'What If...?' is a fantasy about the fantasy

The Collector and T'Challa/Star-Lord in Marvel Studios' WHAT IF...?

Roy Schwartz is the author of the new book "Is Superman Circumcised? The Complete Jewish History of the World's Greatest Hero." Follow him on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook and at royschwartz.com. The views expressed here are his own. View more opinion at CNN. The op-ed below contains mild spoilers for "What If...?"

(CNN)What sets "What If...?", Marvel's newest show on Disney+, apart from previous offerings "WandaVision," "The Falcon and the Winter Soldier" and "Loki" is that, while they all spin-off from the Marvel films and feature actors reprising their roles, "What If...?" is animated. It's still set in the same interconnected Marvel Cinematic Universe, though. Sort of.

Roy Schwartz
Debuting Wednesday, the premise of the show, executive produced and directed by Bryan Andrews, is this: an alien named Uatu, part of an ancient race called the Watchers (briefly seen in 2017's "Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2"), observes and records events on Earth -- presumably, the same Earth the Marvel movies take place in. But he can also peer into alternate timelines and parallel dimensions, including our own. Like the comic book series it's based on, the show breaks the fourth wall, with Uatu introducing each episode's scenario.
    Each of the nine 30-minute episodes follows a different path from the familiar chain of events, branching off from a key moment where one thing happened differently. Some realities remain similar, others are greatly changed.
      "What If...?" is essentially a fantasy about the fantasy. It provides an opportunity not just for unbridled imagination but a way to comment on, reexamine and even deconstruct sacred icons and childhood favorites. In this sense, it's make-believe at its purest.
        Science fiction and fantasy aren't just escapism -- though they're perfectly fine just being that -- they're also a form of reflection and engagement. They're allegories about the world and the self, a testing ground for new perspectives, new directions, new truths, uncluttered by real-life specifics and limitations.
        Captain Carter (center) and the Howling Commandos in Marvel Studios' WHAT IF...? exclusively on Disney+
        They're also a powerful tool of empathy. If fiction allows us to walk a mile in someone else's shoes, fantasy fiction allows us to go on a whole other journey, far removed from anything in our experience. It trains our mind to stretch and reach those far-fetched places and people, and once it does, it retains the skill. It gives us the ability to relate even when it's impossible, to understand not just a different opinion or race or faith but reality.
          We're living in a "what if." The Covid-19 pandemic has shunted us into a divergent reality, similar to what should be but vastly different, a strange parallel life that was supposed to be temporary but is stubbornly, maddeningly enduring.
          And while we wait to return to our familiar reality -- perhaps precisely because we're outside of it -- we're also, as a culture, reassessing our own storylines. We're reckoning with our history, our present and our future, in a number of ways, from institutional racism to political dogma to opioid abuse to climate change. And while we argue about the answers, we're asking the questions together. We ponder the possibilities, where decisions have led us and might lead us. Our "what if"s.
          Before it was a show, "What If...?" was the brainchild of former Marvel Comics editor in chief Roy Thomas, a comic book anthology series published intermittently since 1977. One of the more original and fun concepts in modern comics, it allows fans and creators to have their cake and eat it too; characters and status quos that are otherwise immutable can be changed and re-imagined, minutely or monumentally, in a way the "real" ones never could.
          Many of the stories were poignant, like "What if Daredevil killed the Kingpin?" (Vol. 2 #2). Some were thought-provoking, like "What if Captain America were revived today?"(#44). Others were playful, like "What if aunt May instead of her nephew Peter had been bitten by that radioactive spider?" (#23).
          More than once, ideas from "What If...?" found their way into the official canon. "What if Jane Foster had found the hammer of Thor?" (#10), for example, imagined her as the new thunder god, which she eventually became 36 years later in "Thor" Vol. 4 #1, a story that's being adapted in the upcoming "Thor: Love and Thunder." Smart money is that the show will likewise dovetail with the movies, especially since "Loki" introduced the concept of divergent timelines and several future MCU films involve the "multiverse." Marvel's VP of Production & Development Brad Winderbaum hinted as much. The future of Marvel is metatextual.
          Doctor Strange in Marvel Studios' WHAT IF...?
          The show shares the comic's premise but tells its own stories. Each episode is self-contained, and some are better than others. Going by the first three available for review, "What If...?" is more engaging than "The Falcon and the Winter Soldier" and, while it doesn't have the character development of "Loki" and is nowhere near as innovative as "WandaVision," it's a fun romp with plenty of payoff for devoted Marvelites. Even better, it's refreshingly undemanding of casual viewers.
          The animation style, which is consistent across episodes, has a unique look but it's also stiff at times, especially when the movement is less superheroically grandiose and more naturalistic. It was done by cel-shading -- 3D computer graphics flattened to look like 2D -- making it feel like a comic book or storyboard come alive (director Andrews was previously a storyboard artist for Marvel).
          It takes some getting used to, and for those who can't quite get into an animated show it'll only distance them further. But it also works in an odd (and probably not intentional) way. It feels like watching a documentary, knowingly observing events rather than being present in them, like the Watcher gazing upon these realities.
          Jeffrey Wright ("Westworld") portrays Uatu, with many of the original stars voicing their characters, including Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hiddleston, Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Hayley Atwell, Samuel L. Jackson, Benedict Cumberbatch, Josh Brolin, Michael B. Jordan, Natalie Portman, Benicio Del Toro and many others. The late Chadwick Boseman voices T'Challa, recorded before his death.
          The show leans heavily into nostalgia, with twists that pull double duty as callbacks. The first episode, "Captain Carter," asks what if Peggy Carter had received the Super Soldier Serum instead of Steve Rogers (while he piloted a proto-Iron Man suit built by Howard Stark)? For fans of 2011's "Captain America: The First Avenger," it might be a corrective experience, letting the Captain show her stuff in a way the original never quite got to, but otherwise it rehashes more or less the same plot.
          The second episode, "T'Challa as Starlord," is pretty much what it sounds like. The third, "Loki on Earth," is not at all what it sounds like, and it's the best of the three. It follows a completely original storyline, which allows it to really deliver on the show's "anything can happen" promise.
          Going by the trailers, posters and merchandise, future stories include "What if Tony Stark never became Iron Man?" "What if Spider-Man hunted zombified Avengers?" and something involving a Vision-Ultron hybrid possessing the Infinity Stones and Ant-Man's jovial head in a jar.
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          A second season is already confirmed, and Marvel Studios has announced plans for a new division that will produce more animated shows.
            The superhero genre has come a long way, especially on screen. Caped crusaders have been around since the 1930s, but even 20 years ago, the idea that a Black Panther movie would be nominated for a Best Picture Academy Award, or that not only would there be an Avengers movie, there'd be four, and the last would include Spider-Man swinging from Thor's flying hammer to keep the Infinity Gauntlet away from Thanos, and that movie would make $2.8 billion, would get you laughed out of the comic book store.
            "What If...?" assumes audiences aren't just familiar with the Marvel Cinematic Universe's sprawling canon, which to date includes 24 movies, but that they care enough about the characters to watch alternate versions of them and their world. As far as metaphors go, being able to step beyond what we've long held as true, to understand a different, maybe uncomfortable, even oppositional narrative and accept it, even appreciate it, isn't half bad. What if.