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On Marvel's 'What If...?' as Alternate History

By Alexander Wallace

My august colleague Colin Salt remarked on the Sea Lion Press forum that Marvel’s What If…?, recently having concluded its first season on Disney+, is an application of an alternate history mindset outside of traditional alternate history circles. The series stands out in this regard, especially given that the only other work on Disney+ that’s even adjacent to alternate history is The Rocketeer.

Based on the comic series of the same name, What If…? is a nine-episode season (with another on the way) that takes the established canon of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and asks the titular question in regards to several incidents in that universe’s timeline. In this regard, it could be considered ‘fandom alternate history,’ as the subforum on would call it.

Alternate history as a genre is comparable to what, in music, is called ‘variations on a theme.’ You start with a melody, and then alter the melody in various ways. Alternate history as we understand it is an endless series of different takes on what is used as source material; namely, real history. What What If…? does is take that process of devising variations on a theme, but uses a different source: the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s sprawling canon. Now that we have that core trait shared, we can look at the similarities in more detail. One of the things that is interesting to note is that so much of the modern alternate history genre came from portal fantasy stories in pulp magazines in the early twentieth century. Comics, from multiple companies, were likewise influenced by those stories. I’m willing to bet that there is a common ancestor to both.

A number of reviews of What If…? noticed is that so many of the nine episodes are rather shockingly dark; in my discussion of the series on Warped Factor, I said that nothing else in the MCU gets this dark - and that includes Infinity War and Endgame! (note that, from here on, there will be spoilers by necessity). The most infamous of these was the one where the Marvel earth is literally enveloped by a zombie apocalypse; another involves the terrorist Killmonger achieving power in Wakanda. Most drastic is Ultron’s quest to destroy all life in the multiverse, something that not even most alternate history rivals in sheer bloodlust! It resembles so much alternate history, in that it’s simply easier to imagine “what if things were worse?” instead of “what if things were better?” It also dovetails with the need for conflict in narrative; I’ve seen very similar arguments employed in discussions of this forum’s vignette challenge.

The series also treats the big figures of the MCU as we do historical figures. The replacement of Steve Rogers with Peggy Carter in receiving the super-serum, or Yondu taking T’Challa to space and not Peter Quill, has echoes of the ‘musical chairs’ approach to political alternate history, in which individuals are denied positions they had in reality but are given new ones in compensation. As previously stated, Killmonger achieves power that he never did in the films, echoing the reversal-of-fortune trope that the genre loves.

The biggest difference in terms of approach that What If…? has in comparison to ‘real’ alternate history is its approach to the supernatural. The Watcher, voiced with gravitas by Jeffrey Wright, is in some sense an alien space bat, a powerful being with the ability to change the course of history. Interestingly, he doesn’t for most of the series; he only acts when Ultron’s actions drive him to desperation. Unlike most alternate history, you see an alien space bat in action, personified and well-acted, and a full character. The Watcher, here, is far more than the handwaving rhetorical device than the way we use our beloved bats.

What If…? is another foray of alternate history thinking into the mainstream, coming from an unexpected place based on a parallel evolution from similar sources. The next season will be interesting to observe in how it continues this method of thought; perhaps they’ll crib something else from us.



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