Total Film




Marvel’s mission to outbonkers itself continues with the animated mix-up.

What if Peggy Carter took the Super Soldier Serum instead of Steve Rogers? What if T’Challa became Star-Lord? What if… zombies? If you’ve got at least one other superhero fan in your life, the chances are you’ve already had some of the same late-night, long-drive conversati­ons that went on behind the scenes of What If…?, Marvel Studios’ latest foray into animation and one of the most ambitious new deep cuts in the MCU – an all-star anthology series that deliberate­ly messes up the multiverse just for the fun of it.

“I remember when we were first talking about doing Avengers Assemble,” Marvel’s vice-president of production and developmen­t, Brad Winderbaum, tells Total Film. “I heard Kevin [Feige] talk about the strange alchemy of mashing characters together that don’t seem to belong in the same story – this idea of asking how those personalit­y types interact, and how they challenge each other and force each other to grow. One night I just started texting Kevin after a drive home and we just started going back and forth about What If…?. By the next day, we were talking about these bespoke individual character studies, these Twilight Zone episodes that take a story you know and tweak one little detail to watch the ripple effect.”

With 13 volumes of What If…? comic books to fall back on for story ideas (featuring storylines such as, ‘What if Iron Man had been a traitor?’, ‘What if Wolverine became the Punisher?’, ‘What if The Fantastic Four were Soviets?’), Winderbaum decided to start again from scratch and use the concept as a new opportunit­y to delve more deeply into the MCU. But before he could do any of that, he had to build a whole new animation studio from the ground up...

“Marvel has a thing where they never tell you what you’re meeting about until you’re in the conference room and after you’ve signed the NDA,” laughs A.C. Bradley, invited in for a meeting after her work writing for Guillermo del Toro’s Trollhunte­rs: Tales Of Arcadia and 3Below. “So I was sitting there and they went, ‘We want to do a cartoon.’ That’s cute, I thought…”

Asked to pitch ideas for different What If…? scenarios, Bradley accidental­ly ended up spoiling several major plot points for movies that hadn’t even been announced yet – a blunder that wound up getting her the job. “The next day I had a call and they said, ‘If you can guess what we’re doing in the big MCU, you can definitely handle the weird MCU.’ And that was back in October 2018.”

For Bradley, who was used to working with a small team at an establishe­d animation studio at DreamWorks, it was a steep learning curve – not least because she kept on guessing far too much about the things she wasn’t supposed to know about yet.

“My first week, I wanted to do Jane Foster Thor and I was told no,” she remembers. “I went into a whole feminist rant of why these characters are important and why they’re necessary and why a woman needs to be able to wield the hammer and then they were like, ‘Yeah, we’re gonna do it in live-action…’ I also pitched old-man Steve and Professor Hulk… this was before they let me see Endgame!”

Also struggling to adapt to Marvel’s famously bottomless budget, Bradley started out trying to keep her scripts as simple as possible – still stuck in the mindset of worrying about how it was all going to be animated. “Early on I was very politely taken aside by my line producer,” she laughs. “He just

said, ‘Marvel doesn’t want you to be in a box. They don’t want these stories to be constraine­d by budget. Go nuts. They’ll figure out the bill later…’”

Freed from the usual production constraint­s and actively encouraged to “go weird and have fun”, Bradley and her writing team came up with over 30 different ideas – eventually whittled down by Feige to comprise a debut season that spanned all Phases, most major superheroe­s and at least a dozen different tones across a set of selfcontai­ned episodes that each imagines a new alternate timeline branching off from a single changed moment.

“It was incredibly liberating,” says Winderbaum. “Storytelli­ng in the MCU means you’re part of a shared tapestry. We’re all playing with the same toys. But with this there’s a lot more opportunit­y because you’re no longer concerned about what comes next. You can blow it open, you can ruin things, ruin the universe, you can kill beloved characters, and you can challenge people in unexpected ways.”

All of which means we’re getting a zombie Captain America. Pitched as a dark comedy horror in the middle of a reimagined version of The Winter Soldier, the MCU’s first step towards acknowledg­ing the Marvel Zombies comic series is just one episode among many that pushes the MCU into completely new territory.

“Our episodes are either darker or lighter than a traditiona­l Marvel movie, and we also have a couple of straightup tragedies,” teases Bradley. “We have an episode that’s like a political thriller. We’ve got a dark Doctor Strange episode that’s like a tragic love story. One of them is just me wanting to goof off and relive my favourite movies as a kid. Can’t Hardly Wait was a touchstone… I can’t imagine any other point in my career when I’m going to get to write one of those National Lampoon crazy party movies…”

“Then we have a great Agatha Christie episode,” chips in Winderbaum, everyone eager to talk about their favourite moment and all finding it impossible to pick just one. “It takes place in this obscure point of detail that only hardcore fans know called ‘Fury’s Big Week’, which is where three of our movies all kind of happened in the same period of time. So we imagined Nick Fury running around dealing with all these events that then lead to the Avengers movie, and we spin that out in this murder-mystery style…”

Stressing that the ‘what if?’ isn’t half as important as the ‘then what?’, Bradley’s main challenge for each episode was to make sure the story was driving a deeper understand­ing of the characters – not just having fun with zombies and murder mysteries, but giving more room for the heroes and villains of the MCU to express a different side of themselves. The newly imagined realities of What If…? might be made up, but the people in them live on in the main multiverse – loading the show with a sense of responsibi­lity that isn’t lost on anyone.

“I’ve always loved Tony Stark,” says Bradley. “I saw the first Iron Man movie when I was 22, and I had a hangover. I saw it at The Arclight in Hollywood with a buddy of mine, and after the movie we walked down to In-N-Out Burger and I was like, ‘This is what I want to write.’ This was the stuff that I’d been trying to figure out. It’s Die Hard meets Wes Anderson, with all this character work put into it. So when we knew we’re going to do an Iron Man episode I was like, ‘That’s mine. I’m writing that one’. For me, the most interestin­g parts of the character is his love of Pepper. He’s not a James Bond lothario. He has this relationsh­ip with Pepper and she always comes across as a woman of agency, of her own power. I always love the fact that the driving force behind Tony is this need to fix everything, but it’s also her. That episode is very close to my heart.”

As protective of her characters as Bradley was, it helped that she was able to lean on practicall­y every original actor in the MCU coming back to voice their roles. “We tried to respect the fact that these guys and women knew their characters better than we did,” she grins, reeling off a list of her favourite experience­s in the recording booth working with Hayley Atwell (“I will follow that woman into war”), Samuel L. Jackson (“I got to feed Natasha’s lines to him. That’s one of those things


that you didn’t even know to put on your bucket list…”) and Cobie Smulders (“Frickin’ delightful”), as well as joking with Karen Gillan about Nebula’s new alt-reality head of hair.

Poignantly, the series will also mark the last released performanc­e of Chadwick Boseman, who returned to voice T’Challa just weeks before his death in 2020. “To imagine that he would devote any of that time to us… I think it’s incredibly humbling,” says Winderbaum, going on to talk about the weight of an episode that starts off seeing T’Challa kidnapped by the Ravagers instead of Peter Quill, before building to a story about “how one person can influence an entire society, an entire culture. How just being there changes the DNA of a place.”

New to the MCU line-up is Jeffrey Wright as Uatu, aka The Watcher – a god-like narrator who bookends each episode with a perspectiv­e Bradley compares to the 2015 viral video of a rat dragging a slice of pizza down a set of subway steps. “At no point did any of us want to take that rat home and make it our pet,” she laughs. “We were just kind of like, ‘Look at that little sucker go. Good job, you!’ And that’s the way The Watcher views humanity.”

While Bradley looked to the original films and cast for inspiratio­n, Marvel’s creative director, Ryan Meinerding, was developing ambitious visual ideas for the show’s design – drawing on J.C. Leyendecke­r illustrati­ons, Norman Rockwell paintings and American travel posters of the ’40s and ’50s.

“We were looking at how to make the characters stylised and interestin­g without making them look like every other superhero cartoon that’s ever existed,” says Meinerding, explaining how he wanted to draw from his own iconic design work across two decades at Marvel as well as actively pushing away from it. “We weren’t just making big jaws and broad shoulders, we were trying to create monumental figures, almost like sculpture. It’s not pushing proportion­s to the point where we’re getting really thin ankles or huge hands either, we’re trying to keep our characters feeling like people, but elevated people… like superheroe­s!”

Hiring veteran Marvel artist and long-time Genndy Tartakovsk­y animator Bryan Andrews as the series director, What If…? rounded out its creative team with someone who really understood action – as well as adding another die-hard fan who was all too eager to start geeking out over getting the keys to the whole MCU.

“On Samurai Jack and Primal, there was never a script, we were writing it as we were drawing it. But this is Marvel…” laughs Andrews. “We basically approached each episode like a movie. We were able to use a lot of little tricks – whether that’s playing with focal depth, or lensing, or atmosphere – adding all these things to try to make it feel so much more than just a painted cell on a flat background.”

Capturing the bombast of Captain Carter riding the Hydra Stomper into a crowd of Nazis as well as the nuances of Doctor Strange’s personal tragedy, the real challenge for Andrews’ team came when they had to match moments from the movies – as well as in animating the subtle characteri­stics of actors that audiences have been living with on screen for decades.

“It was all challengin­g,” laughs Meinerding. “The idea of not only translatin­g existing characters into animation, but also twisting them, and taking these bigger swings on each episode. Just the volume of characters is also challengin­g. Then we have all the genre bending and going in and out of the films. The notion of what it takes to make that world feel as comprehens­ive and as real as the MCU means you’re baking 10 years’ worth of creation into one season of an animated series. It was a lot!”

Throwing away enough great ideas for a second season before she even started on the first, the potential for Bradley to keep on mining different areas of the MCU is practicall­y limitless – as long as Marvel is happy to keep on having the same geeky conversati­ons as its audience. “I love these characters more than anything,” smiles Bradley. “My favourite thing is stepping behind them and seeing what makes them tick. We were allowed to go in so many directions to do that, but, y’know, anything can happen in a multiverse…”



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The Watcher’s god-like presence looms over What
If…? (above).
Chadwick Boseman came in to voice T’Challa only weeks before his tragic death (below).
CLOSE WATCH The Watcher’s god-like presence looms over What If…? (above). SWAN SONG Chadwick Boseman came in to voice T’Challa only weeks before his tragic death (below).
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