What If…? underscores an expansive and prolific Marvel Cinematic Universe

The Watcher (voiced by Jeffrey Wright) in Marvel Studios' WHAT IF...? exclusively on Disney+. © Marvel Studios 2020. All Rights Reserved.
The Watcher (voiced by Jeffrey Wright) in Marvel Studios' WHAT IF...? exclusively on Disney+. © Marvel Studios 2020. All Rights Reserved. /

Could a series like What If…? work without the rapid success and overflowing narratives that the MCU has constructed?

The new Disney Plus animated series, What If…?, has its jumping off point with the idea that, within the Marvel Cinematic Universe, there is a multiverse of endless possibilities and deviations – a seed that the Loki series planted and will quickly blossom throughout the entire franchise of films and shows. Yet while any cinematic universe could ask the question, what if?, this Marvel series proves that, beyond its entertaining content, the show can only exist because of the vastness of the MCU in both quality and quantity since its inception, only thirteen years ago.

The MCU kicked off with Iron Man as its headlining hero, yet calculatedly grew into a multifaceted monster of a franchise – sort of like a Hydra, with multiple heads, one more powerful than the other. Instead of a single protagonist, such as the Harry Potter films, with one central character surrounded by numerous subplots and supporting players, the MCU changes focus to dozens of different principals and even more storylines, while still remaining connected.

There has never been anything quite like this type of film series, at least until the DCEU tried to copy its “formula”. So, it is not simply that the MCU had the motivation and financial backing to produce two dozen films in a decade, it is the nature of the fictional universe itself that lends itself to be explored and re-explored many times over.

James Bond also has 20+ movies under its belt, but is not an ever-growing and expansive franchise like the MCU. First of all, it started in the 1960s, so over the decades the films in the series have become more reboots than sequels. Perhaps the benefit of the spy franchise is that anyone can watch the latest Bond flick without needing to catch the previous dozen movies. But in this day and age, that may be a part of the reason why it will never become as popular as the MCU.

Key components that raise the MCU above other franchises are connectivity and continuity – audiences are drawn to the fact that an element from the first MCU movie (the Ten Rings in Iron Man) will now have a deep dive in the 25th feature, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. Or especially when a character from the second film (Thunderbolt Ross in The Incredible Hulk) reappears ten stories later in Captain America: Civil War.

X-Men attempted to do this even before the MCU, with a dozen features since 2000, but has continuously struggled with continuity issues and is also less consistent with its caliber of filmmaking. Star Wars is the MCU’s best rival when it comes to extensive storytelling, and the science fiction franchise is untouchable when taking into account that both their live-action and animated series are canon. Although, while Star Wars produced eleven films in 40 years, the MCU will be dropping its 27th at the end of this year.

Sure, quality matters more than quantity, so rushing a franchise just to try to compete with another, like the DCEU did in the past decade, will not always reap rewards. What is most impressive about the MCU is that their output rarely falters. Having a singular guiding light (Marvel Studios President Kevin Feige) throughout the MCU’s journey has been an indispensable piece to constructing the MCU puzzle.

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Another chief factor is that the MCU is very unique from film to film while each still feeds off of the preceding material. Star Wars is a little more linear and the jedi’s powers are too similar for the producers to warrant as much content with a What If…? approach. But Star Wars is now branching out in creative ways as Lucasfilm broadens its scope with its more recent television series, so it could be possible in the near future.

The What If…? series has its roots in the Marvel comic books, which is another reason why the studio was the first to recreate the format on the small screen. Although, the verdict is still out on how well this venture into exploring alternative stories will stand up alongside the rest of the MCU. So far, What If…? is not essential MCU viewing (unlike everything else the franchise releases) because it is just a bit of playful pondering that is effectuated in animated form and shouldn’t have real consequences in the larger universe.

But all in all, the fact that Marvel would consider creating a project like What If…?, where they can play around with all of their established heroes and villains from dozens of beloved stories, proves how fruitful the franchise has become. Just the first two episodes featured over 25 well-known Marvel Cinematic Universe characters, with many of the original actors returning to perform the voicework. And fans can expect to see plenty more iconic characters in future episodes.

Next. Loki's MCU connections. dark

What do you think of Marvel’s What If…? so far? Let us know in the comments below.