'What If...?' Marvel Studios Lets Loose

Alternate timelines, alternate realities, alternate points of view. Disney's streaming service is gonna get crazy.

What If Conan The Barbarian Was Stranded In The Th Century
Marvel Comics

Atop the Brooklyn Bridge, Spider-Man and the Green Goblin square off for the last time. They’ve faced each other before, but they’ve never reached such a fury of rage. Held hostage is Peter Parker’s girlfriend, Gwen Stacy. The friendly neighborhood superhero, usually quippy, is reduced to panic and screaming anger. Goblin has won even before he tosses Stacy from the bridge. Spider-Man leaps, thwips a strand of webbing, and catches his true love by the legs, but the sudden halt in forwarding momentum snaps Stacy’s neck. Peter Parker holds her corpse in his arms, and the Golden Age of Comics comes to an end. Nothing would be the same again.

The era of Stan Lee and Steve Ditko was over. New, hotshot writer Gerry Conway took on Amazing Spider-Man in 1972 and immediately set to work introducing a genuine tragedy into the Marvel Universe. Stacy was one of the few comic book killings that stuck (although there have been flirtations with clones and alternate realities), and many fans at the time were enraged at the fictional murder. Conway received several death threats and sometimes questioned whether he had done right by Peter or not.

Comic books are not afraid to retcon unsuccessful concepts. In fact, many stories come prepackaged with “Get Out of Jail” cards built into their plots. Captain America is an Agent of Hydra?!  Fear not, the cosmic cube is to blame. It’s a business practice that drives a lot of contemporary cynicism towards the medium. The best move is to accept the economics of it all, enjoy the stories as they play out, and move on when a twist or reveal doesn’t jive with your thinking.

Personally, I miss the heyday when readers’ frustrations were worked out on the couch of the What If…? comic book series. Launched five years after Gwen Stacy took flight from the Brooklyn Bridge, Marvel’s What If…? allowed their writers and artists to satisfy their readers. Why settle for the narrative swerve? Don’t tease us with something fanboyishly brilliant only to swerve at the last minute for dramatic purposes. Give us what we want — what we demand.

The first issue went all the way back to Amazing Spider-Man #1 answering the question of “What If Spider-Man Joined the Fantastic Four?” In the original timeline, Peter Parker snuck his way into the Baxter Building in hopes they’d accept his application. When he learns that a Fantastic Four membership doesn’t come with a paycheck, he bails. What If…? #1 posits a Peter Parker that’s less concerned with his monetary woes and eager for the embrace of the mainstream media. As a proud addition to the rechristened Fantastic Five, Spider-Man overshadows the Invisible Girl’s importance on the team. Often left behind on missions, Sue Storm succumbs to her attraction to Namor the Sub-Mariner and leaves Reed Richards for a life under the sea. The Fantastic Five become the Fantastic Four again, and everyone lived happily ever after… uh… gross.

From there the What If…? line resurrected Gwen Stacy, placed the Silver Surfer’s fist into the Infinity Gauntlet, transformed Wolverine into a vampire, introduced the first Spider-Girl, and brought Conan the Barbarian to 20th Century New York. That last concept was basically the most savage version of Death Wish you could imagine, and the Bill Sienkiewicz cover seen in the header above was seared so brightly into my brain that no exploitation revenge film has satisfied since. Marvel eventually reclaimed the rights to the Robert E. Howard character, and one of their first actions was to force the son of Crom onto a new team of Avengers. Yep, Conan the Barbarian and Wolverine fighting alongside each other (a concept that was also previously explored in What If…? #16).

The What If…? line was a wild mixed bag of stories. The series suffered peaks and valleys in popularity resulting in frequent cancellations and reboots. Currently, the book sits in limbo. Ah, but you can bet we’ll see it back in print soon enough thanks to /Film’s announcement that Disney+ has ordered an animated anthology series based on the brand. We’ve already heard that Loki, The Winter Soldier, The Falcon, Scarlet Witch, and The Vision might all be getting their own spinoff shows, but a What If…? animated series is the most tantalizing draw yet. Cast a few of the MCU actors in voice roles, and now you’re cooking with gasoline.

Think about it: “What If Thor Aimed for the Head?” The God of Thunder lands in Wakanda, tosses his petty notions of revenge aside, and simply swings Stormbreaker into the skull of Thanos. Bam. Done. Thor removes the Infinity Gauntlet from the Mad Titan’s fist and suddenly Avengers: Infinity War has a much different ending. One where the whole audience is not reduced to a puddle of tears and Peter Parker is spared the great dusting.

“What If Steve Rogers Landed Safely?” Captain America jumps into the cockpit of the Red Skull’s flying wing and steers it safely towards the ocean. The controls are undamaged, and a US Navy aircraft carrier happily awaits his arrival. Steve returns home, marries Peggy Carter, and their grandchild joins The Avengers right before the Battle of New York. We still get our Captain America, and Steve Rogers gets his romantic bliss.

“What If Iron Man Was Stranded in Space?” During the climax of the first Avengers, Tony Stark snatches the nuclear warhead rocketing towards New York and guides it through the Chitauri wormhole. The device penetrates the lead warship, obliterating the invading armada. Iron Man is propelled back by the explosion, but the gateway closes before he reaches it. Tony Stark is stranded light years away from Earth. He’s picked up by the Guardians of the Galaxy, spends the next several films bickering with Star-Lord, and becomes best buds with Rocket Raccoon. Pepper Potts marries Happy Hogan. Lol.

A What If…? television series practically writes itself. It’s an eat your cake and have it too kinda show, or a Twilight Zone for the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Upset about the impending death of Captain America in Avengers: Endgame? Don’t worry; he’ll be back in What If…? Make it so.

Trekkie, Not Trekker. Weekly Columnist for Film School Rejects, co-host of the In The Mouth of Dorkness Podcast.