What kind of show was Marvel's ‘What If…?’ meant to be?

Because it’s not really an anthology.

Marvel Studios

This post contains spoilers for the season finale of Marvel's 'What If…?'

All season there were hints that What If…? was going to be more than just an anthology show. The fact that it debuted week to week, instead of dropping all at once like Star Wars Visions. The Watcher’s repeated insistence that he must not interfere, an assertion begging to be tested. Stephen Strange noticed the Watcher’s presence. And then Ultron becomes aware of not just the Watcher, but of the entire multiverse, setting the stage for this week’s finale. It’s like a “greatest hits” of the series so far, with room for future adventures.

After last episode’s altercation, the Watcher knows he cannot handle Infinity Ultron by himself, instead enlisting the help of the heroes we’ve met over the entire season, including Captain Carter, T’Challa Starlord and Party Thor. The one exception is a Gamora who appears to have been working with Tony Stark, pulled into the group with little explanation, making me wonder if I had missed an episode. (Though the Watcher’s dismissal of Tony was pretty funny.)

Where other episodes have had to rush through their premises, showing us how those particular realities differed from the main Marvel Cinematic Universe, the finale has eight prior episodes to lean on for background so it got straight to the action. What we got was a tight, zippy episode that’s sure to be a crowd-pleaser, with lots of fun banter between the characters. And it certainly helped that a few were played by their original live-action actors, most notably Benedict Cumberbatch and Hayley Atwell.

However, even this episode left some loose ends and a lot of doors open, with Arnim Zola and Killmonger locked in eternal battle, Black Widow finding a new team and Captain Carter discovering her long-lost love still alive. These all feel ripe for sequels that this show appears more than willing to deliver.

Captain Carter
Marvel Studios

It raises the question of what What If…? actually is. The show was originally presented as an anthology — which is still one of the tags it’s given on Disney+. Traditionally an anthology is a collection of stories or essays by different authors, but as early as The Twilight Zone television has defined an anthology as a program with new characters and scenarios every episode, regardless of whether the writers are the same. Even now, while every episode of Black Mirror is written by Charlie Brooker, you’ll still see it described as a science fiction anthology.

The episodes of What If…? are written by a variety of people including showrunner A.C. Bradley, but that’s par for the course with any television program, even the serialized ones. But its anthology nature was due to the fact that even if they were similar to characters we already knew and loved from the live-action productions, the characters were still different people. This is actually alluded to in the finale, when Gamora’s machine fails to destroy the Infinity Stones because it was only built to crush the gems in her universe, not in all realities.

T'Challa, Gamora, Killmonger, Thor
Marvel Studios

But ultimately, even if it’s different universes, it’s one multiverse and thus, one continuity. To watch this finale you would have needed to see every episode of the series this season, instead of cherry-picking only the episodes you were interested in. I know a few people who were only watching the concepts that intrigued them, but in the end they’ll have to watch every episode in order to make sense of certain plot points. While the show has been careful not to intrude into the main MCU and becoming “required” viewing in that expanding behemoth, it’s still building an essential canon of its own.

It’s still rather up in the air over what part What If…? is meant to play. Having many of the actors reprise their roles from the films was a way to tie it into the larger universe, while the change in medium from live-action to animation set it apart from not just the films, but series like WandaVision and The Falcon and the Winter Soldier. Being billed as an anthology gave it license to do a lot less long-term character building than those two programs as well.

The Watcher with the
Marvel Studios

However, in practice it feels a lot like Loki, which completely changed how we saw the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe — it even downplayed the Infinity Stones at several points! Taking major threats of the MCU and greeting them with a ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ says that even What If….? isn’t all that interested in retreading old stories and is ready to move on with the rest of the Marvel properties. It may be inessential canon, but it still wants to keep up with the main event. And that’s not how an anthology is supposed to work.

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