Comics On TV

Jeffrey Wright and the What If...? Creators Are Eager for Fans to See Marvel's New Reality-Bending Series

"Wait 'til you meet Party Thor!” says executive producer Brad Winderbaum, who — along with Wright, director Bryan Andrews and head writer AC Bradley — excitedly previews the animated series.

by | August 10, 2021 | Comments

Imagine a Marvel Universe in which Peggy Carter took the Super Soldier Serum or Doctor Strange never became the Sorcerer Supreme. How about a universe in which Spider-Man joined the Fantastic Four or Captain America never went into the ice?

Exploring those sorts of plot variants is the basic idea behind Marvel Comics’ What If…? – an anthology series the company published off-and-on since 1977 that pondered possible alternate Marvel Universe realities and what they might mean for your favorite superheroes (Spider-Man joining the Fantastic Four was the subject of the first issue). The concept proved popular, as it allowed pivotal stories (and occasional minor ones) to occur with different outcomes. And because the anthology series told a concentrated story without regard to continuity, it led to some of the most genuinely beloved tales.

And beloved is definitely something the creators of the What If…? animated series hope it will be by the end of its first season, which begins streaming on Disney+ this week. Each offers compelling stories from their “What If…?” questions, including Peggy (Hayley Atwell) taking the serum, T’Challa (voiced by the late Chadwick Boseman) being abducted by the Reavers in the 1980s, and the Avengers never assembling for, well, reasons.

Our guide through this Multiverse of possibility is The Watcher, a cosmic entity of near-omniscience who can see the various threads of the Marvel Multiverse. And according to Jeffrey Wright, who lends his voice to the character, he is also the ultimate Marvel fan.

“He’s got, maybe, a better TV and chair — he’s got some weird cosmic chair that he’s perched on — but he’s like everybody else who’s a fan of these characters in these stories,” Wright told recently told Rotten Tomatoes.

The Watcher (Jeffrey Wright) poster for What If...?

(Photo by Courtesy of Marvel Studios)

“He’s described in the original, 1963 Fantastic Four [appearance] as ‘the most dramatic being in the known universe,’” he added. “Actors hear that and they’re like, ‘Yeah. Give me some of that.’ I mean, it’s just fun. You get to kind of just throw out all the colors and just blast it.” The decision to play one of Marvel’s big-headed characters was, indeed, a no-brainer for Wright.

Although Marvel fans will recognize the Watcher – also known as Uatu back in the comics – for some of the actions he’s taken over the years, the program’s Watcher will, for the first several episodes anyway, remain an observer of worlds in which the Marvel Cinematic Universe played out differently. “There are limitations to his power as well and so there’s a tension there,” Wright teased. “He’s not only this huge dramatic, all-knowing, all-seeing, all-powerful being. He’s vulnerable too.”

What this means for the character’s future is anyone’s guess. Asked about setting a standard for other cosmic level beings to be introduced in the MCU, Wright said, “All things are possible and it’s a huge Multiverse isn’t it?”

Killmonger in What If...?

(Photo by Courtesy of Marvel Studios)

Those possibilities began as a text chat between producer Brad Winderbaum and Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige about the studio’s initial forays in to television. The project could have been literally anything and that wide open opportunity led the producer to both What If…? and animation.

“[We were] definitely led to animation by the concept,” Winderbaum recalled. “When I first started texting with Kevin about it that night, [I was] talking about it being animated, because we wanted an infinite canvas.”  To do the program in live action would have required an enormous amount of resources and access to Marvel’s stable of stars – more on them in a moment – and as Winderbaum saw it, “you need to be able to revisit literally any set, any costume, any character you wanted, and the only medium through which you could really do that realistically was animation.”

The series also sets itself apart from the previous Marvel Studio shows via its format: anthology. Each episode is its own self-contained story and world. The notion is taken directly from the What It…? comics and it is essential to the storytelling.

“It just became natural that we would be creating these shorter form vignettes for each episode,” Winderbaum said. Nevertheless, the show will feel familiar to MCU fans as it takes its cues from that reality. “We wanted to make sure that each story was based on something that the audience either had seen or could quickly watch,” he explained. Hence, a story like T’Challa’s space adventure or a world in which Erik Killmonger saved Tony Stark in Afghanistan.

Finding those key story threads was television series creator A.C. Bradley, who relished the chance to remix key MCU moments.

“Going into this process, I was already a pretty diehard Marvel fan. I’ve probably seen the movies on repeat a dozen times a piece,” she said. She also had access to every script draft of every film back to Iron Man. Combing through all that story material, it became apparent to center the series as character-first. The T’Challa episode, for example, illustrates how different the cosmos would be if his spirit and sense of empathy was out among the stars. Getting a strong sense of character also meant the show could be playful with the MCU.

“After we figured out what we wanted to say with the character, how to play around with the icon, [we could ask,] ‘OK, how many Easter eggs, how many pieces of the world can we pull in? How do we remix this?’” she said. “One of my favorite things to do with all pieces of modern media is say, ‘How do we take what we know, and deconstruct it? Whether it be a character and action sequence, a world, where’s the something new to say? And what do we want to say?”

Doctor Strange in What If...?

(Photo by Courtesy of Marvel Studios)

In the opening trio of stories, the results of playing with the MCU canon lead to a less-buttoned down Peggy, Korath the Pursuer as someone’s No. 1 Fan, and a truly compelling mystery in the third episode – a story Bradley jokingly referred to as “Law and Order: MCU.”

Buoying the playfulness is the cast. Nearly everyone who ever played a named Marvel character in a Marvel Studios picture returned to lend their voice to a What If…? counterpart.

“I was afraid to get nobody, to be honest with you,” Winderbaum said. “And in my wildest dreams, I thought maybe we get 50 percent. The fact that we got like 85, 90 percent of the talent to return is insane, first and foremost. And I think it’s because in most cases they kind of got the concept and were excited to play with their character. Wait ’til you meet [Chris Hemsworth as] Party Thor!”

In a handful of cases, though, in which actors were unavailable or (as Dave Bautista alleges) never had the chance to record, the production looked to seasoned actors like Lake Bell not to be sound-a-likes, but embody the characters with slightly different takes.

“We were more concerned with getting good actors who would create three-dimensional performances, than we were with nailing the voice,” Winderbaum said. “If you can’t deliver the emotional depth that the performance requires, people aren’t going to experience empathy for the character.”

Bell’s take on a certain character is particularly striking … but we’ll let you discover who she plays once the credits role.

In addition to Atwell, Boseman, and Hemsworth, the MCU stars reprising their roles include: Andy Serkis, Angela Bassett, Benedict Cumberbatch, Benedict Wong, Benicio Del Toro, Bradley Whitford, Carrie Coon, Chris Sullivan, Clancy Brown, Clark Gregg, Cobie Smulders, Danai Gurira, David Dastmalchian, Djimon Hounsou, Dominic Cooper, Don Cheadle, Emily VanCamp, Evangeline Lilly, Frank Grillo, Georges St-Pierre, Jaimie Alexander, Jeff Goldblum, Jeremy Renner, John Kani, Jon Favreau, Josh Brolin, Karen Gillan, Kat Dennings, Kurt Russell, Leslie Bibb, Mark Ruffalo, Michael B. Jordan, Michael Douglas, Michael Rooker, Natalie Portman, Neal McDonough, Ophelia Lovibond, Paul Bettany, Paul Rudd, Rachel House, Rachel McAdams, Samuel L. Jackson, Sean Gunn, Sebastian Stan, Seth Green, Stanley Tucci, Taika Waititi, Tilda Swinton, Toby Jones, Tom Hiddleston, and Tom Vaughan-Lawlor.

Captain Carter and the Howling Commandoes in What If...?

(Photo by Courtesy of Marvel Studios)

What If …? is also distinctive in its style of animation – one which will remind fans of a classical, almost Disney-like aesthetic. Director Bryan Andrews credited the look to artist J.C. Leyendecker, who worked in the very late 19th century and the first half of the 20th: “Since we’re chasing that look, that older 1920s, 1930s way of illustrating someone started baking itself into the picture, started becoming a little bit of a house style.”

That style will be strongest in the first episode as Peggy’s adventure occurs in that period of history, but it continues to some extent through the rest of the season. Andrews also cited the Disney cartoons and animated features of the 30s and 40s and the Fleischer Studios Superman shorts as more inspiration for the look and feel of the show.

“[The cartoons that] were done in that time period had that rich, lush, overblown balloon kind of thing. Now, our eyes read that and just immediately think ‘vintage.’ We wanted that as part of the house style just because we love it, and we don’t see it enough, in our opinion, so we just wanted to have it in the show,” Andrews said.

The Watcher (Jeffrey Wright) in What If...?

(Photo by Courtesy of Marvel Studios)

With a place of prominence in the Marvel Studios television schedule, What If…? may signal the beginning of a prestige animation format. And though TV animation fans will quickly note the sophistication of shows like Avatar: The Last Airbender or one of the recent Star Wars animated programs, Andrews hopes to see a future in which an animated series gets the recognition and wide-spread fanbase of a live-action prestige series.

“I think the appetite and the acknowledgement of animation has hit a different level now,” he said. “And I think there are a variety of studios that are trying to push for something that might be quote, unquote called ‘prestige.’”

Internally, the production used “Marvel” in place of “prestige,” but the notion of high end animation is something everyone involved in What If…? strove to make and Andrews hopes it will lead to more animated shows like it.

“Animation is a medium, not a genre,” Bradley added.

It is certainly a notion the Watcher can agree with. Although, we had one last question for Wright: who is the Watcher addressing in his narration at the start and end of each episode?

“He’s talking to his fellow Watchers and those are the fans,” Wright said.

It is a reasonable answer as the Watchers — forbidden to interfere in the Marvel Universe – are pretty close to a canonical take on Marvel fans. It is also a sentiment Bradley agreed with.

“Why can’t it be us?” she said. “Why can’t we be part of the MCU? I’m ready to go!”

What If…? debuts on Wednesday, August 11 on Disney+.

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