Marvel's 'What If...?' Writer And Director Discuss Remixing The MCU, The Arc Of The Watcher & More [Interview]

Marvel's What If...? animated series arrives on Disney+ next week. Taking a cue from the comics of the same name, each episode of the series puts a new spin on the characters and events of the movies of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Ushered in by the creation of the multiverse in Loki, the series tells a variety of stories involving the likes of Peggy Carter becoming a different version of Captain America, T'Challa getting kidnapped as a child and becoming Star-Lord instead of Black Panther, and more.

Leading up to the premiere of What If...? on Disney+ next week, we talked with series director Bryan Andrews and head writer A.C. Bradley about crafting this new version of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Plus, we talked about the new character known as The Watcher and his place in these stories, as well as bridging the gap between live-action and animation.

It's been reported that your team came up with 30 ideas for potential What If...? episodes, but obviously we're not getting that many episodes in this first season. So how did you determine which episodes would usher in the debut of this series?

A.C. Bradley: When it came to creating episodes of What If...?, the first thing we always looked at was the characters. We went through each of these iconic heroes, and my favorite thing was trying to find the human behind the hero, the heart underneath the shield and behind the arc reactor, and showing them in a new light. So with a character like Nick Fury, who's always, to be honest, the original BAMF, it was like, let's show him have a crisis of faith. Let's see him wonder if the Avengers Initiative was not going to work. Let's have that episode where he has to look around and be like, am I doing the right thing? And go from there.

We kind of did that for all the characters in the MCU. We played with different genres. We played with different storytelling. We're like, "Should we do a heist movie?" I think one discarded idea was, let's do something in the vein of The Office. They were presented to [Marvel Studios President] Kevin [Feige] and he was to pick his favorites and embarrassingly enough, he picked almost 20. We're like, "Okay, can we get more episodes?" He went, "No." Okay. "Can you narrow it down a bit for us?" And that's how we got these final 10. Luckily we are doing a season two. So hopefully some of these episodes that we originally pitched will come back. Also, the MCU, the universe is expanding. We have new movies coming out that we hope to play with more in season two.

Bryan, how did you determine that this style of animation was how you wanted to tell these stories?

Bryan Andrews: Well, part of it was just the fact that I wanted to see it. I'm a big fan of J.C. Leyendecker's work as an American illustrator from the '20s and '30s. His work is phenomenal. And Hollywood has long tried to get it into animation or whatever with varying degrees of success and/or failure. So I thought, well, it'd be great if we just did this because it can look great. His illustrations, they look like heroes already, totally idealized men and women. They're so fantastic in shape and design and not pushed cartoony, they're pushed in a different way, right? And I felt that it seemed to bridge the gap between the live-action world. Instead of going too comic book-y or too "animation." It looked more illustrative. As a result, I think that it creates a nice pivot from the live-ation.

Our mantra from the studio was just like, these stories are riffing off the cinematic universe. So I felt like if we did something that was too insanely pushed, it separates you so much from the original material that it's trying to be a part of. You know what I mean? So in a way, we're kind of getting some realism, but it's still stylized enough to satisfy some of the artistic nerd in me and others.

Then Ryan Meinerding, the God of Marvel design and character for all the movies and everything, he designed the characters for our show. He always wanted to work in animation, and he also loves J.C. Leyendecker. In our first pitches with Kevin, we just had J.C. Leyendecker's work. And we're like, "We're thinking of true pursuing something like this. And Kevin was just like, "If it looks like that, I'm in, we can just end this conversation. I know it's going to be amazing. Let's make it look like this. Okay. I'll see you guys in later." So, I think we struck a pretty good balance. It's still evolving. We had to make those things relatively quickly, even though it takes forever to do, the time you have to develop is is almost non-existent and we were making it up on the fly. So we're still improving and dialing in the style, even episode by episode, just trying to like fine tune always. But yeah, but we're pretty happy with it.

You mentioned working on this series on the fly, and I'm curious if the connective tissue that seems to be lingering in these first three episodes is building to something bigger, much in the same way that the original first few movies of the MCU did. There was only some slight connective tissue in those early movies, and now it's obviously all integrated. But the trailer for the show seemed to give some hints as to maybe a certain culmination of something in this first season. Can you talk about trying to find that connective tissue when you're completely remixing the MCU and giving characters all these different a new connections?

When it came to episodes of What If...?, the connecting tissue really is The Watcher, voiced by the amazing Jeffrey Wright. We wanted to have the narrator, we wanted to have this Rod Serling-type character that is also in the original What If...? comics? But the other notion was like, well, what do we say with him? How does he talk? What's his point of view? So we started off originally with this very detached POV. I am notorious for comparing The Watcher to the Pizza Rat meme. Q from Star Trek was another inspiration. And my Chinese Daoist professor from college who was like, "You will never understand anything." And I was like, "Oh, but you're going to give me a test on it."

Working with Jeffrey and hearing him talk about his own theories about the character and the way he wants to bring in other views of what a God could be like. Also hearing him talk about watching the Marvel movies with his son. I realized the whole arc of The Watcher is him almost becoming, not human, but having an understanding of humanity. For me, a connection with these characters, learning something from them, realizing that he isn't just this omnipotent watcher watching from afar. He's a viewer, he's invested. He cares. How is that going to affect him as future stories arrive?

So it sounds like The Watcher maybe becomes a little more invested in what he's watching. Even though he says he doesn't interfere, could that be something that changes over the course of time?

A.C. Bradley: Anything is possible in the MCU.

Bryan Andrews: We're going to have to keep watching and see what happens.

We'll watch it like The Watcher.

Bryan Andrews: Yes, that's right. That's exactly it.

This series is unique in that it has characters who are designed to resemble their big screen counterparts. That usually doesn't happen when you have animated shows that adapting the movies. How did you go about animating characters like that? Are you filming the actors while they're recording their lines for reference material? Or is it merely relying on the imagery from the Marvel movies for that?

Bryan Andrews: It's mainly relying on the imagery. I would have loved to record them when we did it, but we're not like a feature like Pixar, where they get to do all that stuff. The animators get to nerd out with it. We're going fast and furious, and there's a lot of other legal things to negotiate and all this other stuff that's probably above my pay grade. A a result, we didn't get a chance to do that, which I always felt was a little bit of a bummer. Because it would've really helped the animators.

Otherwise it's me and my head of animation, Stephan Franck, to try to do drawings and point to the movie, "Like that, do that, they're doing it right there, just do that!" But we had some really great vendors and they really nailed it on a number of scenes and really did some subtle stuff. It's great. So, no, we didn't have the recordings, but we had a wealth of their movies to look at. Just pop in Thor, take a look at Chris Hemsworth, woo-hoo!

A.C. Bradley: I always look at Chris Hemsworth.

Bryan Andrews: Yeah. You can always look at Chris Hemsworth. No one needs an excuse.

For both of you, who is your favorite alternate version of an MCU character that you created for the show?

Bryan Andrews: That is a hard one, because they're all fantastic. They're all amazing. I do love Captain Carter, just because Haley [Atwell]'s great. But I also love Star-Lord T'Challa. Even when we're coming up with these stories, there were characters, the early ones we came up with that were just boom, right out of the gate. Then we saw Ryan's illustrations of them and we're like, "Oh my God." I cannot wait for the cosplay. I want the cosplay of all of the episodes. I mean, it's rich. I can't even choose. But those two are super standouts. Yeah.

How about you, A.C.?

A.C. Bradley: For me, it probably a little cliche, but it's probably Peggy Carter because of two things I love. I love an underdog and I love a strong woman. The point of that episode... sorry, let me rephrase that. Going into that episode, we knew we wanted Agent Carter to become the First Avenger. My job was to figure out how do we do this? And while watching the original [Captain America: The] First Avenger, there is a moment where Dr. Erskine says, "Would you rather wait in the booth?" And she goes, "No." And I was like, "That's it that's the moment." She goes, "No, I'd rather stay in the room."

Because that's such a loaded phrase. Even in the 1940s, especially in 2021, is that women belong in the room, and we belong in the conversation. Because when a woman is part of it, it changes the world. I love the idea that Kevin [Feige], Victoria [Alonso], Louis [D'Esposito], and Brad [Winderbaum] were like, "Go for it." They let me make her this really strong feminist character and also show that just because a woman gets a super soldier serum in 1940-something doesn't mean she gets to become Captain Carter. She still has to fight for it. And, damn it, she does.

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Marvel's What If...? premieres on Disney+ starting on August 11, 2021.