“What If…?” might be the most Marvel Comics thing that Marvel Studios has done, translating the what-might-have-happened-if comic-book concept from page to screen, with all its geekiness intact. The highly stylized animation and access to key actors enhances the fun, creating an extremely logical Disney+ add-on to an increasingly packed multi-verse.
The “What If…?” comic made its debut in 1977, kicking off with the question “What If Spider-Man Joined the Fantastic Four?” As it turned out, altering one key moment in history — the Fantastic Four had indeed offered Spidey membership, and he passed — caused ripples large and small. As unintended consequences go, the anthological format offered examples of the butterfly effect via new stories each month, sometimes clever and others far-fetched.
Translating the spirit of that idea to TV has been executed with meticulous care, and both feet deeply rooted in the Marvel movies in terms of storylines and the cast members who vocally reprise their roles. Of those, the most wrenching and noteworthy is Chadwick Boseman, who recorded material as T’Challa/Black Panther before his death last year.
That episode, which weaves T’Challa into the Guardians of the Galaxy mythology, might be the most out-there of the three previewed, but it nicely encapsulates the ability to take wild swings that play off fans’ passion for the movies.
Each story is introduced by the Watcher (Jeffrey Wright), an omniscient narrator sworn not to intervene in these twists of fate, who describes the multi-verse as “a prism of endless possibilities.”
In the first, Agent Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) receives the super-soldier serum, becoming a smashing version of Captain America, only draped in the Union Jack instead of the stars and stripes. In another, someone seeks to interfere with the Avengers Initiative, touching upon the most fundamental building blocks of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Running roughly a half-hour, the episodes unfold with a great sense of economy. They’re also distinguished by the animation, placing the series in a fascinating in-between zone that approximates the live-action characters’ look while reveling in the latitude the medium provides in creating comic-book-like images popping off the page.
“Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” delivered a taste of what innovative animation techniques can do with this material, and “What If…?” appears to have gotten the memo. It’s an especially savvy way of super-serving fans, in a package that’s colorful and fast-paced enough to entertain those who might not get every reference or wrinkle in time.
Marvel has already enjoyed considerable success mining its roster for Disney+, but in a way “What If…?” might be the shrewdest effort yet. With series like “Loki” or “WandaVision,” the studio needs to entice the actors to squeeze back into those costumes. Here, as the Watcher notes, the possibilities are indeed endless.
“What If…?” premieres Aug. 11 on Disney+.
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