What to know about What If...?, the Marvel series that features Chadwick Boseman voice
What if the Marvel Cinematic Universe had an animated alternate reality?
That's the premise behind the new series "What If. . .?," which began streaming the first of its nine episodes on Disney Plus on Wednesday. It marks Marvel Studios' first foray into the world of animation, while taking inspiration from the classic "What If. . .?" comics that began in 1977. Those comics - and the show - use the power of the hypothetical, remixing classic story lines and taking Marvel characters to places even the most well-read fans wouldn't see coming.
The very first issue of "What If. . .?" imagined Spider-Man joining the Fantastic Four (although that did end up happening in the mainstream comics). "What If . . .?" the series will use similar storytelling tactics but will apply them to the first decade of Marvel Studios on film.
One episode features Agent Peggy Carter, voiced by Hayley Atwell, the actress who portrayed her in the Captain America movies, when she was the love interest to Chris Evans's Steve Rogers. In "What If. . .?" she's the soldier who takes the super-serum and is handed a shield, becoming Captain Carter.
The goal of each episode is to reel the viewer in with familiar MCU moments before they realize they have no idea what is going to happen.
"The first question was never what if, the first question is where is the heart in the hero?" head writer A.C. Bradley said. "Where's the humanity in these iconic characters that we've all spent so many years watching on-screen and growing up reading comic books? How do we get beyond the shield? So, with Peggy Carter it was as simple as: She was a woman in the 1940s who says I'm staying in the room and how is that going to change the world?"
When she and director Bryan Andrews brainstormed ideas, Bradley joked about wanting to do an episode where Thor love-interest Jane Foster becomes Thor - but she was told not to pursue it because that's actually the story line of Taika Waititi's next Thor movie.
Marvel Studios President Kevin Feige, the architect of its past decade of interconnected storytelling, was a part of the decision-making process. According to Bradley, Feige's uncanny ability to read the pulse of the MCU fandom was an invaluable asset.
In one episode, T'Challa, the prince of Wakanda, doesn't grow up to become king and take on the mantle of the Black Panther. Instead, he is whisked to space as a child and grows up to become Star-Lord, leader of the Guardians of the Galaxy.
T'Challa is voiced by the late Chadwick Boseman, who played the Black Panther in the 2018 movie that grossed a billion dollars. Bosman died in 2020 from complications from colon cancer.
Working with Boseman left a lasting impression on "What If. . .?" producers, none of whom knew that the actor was ill or that the vocals he was recording would represent his last MCU performance.
"He was excited about playing a slightly different riff on T'Challa because he cares for T'Challa and all that T'Challa represents so much," Andrews said. "I think since he knew what he was going through, he saw this as one more opportunity to bring a slightly different color, a different shade, to what we think of [T'Challa]. Here's T'Challa with a little bit more of a light heart, he's got more jokes in him. We're thankful that we have another performance with him."
Bradley says Boseman understood the impact of T'Challa on younger generations who saw the Black Panther stand shoulder to shoulder with MCU icons Iron Man and Captain America in the movies, and he knew such imagery was important to the future of Marvel Studios.
"When [Chadwick] came to record, he didn't bring his A-game, he brought every damn sport with him. He was the best," Bradley said. "We didn't realize at the time that we were in the room with a legend that we were going to lose too quickly."
The series' narrator and overseer is the Watcher, who carries over from the original comics. He's voiced by Jeffrey Wright, who's no stranger to superhero universes on film. He recently finished filming Matt Reeve's "The Batman," playing the new Commissioner Gordon. Filming one superhero movie role in the heart of a pandemic was quite different from voicing one.
"We slogged to make ['The Batman'] in really challenging conditions," Wright said. "I enjoy the specificity of voice work. In this case I enjoy joining the MCU from my bedroom closet . . . with or without pants. I like to have that optionality. I recorded some of these episodes during the pandemic, so we had to improvise."
The Watcher is an alien being who never involves himself in the alternate-reality scenarios that the show presents, only observing and verbally setting the stage for the unexpected. He is an intergalactic cosmic fanboy.
Wright used his now 19-year-old son's encyclopedic knowledge of Marvel - and memories of taking him to see Marvel movies in theaters - as his inspiration for the character.
"He is his own being. He's described [in comics] as the most dramatic being in the known universe," Wright said. "He's got powers that are unique to him . . . but he's also omnipresent but in some ways quietly. So in a sense, he's not being introduced now. He's always been there. He's always been there watching."