The Legacy of Marvel Comics’ ‘What If,’ and Its Implications Within the Marvel Cinematic Universe

Ben Friedman


What if Tony Stark never escaped from The Ten Rings? What if Hela, the Goddess of Death, obtained the infinity stones before Thanos? What if The Winter Soldier killed Uncle Ben? The possibilities are infinite, and each drastically changing the outlook of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.


Any of these changes drastically reinvent the events and story arcs that emerge through the franchise. With the release of any Marvel project, fans fervently discuss the film often leading to the question, “But what if this happened instead?” The MCU’s newest show, What If, sheds light on such ideas.


The idea for What If stems from the comic line of the same name. Developed by Roy Thomas, the apprentice of Stan Lee, Thomas’s inspiration came from an exercise Lee practiced while writing. During the draft process, Lee would ask himself the question, “What if?” to determine the outcome of his storytelling and decide whether that was a satisfying outcome. Having been a staple writer for the Fantastic Four series of the 1970s, Thomas wished to blend the science-fiction nature of his writing, while also celebrating the legacy and history of Marvel comics. Yet, he was adamant in his desire to not interfere with other writer’s story arcs, rather to add a creative spin to the characters that fans would enjoy.



In 1977, Roy Thomas’s idea came to fruition. Entitled What If, the comic series revisits iconic moments in Marvel’s comic history and introduces a point of divergence and its said consequences. The first issue followed an alternate reality of Spider-Man’s first solo comic series appearance. In Spider-Man #1, Peter Parker wishes to earn money by joining the Fantastic Four and is rejected. What If #1 tells the alternate history of Spider-Man joining the team and how his character arc diverges from there. 



Uatu serves as the narrator of the story. First appearing in Fantastic Four #13, Uatu is part of a species known as Watchers. The oldest beings in the universe, Watchers observe the events of the universe, yet are forbidden from interfering. Ikor, leader of the Watchers enacted this policy of refraining after his own interference led to a genocidal nuclear war on the planet of Prosilicus. Ikor dispatches the Watchers across the universe and stations his son, Uatu, to planet Earth. Before leaving, Ikor warns his son that he must never interfere, even if it means ideally watching as the planet is destroyed. Thomas utilized the character of Uatu to both serve as a narrator of the comic series, as well as the historian of the Marvel comic universe. 



What If is unique in its storytelling. Each issue has its own artistic style and a plethora of guest writers. This allowed different creators to storyboard ideas and gauge readers’ responses. Readers were not required to read the previous storylines, in theory making it accessible to new comic fans. Yet, its inventiveness and disconnection proved to be a detriment to the comics sales’ numbers. New readers were not invested in the history of Marvel comics; thus the premise of the comic series was of no interest. The series was canceled in 1984 after 47 issues. However, Marvel revisited the series in 1989, and since has released in total 13 series all under the anthology series, What If.    



In April 2019, Marvel Studios announced the development of an animated television series What If, which shared the same premise as the anthology comic series. Jeffrey Wright was announced as voicing the role of Uatu who would serve as the narrator for the show. Actors from the MCU were announced to be signed on to reprise their characters in the series, including Benedict Cumberbatch as Dr. Strange, Benicio del Toro as the Collector, Michael Rooker as Yondu, and posthumously Chadwick Boseman as T’Challa. In describing the series, showrunner A.C. Bradley and Kevin Feige stated that What If would serve as a celebration of the Marvel Cinematic Universe while still impacting the overall storytelling. They did not elaborate on how this would be achieved. That is until the season finale of Loki debuted on July 14, 2021.


The implications of the Loki season finale cannot be understated. For a refresher, the episode, “For All Time. Always” introduced Jonathan Majors as He Who Remains, a variant of Kang the Conqueror. A 31st-century time-traveling scientist, He Who Remains prevented a multiversal war between the evil variants of himself that would destroy “everything and everyone” in every existing universe. He Who Remains placed all the parallel worlds into one timeline known as The Sacred Timeline centered around Earth-19999 (which happens to be the timeline in which all MCU movies take place). Despite multiple realities existing in isolation, these realities all share one identical detail. Every reality in the Sacred Timeline results in the birth of He Who Remains in order to prevent the birth of his variants Kang the Conqueror. That was until his death at the hands of Slyvie, causing the Sacred Timeline to expand infinitely -- thus creating the multiverse.


For those who are lost, don’t worry; it’s meant to be confusing. Dr. Strange says in the new Spider-Man: No Way Home trailer that "the Multiverse is a concept about which we know frighteningly little." The introduction of time travel and multi-dimensional parallel universes are inherently overwhelming and requires further attention to the stories that are unfolding. Fans of the MCU may be asking themselves why Marvel Studios would want to focus heavily on the multiverse. which is so complex and often convoluted? Yet, What If serves as an excellent starting point to dive into the mysteries of the multiverse, and to showcase its drastic impact on the franchise.



It is no coincidence that What If debuted less than a month after the season finale of Loki. What If is the first piece of media within the MCU that focuses solely on the multiverse. With the destruction of the Sacred Timeline, these infinite universes can now interact with each other, which means whatever happens in What If could potentially be crossed over with the characters on Earth-19999. Alternate variants can make their way into the main universe. For instance, in the first episode of What If, Peggy Carter takes the super-soldier serum instead of Steve Rogers, leading to her transformation into Captain Carter. Reprising her role as Peggy Carter, Hayley Atwell now has the possibility to see Captain Carter cross over into her own live-action movie. Variants of the MCU’s film characters can now appear in the “main timeline,” which very well could explain why Alfred Molina’s Doc Ock is present in the No Way Home trailer, despite existing in the Sam Raimi Spider-Man films. The multiverse now makes it possible to explain that these films could exist within the multiverse and that Tobey Maguire’s Spider-Man is merely a variant of Tom Holland’s Spider-Man. While none of this is confirmed, do note that Sam Raimi is directing the 28th MCU film installment, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness.


What If presents itself as a new testing ground for the MCU. Feige and creators are now able to utilize the format of the show to test some of their wilder concepts and see which ones prove popular with fans. If audiences respond well to a certain storyline, Feige can then utilize that element in an upcoming Marvel project. If audiences respond poorly to an event that happens in What If, Feige can simply choose to ignore it.


However, the brilliance in this creative strategy means What If can feel unimportant. In a franchise that has now created infinite universes, focusing on one singular universe that is not taking place on Earth-19999 can feel insignificant. While it is a spectacle to see Captain Carter punch Nazis, witness Hank Pym kill the Avengers, or see all the heroes as zombified versions of themselves, ultimately, they are one-offs. Inherently, having one-offs can serve as a wonderful tool for creative innovation, yet the show struggles with the same pitfalls inherent to its comics series. Its anthology storytelling makes the series feel unnecessary. While well made, it never felt like a show I eagerly anticipated watching every week, rather a series that I enjoyed watching when time allowed… until Episode 4 debuted.



The episode follows an alternate universe where, instead of Dr. Strange losing the usage of his hands in a car crash, his girlfriend, Dr. Christine Palmer, is killed. Grief-stricken he learns the mystic arts to manipulate time to prevent Christine’s death, despite warnings that doing so could destroy reality. Strange’s arrogance causes him to ignore the warnings and resurrect Palmer, resulting in the destruction of that universe and ending its timeline. The universe implodes into a small gem where Strange is left to grieve alone. Omnipresent for the destruction of the universe is The Watcher, and in a jaw-dropping sequence as Dr. Strange is trying to save the universe, he turns his head and speaks directly to The Watcher, begging him to save this universe. The Watcher refuses, telling Strange, “If I could fix this, if I could punish you instead, I would. But I can’t interfere… One life, one choice, one moment, can destroy the entire universe,” and the screen cuts to black.


The significance of this episode cannot be overstated. First, it marks the bleakest and darkest turn for the franchise to date. Strange, left sobbing as his universe is destroyed, is a shocking reality of the consequences of the multiverse. Without He Who Remains keeping the timelines in check, it leaves every universe vulnerable to destruction. Time manipulation can lead to the destruction of any and every universe within the multiverse and messing with time is kind of Dr. Strange’s gimmick. This episode displayed that Stephen Strange not only has the power to singlehandedly destroy a universe but also to communicate directly with The Watcher. Up until this point, there was no indication that the characters were aware of The Watcher’s presence, let alone could communicate with him. This further emphasizes Strange’s pivotal role in Phase 4 of the MCU and sets precedence for The Watcher’s role of being more than just an omnipresent narrator. Strange’s appearance in both his next solo outing and Spider-Man: No Way Home spells trouble for the multiverse.



Author Bio:

Ben Friedman is a contributing writer at Highbrow Magazine.


For Highbrow Magazine


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