The Marvel movies are funny. That’s not a controversial statement, though Avengers: Infinity War killed half of all life and Avengers: Endgame spent a significant amount of time making sure you were sufficiently sad that Iron Man died. Still, if you ask pretty much anyone, they will tell you that the Marvel Cinematic Universe is pretty good-natured fun. The good guys drop quips, the bad guys drop quips, and when all else fails, the heroes save the universe with a dance competition. But if that’s a little too saccharine for you, Disney + is the alternative universe anthology series What if…? has built a version of MCU with a little more teeth – although it has a slightly limited idea of what it looks like.
Based on the first two episodes of the series, it really seemed like What if…? would be another crazy Marvel Studios ballad where even the sad stuff has a glimmer of optimism. Premiere, where an injury prevents Steve Rogers from becoming Captain America, and Hayley Atwell’s Peggy Carter has to take his place, the newly named Captain Carter ends up traveling to the future just in time for the events of Avengers film (an alternative reality that still seems attractive, since Captain Carter reigns). The second section drew some surprisingly elegant twists to get Chadwick Boseman’s T’Challa out in space, where he replaced Chris Pratt’s Peter Quill as Star-Lord. Like the first episode, the story of “T’Challa as Star-Lord” ended more hopefully and positively than even the notoriously hopeful and positive MCU, even though it ended on a potentially brutal cliffhanger.
Since then, however, the series has offered everyone’s death. This is in line with the source material: In the series’ namespaces, the stories are traditionally built around alternative realities, where something from the ordinary universe has gone wrong or has just unfolded in such a way that it works poorly for the established heroes. Take a seemingly optimistic premise like “What If Gwen Stacy Had Lived ?,” where Spidey is able to catch her boyfriend after she is thrown from Brooklyn Bridge by the Green Goblin. Instead of accidentally breaking her neck, Spider-Man rescues her and the two get married … until the Green Goblin reveals Spider-Man’s identity to the police, and Peter has to give up his family and live his life in hiding. On a similar note, “What if Karen Page had lived?” sees Daredevil become so enraged at the attempted murder of his true love that he completely executes Kingpin and goes to jail. Author Brian Michael Bendis who seems to love writing bitterly evil What if? stories (see also: the unnecessarily cruel ending to “What If Jessica Jones Had Joined The Avengers?”), also throws in the knife-twist that Daredevil never sees or hears from Karen again.
The comics “What if” are a storehouse for stories that get dark in a way that the ordinary universe would not allow, because it can stifle future developments or frustrate readers who would rather see the heroes save the day. Through its What if…? series, MCU have been able to do the same under the guise of pleasant adventures about the characters you know and love from the movies (often with the same actors playing them). After the episode where T’Challa became Star-Lord and literally all became friends with each other because of it (and we mean all), What if…? highlighted an episode in which the Avengers are all murdered before they can unite, and in a (thankfully) brief moment, it embraces bodily horror while the Hulk expands into a Akira-still meatballs before it explodes.
But What if…?‘s definition of a dark story has been limited, alternating between either “everyone dies” or “the bad guy wins.” These examples above from the comics do not involve the planet being destroyed, they end up with the heroes getting new personal efforts – an appropriate approach to a bad end for a comic book publisher who spent so much ink exploring the related drama of Peter Parker’s high school years . Not everything has to have cosmic efforts to be an effective warning, however What if…? seems to have landed at that speed and is committed to maintaining it, even if it means having multiple episodes that cut to black just after a dramatic twist.
The sudden endings are both the cause and effect of this kind of storytelling, as the authors only have so much room to work with in 30 minute episodes, and it serves as a straightforward opportunity to get viewers to sit with a dark ending and consider , what it means for the universe, if e.g. Doctor Strange embraced evil magic and accidentally wiped out all of reality. It happened in What if…?is the fourth paragraph, and emphasizes the show’s goal of telling stories that absolutely could not work in the movies (for better or worse). After all, it’s hard to do more Doctor Strange movies if the universe has ceased to exist.
Similarly watched the following episode everyone becomes zombies, a tribute to the fan favorite Marvel Zombies series of alternative universe comics. In “What If … Zombies ?,” a handful of heroes managed to discover a potential zombie cure and experienced the joy of saving the world for five seconds before zombie Thanos collected all the Infinity Stones, at which point the credits rolled and the episode ended. No hope of solution, no opportunity to undermine it with one last joke. It’s the same basic trick, and it gets a little thin when each episode tries it, but there’s something to say for What if…?‘s commitment to maintaining a very familiar MCU feel (complete with many film actors reproducing their roles) while telling multiple stories where everyone dies.
What if…? is not quite the top of the fan-service whipped cream as it seemed to be in the beginning, and it may not take its stories as far as some of the more tragic What if comics do. But it has quickly become an unexpectedly dark outlet for Marvel to tell stories that would not work in the movies – provided Marvel is still engaged in this whole “cinematic universe”, where each movie plays the previous movie and leads into the next movie . It’s worked out pretty well over the last decade, so it seems unlikely that the studio would be willing to throw it all away for a movie where Doctor Strange eats countless magic monsters so he can become as evil as possible and then wipe everything out. life on earth. What if…? has had fun embracing that kind of gloomy silliness, but as the show continues, it still has to try some new tricks that live up to its supposedly limitless premise.