‘What if?’ It’s been a question for years used to create compelling stories. ‘Well, what if this happened?’ ‘What if her hair was controllable?’ ‘What if he’s actually just a teenager and not a billionaire like every other hero?’ It’s a question that can push a mundane idea, from boring to brilliant. Just two words. In the world of Marvel and indeed wider comics, these two words have another meaning. ‘What if?’ has become a way of exploring the most imaginative possibilities in the Marvel universe. ‘What if Spider-Man joined the fantastic four?’ ‘What if the Hulk was intelligent?’ ‘What if Captain America was actually a part of Hydra?’
Of course, comic fans will know that this concept went one step further over in the house of ideas. Since the 70’s Marvel has been publishing a series of one-shots under the ‘What If?’ banner, designed to explore all of the mad possibilities that could happen within this superhero world. Over the years there have been some fascinating and outright bizarre concepts, that have completely changed aspects of this very familiar brand and its characters.
The simplest of changes can actually have huge consequences and Marvel loves playing around with that very basic idea. There are so many directions that this could be taken in. It could be based on a character decision for instance; Peter Parker stopping the robber that ultimately kills his Uncle. Or may be all about location and time period. You can see any number of Victorian or Arthurian re-imagining of characters.
This ‘What If?’ concept, applied to the MCU, could produce a variety of entertaining, interesting and fun versions of characters, events, and stories. Whilst the announcement that has been put out that this series will be animated, the concept could absolutely be put into live action in the long term. I will assume for this article that the series will, in fact, be based in the MCU, rather than a different Marvel Universe. There is no limit to the imagination and whilst some fans would assume that Marvel will simply copy and paste from existing one-shots, I believe that there is some more creativity to be had here.
Those comics work because they are based on a pre-existing notion of a character, or something familiar. If we are to apply this concept to the MCU, the stories should be MCU based and play off of the versions of these characters that we see on the big screen. Direct adaptations of ‘What If?’ stories wouldn’t work, because these stories are made for the comics, a much larger and vaster world, where the characters are established in a certain way.
For the Disney+ show, therefore, the types of stories that can be told are unique to that universe. The version of Iron Man, Captain America, or even someone like Hawkeye, are unique to that cinematic world. Whilst they are heavily influenced by the comics, there are parts of those characters that are based on the actor, the previous stories or creative choices made for the films. So there are many different paths to take with this project, which rely heavily on the MCU version of events, rather than becoming dictated by what happens in the comics. That doesn’t mean fun and interesting ideas can’t be taken from the comic run, but it does mean that how they impact the big screen version of these characters may be entirely different.
We’ve previously seen a ‘What If?’ scenario in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. which I suspect has prompted this decision for the House of Mouse. In the series we see the show’s main team enter a virtual reality where the world is run by Hydra. This is a ‘What If?’ scenario that meant most of the characters took on completely different roles. You could find Coulson as a teacher in a Hydra run school, Melinda May as a Hydra agent, Fitz as an evil doctor and returning characters such as Ward, on the side of good. That’s another opportunity this series gives; to bring back long since dead characters.
In some worlds perhaps characters such as Quicksilver survived, completely changing the dynamic of future films. How quickly… pun intended… would the Civil War have been over if he was involved. S.H.I.E.L.D. showed that this concept is successful and can work in this kind of world. Not only that, it showed there’s an audience for it.
There are a few things, that I as a fan, would love to see from this series. I think something to do with a different time period is the first thing that I’d love for Disney+ to explore. It would be really fun to see some of Earth’s heroes cast back to the Victorian era, or perhaps thrust into WWII. These kinds of scenarios will work well for existing characters to play in a new setting. Perhaps what is more fun for the actors is to have their roles drastically changed. Perhaps a ‘What If?’ story line where the character roles are reversed and some of the great villains of the MCU are brought back as heroes.
This series can also bring back some more obscure characters as background players, especially if they want to flesh out the universe more. People like Sitwell are likely to return, as well as the Warriors Three and Sif, or the Howling Commandos. What’s more exciting about this concept is the characters that could be introduced, without being world breaking due to the secluded nature of the stories. If the Avengers are going to go back in time, why not send them back to the days of King Arthur, introducing this legend to the on screen universe and adding characters such as Morgana Le Fay and the Black Knight.
The most interesting part of this whole project to me is how they will frame this to casual fans. Maybe some might see the whole show as quite confusing, with all these completely unconnected tales. There are a couple of different directions that this can be taken. The first is a very Twilight Zone style intro, which clearly spells out how these episodes operate, in completely different universes. This opens the door for more multiverse opportunities however, as Dr. Strange could travel between these different dimensions.
Maybe that’s how this is pitched, therefore, as one character like Strange, traveling through all these various realities, where the world has turned out very differently. There could even be an ongoing plot where this journey must happen in order to save reality. It could even be a chase sequence of sorts with a hero running through each reality looking for whatever villain is navigating these worlds.
This may be over-complicating the whole program though. Disney may decide that these are all completely separate from everything else. But the opportunities are there to do something very interesting with this series. I mention it every time, but there is another option to include other TV show characters again. There may be legal issues regarding Netflix characters, but we could see a more literal translation of these ‘What If?’ stories. Not even involving other dimensions or versions of characters but simply, ‘What if the Runaways met the Guardians?’ or ‘What if the Avengers found out Coulson was alive for years after his supposed death?’ The problem here is that this relies on audiences being familiar with these other characters and Marvel may wish to keep this in-house, with the shows exclusively covering content from the films rather from outside. This is all speculation though, as to which direction to move the show in.
Across the course of this article, I have laid the groundwork for a lot of discussion regarding the opportunities this show presents. There could be a lot of fun options that Disney+ decide to run with and I’m looking forward to seeing how the series proceeds. A big sign that this is heading in an interesting direction is when we start seeing voice cast lists. Hopefully, we’ll be seeing some big name actors return, some old favorites and some surprising additions. Out of all of this, the one thing I’d love to see most is something more to do with our villains. ‘What if there was a Masters of Evil?’ for instance. Those are my thoughts on this surprising announcement, let us know what you think in the comments section below, or on social media.