The Marvel movies are fun. That’s not a controversial statement, even if Avengers: Infinity War killed off half of all life and Avengers: Endgame spent a significant amount of time making sure you were sufficiently sad about the death of Iron Man. Still, if you ask pretty much anyone, they’ll tell you that the Marvel Cinematic Universe is largely good-natured fun. The good guys drop quips, the bad guys drop quips, and when all else fails, the heroes save the universe with a dance contest. If that’s all a little too saccharine for you, though, the Disney+ alternate universe anthology series What If...? has been building a version of the MCU with a bit more teeth—even if it has a somewhat limited idea of what that looks like.
Based on the first two episodes of the series, it really seemed like What If…? would be another wacky Marvel Studios romp where even the sad stuff has a twinkle of optimism. The premiere, in which an injury prevents Steve Rogers from becoming Captain America and Hayley Atwell’s Peggy Carter must take his place, ends with the newly dubbed Captain Carter traveling to the future just in time for the events of the Avengers movie (an alternate reality that still seems appealing, since Captain Carter rules). The second episode pulled some surprisingly elegant twists to get Chadwick Boseman’s T’Challa out in space, where he replaced Chris Pratt’s Peter Quill as Star-Lord. Like the first episode, the “T’Challa as Star-Lord” story ended up being more hopeful and positive than even the notoriously hopeful and positive MCU, even if it ended on a potentially brutal cliffhanger.
Since then, though, the series has featured the death of, well, everybody. This is in line with the source material: In the series’ namesake comics, the stories are traditionally built around alternate realities where something from the regular universe has gone wrong or just unfolded in such a way that works out poorly for the established heroes. Take a seemingly optimistic premise like “What If Gwen Stacy Had Lived?,” where Spidey is able to catch his girlfriend after she’s thrown from the Brooklyn Bridge by the Green Goblin. Rather than accidentally breaking her neck, Spider-Man saves her and the two get married… until the Green Goblin reveals Spider-Man’s identity to the police and Peter must abandon his family and live his life in hiding. On a similar note, “What If Karen Page Had Lived?” sees Daredevil get so enraged by the attempted murder of his true love that he full-on executes the Kingpin and goes to prison. Writer Brian Michael Bendis, who seems to love writing bitterly mean What If? stories (see also: the unnecessarily cruel ending of “What If Jessica Jones Had Joined The Avengers?”), also throws in the knife-twist that Daredevil never sees or hears from Karen again anyway.
The “What If” comics are a repository for stories that go dark in a way that the regular universe wouldn’t allow, because it might stifle future developments or frustrate readers who would rather see the heroes save the day. Through its What If…? series, the MCU has been able to do the same thing under the guise of enjoyable adventures about the characters you know and love from the movies (often with the same actors playing them). After the episode where T’Challa became Star-Lord and literally everyone became friends with each other because of it (and we mean everyone), What If…? featured an episode where the Avengers are all murdered before they can team up, and for a (thankfully) brief moment, it embraces body horror with the Hulk expanding into an Akira-style flesh blob before exploding.
But What If…?’s definition of a dark storyline has been limited, alternating between either “everyone dies” or “the bad guy wins.” Those examples up above from the comics don’t involve the planet being destroyed, they end with the heroes suffering new personal stakes—a fitting approach to a bad ending for a comic book publisher that spent so much ink exploring the relatable drama of Peter Parker’s high school years. Not everything has to have cosmic stakes to be an effective cautionary tale, but What If…? seems to have landed on that speed and is committed to maintaining it, even if it means having multiple episodes that cut to black right after a dramatic twist.
The abrupt endings are both a cause and effect of this kind of storytelling, since the writers only have so much room to work with in 30-minute episodes and it serves as an straightforward opportunity to make viewers sit with a dark ending and contemplate what it means for the universe if, say, Doctor Strange embraced evil magic and accidentally obliterated all of reality. That happened in What If…?’s fourth episode, and underlines the show’s goal of telling stories that absolutely could not work in the movies (for better or worse). After all, it’s hard to make more Doctor Strange movies if the universe has ceased to exist.
Similarly, the following episode saw everyone become zombies, a tribute to the fan-favorite Marvel Zombies series of alternate universe comics. In “What If… Zombies?,” a handful of heroes managed to discover a potential zombie cure and got to experience the joy of saving the world for five seconds before zombie Thanos assembled all of the Infinity Stones, at which point the credits roll and the episode ends. No hope for resolution, no opportunity to undercut it with a final joke. It’s the same basic trick, and it wears a little thin when every episode attempts it, but there is something to be said for What If…?’s commitment to maintaining a very familiar MCU feel (complete with a lot of the movie actors reprising their roles) while telling multiple stories where everyone dies.
What If…? isn’t quite the topping of fan-service whipped cream that it seemed to be at first, and it might not take its tales as far as some of the more tragic What If comic books do. But it has quickly become an unexpectedly dark outlet for Marvel to tell stories that wouldn’t work in the movies—assuming Marvel is still committed to this whole “cinematic universe” thing where every movie plays off of the previous movie and leads into the next movie. It has been working pretty well for the last decade, so it seems unlikely that the studio would be willing throw all of that away for a movie where Doctor Strange eats countless magical monsters so he can become as evil as possible and then wipes out all life on Earth. What If…? has been having some fun embracing that kind of bleak silliness, but as the show goes on, it will still need to try some new tricks that live up to its supposedly limitless premise.