If there were any question of how deep Marvel Studios was willing to dive into its multiverse, then consider the breathless Season 1 finale of the company’s first animated series, “What If…?” In Wednesday’s episode, the all-seeing Watcher (voiced by Jeffrey Wright) breaks his oath of non-interference to recruit alternative versions of beloved characters from the Marvel Cinematic Universe to become the Guardians of the Multiverse in order to stop an alternative version of Ultron (Ross Marquand), who controls all of the infinity stones, from wiping out all sentient life in all possible universes for all time.
“What If…?” has been a fascinating experiment for Marvel Studios, allowing the show — led by head writer A.C. Bradley and director Bryan Andrews — to explore corners of the nascent MCU multiverse that the live-action feature films and Disney Plus TV series could never go. Season 1 has showcased fizzy adventures, like in Episode 2 where the late Chadwick Boseman voices a version of T’Challa who becomes Star Lord instead of Black Panther.
The show also leaned into real darkness, like the grim tragedy of Episode 4, in which Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) loses himself into the dark arts in a futile quest to keep his beloved Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams) from dying.
And just about every episode has ended on a cliffhanger, like Loki (Tom Hiddleston) taking over the Earth after Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) kills all the Avengers in Episode 3, or Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) covertly conquering Wakanda, only to have Pepper Potts (Beth Hoyt) and Shuri (Ozioma Akagha) vow to take him down in Episode 6.
With so many storytelling possibilities, it’s perhaps not surprising to learn that Marvel Studios was developing a spinoff series for at least one “What If…?” character.
“There was planning to have Star Lord T’Challa spin off into his own show,” Andrews tells Variety. “We were all very excited. We know [Chadwick] would have loved it, too.”
Andrews and Bradley talked more with Variety about how they designed the “What If…?” finale to tie up several loose threads from Season 1, how they handled writing for characters — like Natasha Romanoff (Lake Bell) — who have died in the main MCU, and what audiences can expect for Season 2.
You’re already working on Season 2 of “What If…?” — and based on the post-credits teaser, it appears we should expect to see more of Captain Carter (Hayley Atwell) after she discovers that her beloved Steve Rogers is still alive in modern day?
Bryan Andrews: I would wager it’s a relatively safe bet. (Laughs)
A.C. Bradley: For me, the difference between a twist ending that we were doing all season and a post-credits teaser is that a twist ending is fun, but a post-credits teaser is a promise.
Well, that allows me to segue into my next question, which is that a lot of the Season 1 episodes ended with a cliffhanger. Will any of those storylines continue in Season 2?
Bradley: A lot of the Season 1 episodes were hopefully resolved enough in the finale. Killmonger’s world — he’s taken out of the equation, and we know Shuri and Pepper were already coming for him. So hopefully that world is back to peace. Dystopian Natasha kicked some Loki butt and is back with her man Nick Fury to save the world, so order’s gonna be restored there. Zombies? Who knows. But we tried to give some resolution. And even with our lovely Star Lord T’Challa — Ego might be on Earth, but do you think he can actually take down both the Ravagers and the Wakandans, now that Peter Quill is part of the fight? I think he’s going to lose. So we try to give some closure to all those stories in the finale.
There’s also a brief moment in the finale where we meet an alternate version of Gamora with a sort of space Tony Stark. Will we get to see more of that universe in Season 2?
Bradley: That’s a definite yes. Basically what happened was we originally had an episode planned for earlier in the season that was a fun, light-hearted, living, breathing Tony Stark-centric episode with Gamora. However, due to the COVID pandemic, one of our animation houses was hit incredibly hard, and the episode needed to be pushed into Season 2, because it would not be finished in time. Given everything that we’ve all went through over the past two years, pushing an episode of television is absolutely nothing in comparison. And we understood. We hope fans enjoy the ride next year.
It almost felt like a nice teaser for what you could expect, suggesting that there are these other universes that you hadn’t seen yet.
Bradley: Definitely. I think everyone’s going to be surprised by the way Gamora gets that armor, and how her relationship with Tony evolves, because they’re obviously good friends in that bit that we see. So, it will be a fun universe to see, hopefully, next year, and I think you found the silver lining there. It is a promise of more stories to come.
Will Season 2 incorporate any alternative universes of the live-action Disney Plus shows?
Bradley: We definitely use the characters.
Andrews: In Season 2, a lot of the stuff that we’re doing, we’re doing concurrently with the Disney Plus live-action shows. We were already writing. So we may not get a chance to explore some of the stuff that showed up in those shows, because we’re doing them almost at the exact same time. [Marvel Studios chief] Kevin [Feige] was like, “No no no! No touching! Don’t touch that! Not yet!” Maybe one day, maybe, if these things continue, we can play with some of that stuff. But we definitely get to play with some other parts of the MCU, for sure. There’s fertile ground.
It was so lovely to see so much of T’Challa this season. It felt like a gift to audiences who felt like they didn’t get to see enough of Chadwick Boseman’s performance. Was he able to record anything for Season 2?
Andrews: Unfortunately, no.
Bradley: We were lucky we had him for Season 1.
Andrews: Chadwick had recorded his Star Lord T’Challa stuff early. But we had those later episodes that he appeared in sporadically, and it was a long stretch before we got him [again]. And it was not long after the final recording that he passed. I think it was maybe just a few months, or a month. None of us knew, obviously. But we got him in time to have everything [for Season 1]. I think he was also trying to make an effort because T’Challa was so important to him — and also this new version of Star Lord T’Challa was so important to him. He dug it.
I don’t know if he knew this, but there was planning to have Star Lord T’Challa spin off into his own show with that universe and crew. We were all very excited. We know he would have loved it, too. And then, you know, he passed, and so all that’s in limbo. So, who knows? Maybe one day.
So as fun as the Star Lord T’Challa episode was, there also were several other episodes that got kind of dark, like the Doctor Strange episode, the Killmonger episode and the zombies episode. Was that something that you knew was going to happen from the start, or was that more of a discovery?
Bradley: When it came to the darker endings — it’s kind of two-pronged. One is the “What If…?” comic books are known for having darker twists and abrupt endings, and we definitely want to pay homage to that. And two, I approached these stories as if they were live-action. I wanted to tell the best story possible, and if it had a darker ending, that’s OK, because we’re going in places the movies would never go. The Doctor Strange episode was always designed to be a tragedy. It’s about how not being able to let go of loss and pain will destroy your world — in this case, the entire world. And zombies — come on! Zombies! I still think that ends with the glimmer of hope. They have the stone. They have the cure. They’ll figure it out.
The Season 1 finale ends with Natasha from the dystopian Ultron universe in Episode 8 replacing the dead Natasha from the murdered Avengers universe in Episode 3. And that would seem to present an interesting challenge as storytellers in keeping the stakes high, when you’ve got a multiverse that can allow you to cheat death in a way. So how do you navigate that?
Bradley: When it came to resolving Dystopian Natasha’s story, we realized that keeping her on that Ultron world was a fate worse than death. Everyone’s gone. And the Watcher, as he says to her, these stories have become everything to him. It didn’t come from a place of like, ‘Oh, what are we saying about Marvel and the MCU?’ It came from a place of, ‘What are we saying about the Watcher?’ He loves these characters. He loves these stories, these people, these heroes. He would never banish her back to a planet to basically starve to death by herself. We wanted to put her in a world where she could be the Natasha Romanoff that he has watched in different versions and loves. So that’s where the idea came from. Whether or not that’ll be reflected in the greater MCU? Who knows. They always have plans.
Andrews: When it comes to the challenge of a multiverse, it’s like, ‘Oh, well, this person’s alive in a thousand different ways in different universes,’ and doesn’t that cheapen the stakes? I don’t think so, because you’re only still watching one story at one time, and hopefully we’re doing our job enough where you’re compelled by what these people on the screen are doing at that time, and surprised at what may or may not happen to them. So, if we’re doing our job and engaging the audience, it shouldn’t matter that there could be some other person that’s alive or dead in some other universe. It’s what’s happening right there in the present, right in front of your face — that adventure. And if you can connect in some way, then awesome. Then it’s always gonna work. And you never know what you’re gonna get, which I think is part of the fun, and that was one of the great things about doing the whole series. We can go dark. We can go into comedy. We can really lean into the genre, which was part of the joy.
Finally, the Watcher breaks his oath to bring together the Guardians of the Multiverse, which makes clear he can be more of an active character than just a passive observer. Should we expect to see Jeffrey Wright play this role in live action?
Bradley: Jeffrey Wright can play any role he wants, as far as I’m concerned. If he wants to play Sue Storm, sign him up!
Andrews: We love him. It’s up to Kevin. At some point, maybe? Who knows what they have in store. There’s some things that we may know, but there’s a lot that even we don’t know, because they keep it buttoned up. But I’m with the audience. I think it would be amazing to see. I would love to see some random shots where there’s Jeffrey Wright, watching from a distance.
Bradley: Not in costume. In jeans and a sweater, drinking a cup of coffee. He walks in from crafty over to the shot.
Andrews: ‘Look at this stuff going on right over here!’ (Laughs)