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Marvel's What If? TV series release date, cast and plot

Among the projects announced for Marvel Studios' Phase 4 at San Diego Comic-Con 2019, there were a few long-awaited and much anticipated titles. The first wave of series slated to debut on the Disney+ streaming service in 2021 and 2022 promise the return of fan favorites and big-screen staples, bringing a familiar sense of MCU adventure straight to your living room. But one show in particular is set apart by an air of mystery and a strange title: What If...?

If you're not familiar with Marvel Comics' long What If tradition, it's been a title for alternate universe stories since the 1970s. These out-of-continuity tales add strange twists to iconic Marvel characters and stories for a Twilight Zone-style exercise in imagination. Bringing this approach to the world of the movies opens up endless possibilities, particularly because What If...? will be the first animated project in the Marvel Cinematic Universe

All of this means that the show can bend the rules of both content and style — think Into the Spider-Verse — to present fresh takes on beloved characters that live-action just can't quite match. Marvel president Kevin Feige is already touting bold twists and imaginative new interpretations, and we can hardly wait to take it all in! Here's what we can tell you so far.

What's the release date for Marvel's What If...?

What If...? is currently set to premiere on Disney+ in the summer of 2021. As with the other MCU shows coming to the platform, we don't yet have a more specific date. Judging from the complete Phase 4 lineup presented at Comic-Con, though, a good guess would be July or August. This would keep the show out of the way of the studio's other 2021 releases, both in theaters (Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings in February, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness in May, and Thor: Love and Thunder in November) and on Disney+ (Loki and WandaVision are both set to launch in the spring, with Hawkeye following in the fall). We all know Marvel is out to have an event on every calendar month they can get, right? 

One major difference between What If...? and its streaming kin is episode count. While the live-action shows are adapting a six-to-eight-episode formatWhat If...? is slated for a mammoth 23 installments (though we don't yet know how long each will be). It's worth noting as well that Feige has described this as a first season, implying more to come if fans respond enthusiastically. Like all the rest of the new and original content on Disney+, What If...? will be released in weekly episodic format, not as a binge-dump a la Netflix.

Beyond the usual ensemble cast

To be honest, it would be easier to say who isn't in this little number, but we'll take a deep breath and list 'em all off for you. There are several MCU heavy hitters on board, suggesting some epic alternate universe stories: Josh Brolin, Chadwick Boseman, Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hiddleston, Natalie Portman, Michael B. Jordan, Sebastian Stan, Hayley Atwell, Karen Gillen, Mark Ruffalo, Samuel L. Jackson, and Jeremy Renner will all be heard. Paul Rudd in particular will bless us all by lending his already very animated voice to some cartoon hijinks as Scott Lang, joined by Michael Douglas as Hank Pym. 

However, the cast list also suggests some small-scale stories, incorporating some surprise performers reprising their minor roles. Sean Gunn is returning as Kraglin (Yondu's dim-witted lieutenant), Djimon Hounsou as Korath (you saw him in Captain Marvel as a Kree soldier and in Guardians of the Galaxy working for Ronan the Accuser), Taika Waititi as Korg (sure to be a fan-favorite episode), Jeff Goldblum as the Grandmaster (ditto), Michael Rooker as Yondu, Toby Jones as Arnim Zola (at last assuming his final form as a robot, we hope), Dominic Cooper as Howard Stark, and Neal McDonough returning as Dum Dum Dugan (the bowler-hat-wearing sniper from Captain America: The First Avenger and Agent Carter). 

The omnipresent narrator of What If...?

We can assume that What If...? episodes will comprise of contained one-off stories, but we do know that the series will incorporate an overall narrator — one familiar to fans of Marvel's cosmic comic lore. It's Uatu the Watcher, and he'll be voiced in What If...? by Jeffrey Wright of Westworld fame. Uatu's people — they are all called Watchers — were already introduced to the MCU in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, in a humorous scene with Stan Lee. The animated series marks the arrival of Uatu himself, who, in the comics, is assigned to our solar system to fulfill his race's mission in observing (but never interfering with) the lesser species in the universe.

Another core part of his character is that he isn't all that great at following the Watchers' enlightened code of ethics, and he has gotten his grubby lil' Watcher-paws all up in humanity's business over the centuries. He even went to trial over it. Perhaps some episodes of What If...? will present situations in which Uatu had to fix the timeline, rather than his simply describing its possibilities like a moon-dwelling Rod Serling.

Who's writing and directing What If...?

At Disney's D23 Expo in August 2019, Bryan Andrews was announced as lead director for What If...? Animation directors rarely become household names in the way live-action film and television directors do, but you will almost certainly have heard of his most famous work: Genndy Tartakovsky's Samurai Jack, for which Andrews won two Emmys in his role as a storyboard artist. This is far from his first encounter with Marvel — he has been a storyboard artist for several MCU films, bringing the same spectacle to the franchise's action and effects sequences that he's brought to stylish television animation.

Meanwhile, Ashley Bradley has been chosen as the series' head writer. The bulk of her CV is centered around her work on Netflix's Trollhunters: Tales of Arcadia and its follow-up, 3 Below, two animated series from Dreamworks and the illustrious Guillermo del Toro. As Bradley tells it, Marvel has been pursuing her for some time and invited her to a previous, unnamed project, but declined due to her work on 3 Below. Now she is on a break from the Dreamworks project and ready to take on something even bigger and higher-profile.

The OG What If?

The What If...? comic series began in 1977, with the story "What if Spider-Man Had Joined The Fantastic Four?" The anthology has shaken up, remixed, and twisted just about every major Marvel property, mish-mashing them on and off for decades, all the way up to today. Each is a self-contained story posing hypothetical questions about previously-established comic plots or characters, like "What if Iron Man Was a Traitor?," "What if the Avengers Had Never Been?," and "What if Both Captain America and Bucky Had Survived World War II?" (keep in mind that in comics lore, Bucky's death been an enduring and universally-accepted canonical fact for decades until the Winter Soldier storyline in 2004). 

This also has included special What If? issues focusing on specific event comics. The What If? X-Men Age of Apocalypse mini-series asks what would have happened if Legion had killed Xavier and Magneto during that iconic story, for example. Uatu the Watcher is featured in many of these stories in much the same capacity we are going to see him in the Disney+ show.

Which "What If" stories can we expect to see?

We have a few tantalizing hints of what we're going to see in 2021. During both sneak peek opportunities at SDCC and D23, Feige and company dropped hints about the kinds of alternate timeline stories we're in for. Concept art has revealed Peggy Carter taking Steve Rogers' place in the super soldier program and becoming Captain Britain (a character in Marvel comics who is not Peggy). Marvel Zombies — itself a popular horror comic spin-off — will also make its way into the show. A particularly jaw-dropping pitch from writer Ashley Bradley presents T'Challa as Star-Lord (What. What?????). 

A more general description, to quote Kevin Feige, is that the creative team intends to take each MCU story and "change one thing here or there." This does not mean they are dedicating every single episode to a discrete film or that they intend to proceed through the catalog linearly (even though, at 23 episodes, there will theoretically be one for each film in the Infinity Saga). According to Ashley Bradley, it's more about seeing as many characters in fun and weird situations as possible. That's a relief to us, really — we're in this to see wonky, even silly or sitcom-like presentations of our faves, not a minutely-modified re-hash of something we have seen before. It's animated, so why not stretch the boundaries and twist the expectations?