“The actors who came in ended up having a lot of fun, because… it should be fun! The whole point of What If is to be fun!’
I’m talking with A.C. Bradley, head writer and showrunner of the biblically ambitious What If. In case you haven’t taken the leap yet, What If…? is the animated Marvel series which throws viewers down some of the multiversal cul-de-sacs lurking just off-camera.
What if Thor was an only child? What if T’Challa was kidnapped by Yondu instead of Peter Quill? What if Killmonger rescued Tony Stark?
Bradley is practically floating off her chair whilst talking about the show. It comes through in the show itself: her fervour, depth of knowledge and care for the Marvel universe bleeds into every line, every frame. She’s quick to deny that this is hers and hers alone, though. “These are … amazing characters, and I’ve jokingly called this the world’s best toybox,” she says.
“They’re not my characters, and they’re not my toys … they belong to Marvel!”
Every few minutes, she’s naming specific people on the team who stepped up and improvised a line, or helped inject a new plot thread mid-record.
The degree to which this season of the show managed to stick the landing, however, comes down to a kind of long-play which necessitates diving into deep spoiler territory. So I thought… why not go through the season, episode by episode, and assess how they did?
Episode 1: What If… Captain Carter Were the First Avenger?
Before landing the job, Marvel told Ashley that they wanted her to work with a specific What If premise: what if Steve fell off the train instead of Bucky? So, she went off and crafted that into a story, swiftly landed the job, and was then told to jettison that premise. Turns out it was a ruse, a misdirect to divert attention from their real opening salvo: Captain Carter.
The Captain Carter episode remains, in my opinion, one of the strongest of the season. It’s fantastically warm, optimistic, and carries in it the DNA of what makes the MCU Captain America great: patriotism with jingoism.
Hayley Atwell brought her A-game as Cap, The West Wing’s Bradley Whitford’s role as an absolute creep worked a treat, and as a result, people are now rightfully baying for a live action Captain Carter film. Bradley, for one, loves this idea.
“I was very happily surprised about Marvel not only allowing me to write such a feminist story, but wholeheartedly encouraging it,” she tells me. “But I’m so happy, and so honoured, that people like my version of Captain Carter, and that she resonated! And if they make a Captain Carter movie … hell. I’ll be there day one.”
Episode 2: What If… T’Challa Became a Star-Lord?
For me, this is the absolute highlight of the season. It’s a big, warm hug of a story – a love letter to the MCU, and a testament to the fact that some people need good people around them to become their best selves. Putting T’Challa out into the universe, this episode suggests, would have wide-reaching effects upon the lives of others, turning even Thanos into a hero.
But the real reason it hits so hard? Chadwick Boseman.
Bradley gets a little quiet when she begins talking about it.
“The T’Challa episode… we wrote that back in 2019, so obviously we didn’t know about Chadwick. But the fact that he was able to come back and record these episodes… meant so much to everyone. And I only briefly worked with him in the recording booth for a few hours, but you got the sense that more than anyone, he knew the power of Black Panther. He knew how important it is that young people see a black man standing shoulder to shoulder with Cap, and see that he’s a hero too, he’ll save the world, too.”
Bradley and I talk about all the utterly joyous trappings of the episode, like Howard the Duck, Karen Gillan’s jubilant reaction to finding out Nebula finally has hair, and the jokes reformed Thanos makes about the merits of The Snap. But we keep coming back to Chadwick. “He’s such an amazing actor,” Bradley says, smiling.
“He came in with such care, and precision, and… there’s always something really nice when an actor comes into the booth, takes out their own copy of the script, and there are handwritten notes on the pages. It’s them giving the writers a hug.”
Episode 3: What If… the World Lost Its Mightiest Heroes?
Episode three is something of a whodunnit. It isn’t the strongest episode – it’s the first where you really notice the lack of the core cast (namely Johanssen), but it’s a crunchy, intriguing little thriller with an unexpected villain at it’s core. It also stars the Michael Douglas. Bradley lights up at the mention of his name.
“I got to somewhat awkwardly ask Michael Douglas, who is… Michael Douglas… can you please say, what’s with the goth kid? And he asked me to repeat myself, so I did. And he went… OK! And then he did the line, and I said thank you… Michael Douglas.”
This episode also sees the return of Brock Rumlow, aka the man who would later become Crossbones. In this universe, however, he’s an apparently faithful agent of S.H.I.E.L.D., and because my life is apparently very silly and wonderful, I hopped on zoom to chat with Frank Grillo, the man who plays Rumlow in the MCU and who returned to voice him in What If. What was it like, I asked, inhabiting a character vocally but not physically?
“It’s interesting, because you kind of learn to stand in a phone booth, and still do the action! Do you know what I mean?’ Frank looks elated. ‘It’s just far more refined, and sometimes internal, but I still do a lot of moving around. So I’m out of breath! By the time I finish recording this stuff, I’m kind of tired! There’s just so much physicality in the delivery. In your voice,there’s so much movement, so you have to kind of incorporate it.”
I ask Frank (we’re on a first name basis now) whether he ever feels stupid flinging himself about in a voice recording booth. “Nah, I go for it! You know there’s no time to be shy, or feel vulnerable. You have to perform!”
In this episode, Brock doesn’t appear to have done the flip he did in Winter Soldier. Was it nice, I ask, seeing a version where he potentially doesn’t turn bad? “I think that’s an interesting concept, right? It’s like Sliding Doors. You know? I think there’s a version of Brock where… look, there are all these different ideologies. Maybe there is a world where he believes something (like Hydra), but not enough to pursue it.”
We then go on to talk at length about the metaphysics of parallel timelines, and go off on a lengthy tangent about our mutual love for Kevin McLeod’s Grand Designs, but none of that is pertinent to this article. Sufficed to say, Frank Grillo is an absolute champ.
This episode doesn’t quite reach the dizzying heights of the first two. It does, however, round out with a satisfying if tragic twist, and finishes with a Loki variant conquering Earth. It’s the first downbeat ending in what would become a string of downbeat endings.
Episode 4: What If… Doctor Strange Lost His Heart Instead of His Hands?
Speaking of downbeat endings, welcome to the first ten minutes of Up of this season. The dog waiting for Fry in Futurama of this season. This episode is Dark with a capital D, and is all the richer for it. Stephen Strange loses the woman he loves, and is confronted with a dilemma: should he use all the powers available to him to bring her back?
Bradley lights up when we begin talking about Cumberbatch. “I was nervous when I heard they were approaching him, because… oh god. This episode has a lot of lines! But he was so lovely. He said to me, I get to play the hero and the villain? And he was so excited! He said, we get to see these different sides of Strange, and how one man can deal with loss so differently.”
“And I said … OK, you’re describing the script better than I wrote it, so thank you, sir! But he came in with the script all marked up, and loaded with ideas on how he wanted to portray the different versions of Strange, where they’re both coming from, where they both intersect, and where they diverge.”
That point of divergence is the axle upon which this story balances, and leads to a tragic, profound ending. Better still? It brilliantly sets the table for the triumphant season finale.
Episode 5: What If… Zombies?
Zombies have played a role in the Marvel comic universe for some time now, but here, they’re used as a more traditional zombie threat. The real highlights of the episode take place once we get Happy into the mix – along with the other survivors of the zombie plague, these sequences give the episode it’s strongest moments.
The camaraderie, the Spider Man optimism and relentless whimsy in the face of horror… it all works. And whilst the episode doesn’t soar, the voice talent alone carries it. Paul Rudd’s turn as Ant Man devoid of a body is comedic gold, Bettany coming back to voice a Vision who lost his way, and Jon Favreau as Happy, all overdeliver.
Favreau, Bradley says, was particularly fun to work with.
“John Favreau … his whole thing was, I’ll do the episodes,” she tells me. “I’ll cameo in these two episodes … but you’re definitely putting me in season two. So … Happy is in season two! He was like, I gotta come back! You can’t put me on the shelf after this!”
Episode 6: What If… Killmonger Rescued Tony Stark?
Perhaps the weakest episode of the season. Not a stinker by any means, but it’s difficult seeing the legacy of Wakanda (and the redemption of Tony Stark, to a degree) annihilated by the sheer, unmitigated bitterness and hatred of Killmonger.
Sure, Killmonger doesn’t quite reach Nate in season two of Ted Lasso levels of cretinous, entitled betrayal here. He does, after all, have some valid points regarding race, and Wakanda’s role in global affairs. But he’s an absolute prick. There. I said it.
I was inclined to give this episode a far harsher score, until I saw the finale. More on that later.
Episode 7: What If… Thor Were An Only Child?
After a slew of gut-punch episodes, rife with tragedy and sadness, What If dishes up this cheesy, goofy look at the God of Thunder. And it works! Partially because it’s a freewheeling foray into Marvel’s potential for nonsense, but mostly because Chris Hemsworth really cuts loose as Thor.
“Chris has fun,” laughs Bradley. “He liked that this was a goofy side of Thor, because to be honest, Thor has been through the frikkin’ gauntlet in the MCU. I mean … he loses him mum, his dad, his brother, his eye, his planet… so playing the silly, funny, goofy version of Thor, he was super down with it! He brought a lot to the part.”
Revisiting the comedic side of Thor is tricky, given how high Taika Waititi and Eric Pearson set the bar with Ragarok. But positioning Thor as a good-natured cosmic Gaston is inspired – why not have him end up in Vegas with Jane? Why not have Darcy marry Howard the Duck? And why not get Jeff Goldblum back to voice Grandmaster? Go nuts! The fact that this show is animated has let the showrunners ease up on the brakes – this episode takes the foot off them entirely.
Episode 8 & 9: What If… Ultron Won? and What If… the Watcher Broke His Oath?
By this point in the series, I was enjoying the hell out of What If…? I was, however, convinced we were going to be ramping out with a series of unrelated vignettes. There didn’t seem to be a real common thread emerging, and I was fine with that. The cosmic ambivalence of Jeffrey Wright’s terrific spin on The Watcher was enough of a throughline.
And then… they went in hard. In a brilliant meta turn, Ultron broke the fourth wall, addressing our narrator and breaking the rules of the show. The Watcher, in turn, broke his, leading to the cataclysmically awesome finale.
“We kind of discussed doing the Guardians of the Multiverse — although we didn’t call them that — that was a team-up in my original pitch in the show,” Bradley told me.
“One of the rules is that The Watcher can’t interfere, right? In the comics, he says he can’t interfere, but then he does. But he only does it for huge, universe-ending events. So we need a fusion of events, and you realise that all the previous episodes were actually him looking for heroes. For the pieces he needed. So the challenge ended up being … well, we have all these episodes, these characters, but we don’t want to sacrifice any individual story just for the finale. So I had to figure out a way to use Killmonger, Strange Supreme, everyone, as many as possible, in The Watcher’s plan. It was reverse engineering, really. We wanted to show all the worlds we visited through the run, and even give episode three a happy ending.”
The notion of The Watcher pretty much putting together a crew for a multiversal heist is brilliant. But having him recruit Killmonger, not because he saw the good in him, but because he knew he was rotten and would steal the Infinity Stones … brilliant.
In short, the finale managed to pay off any loose threads left dangling from the apparently standalone episodes throughout the series. Unresolved arcs were paid off, justice was rendered, and redemption was found. It was, in truth, one of the most satisfying jaunts through the MCU we’ve had in a long time.
Once I’d finished chatting with Bradley, I asked what season two holds in store for us. “Look,” she said, very tentatively. “I can’t talk much about season two, because Marvel won’t let me talk about season two, and I’d like very much to keep working, and living! The logic behind the show has always been character first. Who are these characters? I love taking larger than life heroes and finding new ways into them. They’re like puzzles. And that’s the ultimate puzzle – what can you say about Strange that hasn’t been said before, for example?”
“And season two is… we branch out a little bit more, we move away from phase one, we kind of focus a little more on characters that weren’t available to us because their movies hadn’t come out – like Shang Chi, Black Widow. We learned from season one that the best What If’s don’t come from ‘what if this happened instead of this’. They come from ‘I would love to tell the story of this character going through this.’ Then we figure out the how.”
God knows what season two has in store, but I will say this: don’t count it out simply because it’s animated. What If is a hotbed of comic book brilliance, and an absolute joy from start to finish.
All episodes of What If…? are now streaming on Disney+.
Paul Verhoeven is an author, broadcaster and TV presenter. His books Electric Blue and Loose Units are out now through Penguin, and his podcasts, DISH! and Loose Units, are available everywhere you get your podcasts. You can follow him on Twitter, Instagram, and in person, if you can find him (he’s very good at hiding).