Marvel’s What if…? | Giving Life to the Multiverse With Animation
While die-hard Marvel fans were hit hard by the bittersweet conclusion to Avengers: End Game, it’s safe to say that there’s no need to mourn the absolute end of the multi-hero franchise just yet. A spectacular return to its comic book origins, What If…? is a nostalgic amalgamation of old school Marvel Comics and star-studded live-action productions. Created by A.C. Bradley for streaming on Disney+, the American animated anthology series is based on the Marvel Comics series by the same name and is the fourth TV series in the legendary Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU).
Ever find yourself scouring the internet for fan fiction to soothe your disgruntlement with less than satisfactory plotlines or character development? Look no further. With its debut animated TV series, Marvel Studios itself ventures into the realm of “What if?”, reimagining pivotal moments from MCU films and plunging characters into alternate timelines and a vibrant multiverse. From Peggy Carter assuming the role of the first Captain America and battling the Nazis and Hydra, to Black Panther (as Star Lord!) defeating The Collector, the series brings to life wondrous hypotheticals, adding unexpected depth and dimension to well-established characters and further immortalizing our beloved superheroes and villains.
The events of the series are narrated by award-winning actor Jeffrey Wright, who stars as the Watcher. Wright is joined by the familiar cast of the MCU films who reprise their respective roles from the live-action films. But aside from the onscreen marvels, Director Bryan D. Andrews and Head Writer A.C. Bradley has also assembled an astounding team ready to take on the mission of charting Marvel’s new era, including Marvel Studios’ Head of Visual Development, Ryan Meinerding and Head of Animation, Stephan Franck. Now, you must be wondering – what’s the method behind all this magic? Is it similar to the video production process used when creating live-action films? Well, read on as we offer insight into the conception, thought processes, and challenges behind the distinctive animation style of What If…? Quick note, there are spoilers in this article so if you haven’t watched this awesome show, please do so before reading further.
Choosing the Right Style
The visuals and art style are essential in setting the overall tone of any animated show. As such, endless thought and discussions were put into deciding a suitable 2D animation style for the series. What If…?’s Production Designer, Paul Lasaine, shared that the team was trying to find a balance between “wacky and cartoony”, “super realistic and photorealistic” and “super flat and graphic like old school, UPA [United Productions of America], 1960s-style animation”. Ultimately, the eureka moment came when Andrews turned to the impressionistic work of artist J.C. Leyendecker.
Known for his highly stylized form of illustration, Leyendecker’s work foregrounds human figures, focusing more on his subject matter and keeping his environments or backgrounds simple. Lasaine observed that this particular form seemed great for depicting the film locations, since most sequences had to be replicated shot-by-shot, and needed to be differentiated stylistically from their live-action counterparts. A few modifications were subsequently made, however, such as hardening up shapes to help the paintings look more “graphic” and less like “1920s illustrations”.
As for the characters, the studio used a technique called cel-shading. For those unfamiliar with the term, this digital shading is a non-photorealistic rendering that uses less shading colour instead of shade gradient in order to make 3D graphics appear more 2D. While this might seem kind of odd, cel-shading actually provides a good balance, keeping live-action characters lively while staying true to the comic book illustration style. When placed against a less defined background, these subjects pop, creating a sense of depth while still maintaining a largely 2D appearance. This muted style also frees up audiences’ attention, enabling them to focus on the complex narrative instead.
One drawback of this technique was its tendency to produce stiffness—a problem evident in Spider-Man: The New Animated Series. With viewers so used to the realism of live-action, What If…? animators were concerned that the unpredictable and unfamiliar style would fail to connect with Marvel fans. Do you agree?
Animation vs Live-Action: The Pros and Cons
In an animation studio, the animators become the actors. As advanced as editing and graphics have become, computers are hard-pressed to capture and replicate all the nuances and subtleties of human expressions. When actors perform, they struggle to portray emotions, character and subtext through a combination of facial expressions, body language and tone, so you can imagine the challenge animators face with just one medium at their disposal. Building each expression from scratch, Marvel Studios animators had to work round the clock, constantly revising and redrawing each frame to ensure that it hit the mark.
Yes, we all think of impossible supernatural feats and spectacular battle sequences when it comes to the MCU, but this isn’t the only reason why Marvel movies crush it at the box office. From Black Widow and Tony Stark’s sacrifices in Avengers: End Game to Thor, to Loki’s confrontations in Thor: Ragnarok, dramatic moments in MCU films are made even more poignant because of careful characterization and backstory.
It all starts in the least likely places – the more quiet and mundane moments really, like having characters sit down for dinner or engage in heart-to-hearts, or simply the way one character glances meaningfully at another. Make these moments natural and real, and your character immediately appears more human and relatable. Transcribing such nuances into animation is no easy feat, and Marvel animators push themselves to exercise precision and tact when pinning down certain movements. As Franck says, “it’s the small moments that are literally so true to life and so natural that almost are the hardest ones to do.”
Creating New Worlds
Despite its myriad challenges, animation does possess significant advantages over live-action films. Animation is a revolutionary medium of storytelling—one with the power to bring an entire fictional universe like the MCU, to vibrant life. As Franck adds, it has “a sense of exaggeration, a sense of boldness, of bigger than life.” 2D cartoons and anime offer an uncanny type of immersive viewing experience, pulling viewers into a whole new fabricated universe that often cannot be replicated with just CGI and make up. As much as post-production magic can enhance reality, the possibilities are even more endless with pure animation.
Take, for instance, the episode “What If… Doctor Strange Lost His Heart Instead of His Hands?” In the scene where Doctor Strange is in the ancient cave among the lost books of Cagliostro, take a look at the cave’s interior—it’s similar to the visual template in Doctor Strange, yet its highly stylized form factor makes it distinct. This highlights to viewers that this is an entirely unknown dimension belonging to another sorcerer, successfully increasing our sense of intimidation and trepidation.
Apart from spatial differences, we can also illustrate where in alternative time a scene happened.. In “What If… Captain Carter Were the First Avenger?”, the hypothetical scenario becomes solidified when we see Peggy in the iconic Captain America get-up, fighting atop the first Iron Man suit developed by Howard Stark. This particular timeline is further defined by 2D-oriented and impressionistic visuals that pull us into the comic-inspired dimension—a stark difference from live-action that effectively distinguishes the two similar yet somewhat different universes.
The live-action films are still the main attraction of the MCU, but with animation, Marvel is now able to simultaneously expand and progress the multiverse, while paying careful homage to its traditional comic book roots.