Marvel’s animated Disney Plus series, What If…? has got off to a fantastic start, with imaginative, well-written stories, great acting and fantastic, comic book style animation. The variety of stories arising from the simple twists to Marvel Cinematic Universe continuity has been pretty impressive so far; we’ve had a few action adventure tales – one that took swipes at sexism, another taking a look at how being more diplomatic can alter the course of the entire universe’s fate – a whodunnit and a dark, reality-warping love story.
Tying all of these disparate threads of possibility together is Uatu, the Watcher – played brilliantly in the series by Jeffrey Wright. A race of beings able to see how different choices and actions play out across a universe of infinite possibilities, the Watchers may only observe – never assist or in any other way intervene. Though in the comics, Uatu is known for bending the rules in several cases…
The original series started way back in 1977 (coincidentally the year I was born), with the first issue asking the question: What If Spider-Man Joined The Fantastic Four?
It’s an oddly unadventurous starting point, given how wide open the concept is for some really crazy questions and stories. However, being the first issue, perhaps it needed something a little more grounded to draw readers in – readers who’d actually been pondering that very question for themselves ever since The Amazing Spider-Man #1 had the eponymous superhuman meeting the heroic quartet. The cover declares as much, loudly proclaiming in a very bullish Marvel style ‘… featuring the stories your letters have demanded!!’
It opens really strongly, with Uatu introducing himself to readers and taking us on a tour of stories where Marvel characters have interacted with alternate universes and/or different versions of themselves (there’s even a cheeky reference to the monumental, inter-company crossover event, Superman vs Spider-Man). Though most of these boil down to ‘characters meet and fight’, it’s still a well drawn, colourful sequence that showcases some really interesting combinations of characters, even if nothing particularly interesting occurs in these brief glimpses of different stories.
The main tale sees Spidey’s request for a job with the Fantastic Four actually work out, unlike the events in the ‘real’ Marvel Universe that occurred in Amazing Spider-Man #1. We’re then taken on a breathless journey through the events of the Spider-Man and Fantastic Four comics that followed, which change only slightly thanks to Spidey joining the team. It’s chock-full of the sexism of the original stories unfortunately, managing to be even worse than those 60s tales, with the invisibility-powered Sue Storm casually left out of an important mission in favour of Peter Parker joining the boys. Ben Grimm quips – after Sue has been holding her breath to stop herself from drowning – “first time I ever saw a female who could keep her mouth shut so long!”. Ouch. Not even Uatu’s commentary telling us how sexist that is, in a subtle way, can redeem that or the casual sexism that follows.
The climax sees Sue Storm being forced to choose between the two men she supposedly loves – the kidnap-happy, petty Namor or the controlling, pseudo-father figure Reed. A real Hobson’s Choice; option three – neither of those two – would have been a good decision for Sue.
In any case, with the recreations of classic 60s comic styles in both writing and art, despite the glaringly dated attitudes, the repeated stupidity of its supposedly genius heroes and the very talky fight scenes, there’s some fun to be gleaned here. It definitely helps to be familiar with the comics of the period that the story apes, however – but it perhaps works best as a historical curio more than an alternate reality story, particularly as very little of note happens to change the course of Marvel history. The very first episode of Marvel’s animated series has shown just how far we’ve come in terms of representation in our superhero stories too – things have definitely changed for the better.
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