Marvel Studios’ “What If…?” — which debuts on Wednesday on Disney Plus — marks a critical creative milestone for the MCU. As the title suggests, the show takes full advantage of the storytelling possibilities of the multiverse that “Loki” officially established. Each self-contained episode explores a different alternative storyline, like what if “Captain America’s” Peggy Carter took the super-soldier serum instead of Steve Rogers, or what if “Black Panther’s” T’Challa had been abducted from Earth as a child instead of “Guardians of the Galaxy’s” Peter Quill?
The show also marks the MCU’s first-ever foray into animation — and far from its last. As executive producer Brad Winderbaum (“Black Widow”) explains to Variety, Marvel Studios already has “multiple” animated series “in various phases of development” for Disney Plus, on top of a second season for “What If…?” and a series of “photo-real” animated shorts centered on Baby Groot that are both already in production. (There are no current plans for animated features.)
Winderbaum says the company was driven by the recognition that the creative freedom demanded by “What If…?” — including staging new versions of major action sequences from just about every movie within the MCU — is only possible through animation.
“We realized that there’s a lot of cool avenues you can explore with animation,” he says. “Any project that we create is going to be something that needs to be animated in order for the story to be told. There’s very little desire to take a piece of IP that’s popular because we’re coming out with a movie and just make an animated show about it. We’re not going to do that.”
When Winderbaum started working on “What If…?” he says he was in “animation kindergarten,” but he was a fast study and a faster devotee. “You can adapt the director’s vision onto the screen in a very pure way,” he says.
To develop a “unique aesthetic” for the show, director Bryan Andrews collaborated with independent animation studios Flying Bark Prods. (in Australia), Squeeze Animation Studios (in Canada) and Blue Spirit (in France). Winderbaum expects that kind of production model to continue, though he leaves the door cracked for working with corporate cousins Pixar or Disney Animation down the line.
“It’s something that we’d be open to under the right circumstances,” he says. “It all depends on the project.”
For decades, animation used to be the only reliable venue for Marvel comic adaptations; many credit the popularity of the “X-Men” animated series in 1990s for proving there was an audience for a live-action adaptation. In a way, Marvel Studios is playing a bit of catch-up with its rival DC Comics, which has had a regular pipeline of popular animated series and features for years.
Marvel’s advantage has always been its interconnected universe, but at first, it was unclear whether “What If…?” could take full advantage of it, given the dozens of in-demand movie stars who play the MCU’s major roles. Winderbaum says the team even debated getting a cast of sound-alike voice actors to play them instead.
“This isn’t a giant budgeted series,” he says. “We figured, we’ll go out to talent, and we’ll see who we can get. If we get a few, it’s great. And I was, of course, worried that we wouldn’t get anyone.”
Instead, Winderbaum estimates that 85% of the actors from the MCU agreed to reprise their roles for “What If…?”, including Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo, Jeremy Renner, Samuel L. Jackson, Natalie Portman, Paul Rudd, Benedict Cumberbatch, Tilda Swinton, Rachel McAdams, Michael B. Jordan, Josh Brolin, Paul Bettany, Hayley Atwell, Sebastian Stan, Don Cheadle, Benicio del Toro, Michael Douglas, Danai Gurira, Tom Hiddleston, Djimon Hounsou and, in his final performance as T’Challa, the late Chadwick Boseman.
Winderbaum demurs, though, when asked about the actors who didn’t return for “What If…?”, including Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Tom Holland, Zoe Saldana and Elizabeth Olsen.
“Part of it, I think, was literally the schedule — maybe. I mean, I don’t know,” he says with a shrug. “We didn’t push that hard.”
Winderbaum is more direct when asked about Dave Bautista, who said on Twitter that he was “never asked” to return as the hilariously deadpan Drax the Destroyer from the “Guardians of the Galaxy” films.
Let’s start with I was never asked. https://t.co/HwrnMrEajh
— Vaxxed AF! #TeamPfizer Poor Kid Chasing Dreams. (@DaveBautista) August 2, 2021
“I saw that, too,” Winderbaum says. “It’s my understanding that everybody was asked in some way, shape or form, either through their agents or directly. I don’t know really what happened behind the scenes there, but certainly, we would have loved for him to be in the show. So there’s probably some miscommunication somewhere.”
The overall interest from top talent in continuing their roles certainly bodes well for Marvel Studios’ animated future. Animation’s long production process means the new shows likely won’t start hitting the MCU’s crowded slate until 2023 at the earliest. But Winderbaum did confirm they will involve “original ideas” that draw from titles and characters already explored in live action as well as previously untapped sources from the Marvel comics library.
“All of our animation ambitions are going to still be under Marvel Studios, which means they’re going to be produced by Kevin Feige and they’re going to be born of the same stuff that makes the rest of our content,” he says.
And yes, like the rest of the MCU, they will all be connected.
“How will they be connected?” Winderbaum says with a smile. “Time will tell as the story of the multiverse unfolds.”