studios has built a legacy of visual quality over the last 10 years, and What If…? is no different. The series’ animation looks like nothing seen before. The series is gorgeous to look at and is a visual treat for the eyes. The art direction is a perfect adaptation to arguably the most successful cinematic universe in history. Aside from the amazing visual direction, the series captures some of the smoothest animated action sequences. What If…? forces characters who would normally not engage in combat face each other in battle. Watching our favorite Asgardian Thor face off against the all-powerful Carol Danvers as Captain Marvel is a visual delight. Seeing these two fight across the planet is the most fun I’ve had all year. The characters move with fluidity and grace. The quality of the animation is consistent throughout the entirety of the series along with the distinct cinematography of the MCU.
Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the writing. Although the ambition of its scope is appreciated, the series is inconsistent in its storytelling. About half of the series’ nine episodes are forgettable. A handful of episodes are narratively compelling. Others seem like a mash-up of stunning visual scenes intended to provide fan service and easter egg hunts. Even though not every episode is as compelling as some, those that stick their landing do so in a classic superhero fashion. Captain Carter’s episode provides a social commentary on a female soldier in World War II. The episode heavily explores female empowerment and social class. One of the series’ standout installments features T’Challa as Starlord and a ravenger while he explores the galaxy connecting with familiar Marvel characters.
As an anthology, no episode is alike. While one episode features stale, trope-filled situations that tend to rise out of a zombie apocalypse, another may feature a fascinating murder mystery. The high concept of the series is applauded and fairly enjoyable. The series is a delightful serviceable addition to the MCU’s dive into the multiverse with Loki and the upcoming films Spiderman: No Way Home and Doctor Strange: Multiverse of Madness where the interdimensional multiverse and alternative timelines are explored.
The best thing about the series is its ability to explore a vast array of potential story lines. What If…?‘s freedom from the constraints of films provides the greatest potential for creativity. This gives the writers an endless amount of possibilities. Exploring over-the-top stories that would not work in live-action films or conflict with the canon of the MCU is the true standout. The “anything could happen” aspect of the series makes it truly exciting. Not knowing makes the show enjoyable and keeps the viewer at the edge of their seat. This gives the series the greatest ability for longevity.
Though the series can be fun, in no way is it essential viewing. What If…? is full of references and callbacks that would make any Marvel fan happy. Non-Marvel fans may find the show dull. In order to truly appreciate the alternative stories of the multiverse, one would have to understand the context of the original events in the MCU.
The culmination of vocal talent is an impressive achievement. Marvel Studios brought back 50 voice actors who have previously been featured in the cinematic universe further blurring the line between film and television. Hearing the recognizable voices adds a sense of familiarity with the films. Some major voices did not return to reprise their roles such as Robert Downey Jr. as Iron Man and Chris Evans as Steve Rogers. The absence of their voices are felt. Although the voice talent for the animated versions of their characters are serviceable, there is a magic that is missing. The standout of the large assortment of vocal talent is Chadwick Boseman’s reprisal of T’Challa. Hearing that instantly recognizable voice coming from the animated version of the character he brought a soul to the character that is heartwarming, emotional, and a solemn reminder of the talent we have lost.
What If…? is visually stunning. It’s one of the most unique animated projects I’ve seen in recent years. The 2D/3D style makes viewing enjoyable. The movement of the characters is fluid and life-like, providing a sense of realism. This fluidity lends itself well to the gorgeous action sequences. These are big, bold, and entertaining. The voice acting from the vast cast is enjoyable. Jeffrey Wright as The Watcher provides a vocal authority as the all-powerful being. The animation and visual style will keep you engaged, but the same cannot be said for its content. About half of the episodes in the series fall flat and are narratively cumbersome. Though the series strikes out with its lumbering and problematic pacing in half of its episodes, it hits home runs with others. Four to five episodes of the series are extremely compelling and ripe for continuation. These episodes are not only great but can stand on their own with fleshed-out narratives. The series has a lot of room for improvement but is rich in potential. The series is a part of the MCU cannon, but its use of the multiverse provides a loose connection overall. It would be fascinating to see Captain Carter fight along side Captain America in a live-action installment. What If…? allows for endless possibilities.
The Bottom Line
What If...?'s "anything could happen" aspect makes it truly exciting. Not knowing what comes next makes the show enjoyable and keeps the viewer at the edge of their seat.