We're not even halfway through the Disney Plus series What If…?'s first season, and already there are hints and clues that MCU fans may have to pay closer attention to Marvel Studios' first animated series than originally anticipated.
On the surface, it seemed like a safe assumption the quirky concept of half-hour episodes spinning MCU continuity into strange places would just be something of a self-contained diversion from the ongoing narrative of the live-action films and streaming series. But the clues continue to mount hinting it could be much, much more.
We've had a theory for a while now that the series could serve as something of an extended trailer … or even a prequel for March 2022's Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness and the multiversal conflicts and adventures Marvel seems to be setting up as the narrative preoccupation of Phase 4 and beyond.
Now with its fourth episode out of the can, our theories are more bolstered than ever.
Marvel Studios can sometimes be playful with its fans and What If…? seemed like it was designed to be an inconsequential detour. The series is based on a Marvel comic book concept that for most of its history was designed to not be part of ongoing Marvel Universe continuity.
The whole point of the original premise was to tell brief one-off stories that played with continuity rather than in it by turning it on its ear. But as the Uatu the Watcher, the series' omniscient narrator always reminded readers, the stories were just glimpses at possible alternative realities. However, back then, the idea that these Earths or universes existed side-by-side with the main reality wasn't a thing – when the comic book series debuted in 1977, the concept of a Marvel Multiverse wasn't fully formed.
But unlike the source material, the Disney Plus series increasingly looks like it could be required viewing.
The conclusion of Loki was the catalyst to a rapidly expanding Multiverse that might lead directly to the "Madness" in the Doctor Strange sequel's title, a term named-checked by Miss Minutes in the opening minutes of the Tom Hiddleston-starrer.
Add to that the last scene of WandaVision, which implies Wanda Maximoff's children Billy and Tommy continue to exist somewhere after the newly-crowned Scarlet Witch ended her elaborate illusionary takeover of the town of Westview, NJ. Then there was the introduction of the villain Kang (Marvel's preeminent time-traveling/multiversal villain) to the MCU in Loki, and reports and persistent rumors that December's Spider-Man: No Way Home will also deal with the Multiverse. It seems like What If…? landing smack dab between them all was too much a coincidence – or in other words, too great an opportunity for Kevin Feige and crew to pass up.
Given Marvel Studios' perfection of the connective tissue model of movies and now streaming TV shows, we probably should have concluded all along there would be more to What If…? than meets the eye.
And weeks back rumors surfaced suggesting that Captain Carter, the first episode of What If…? version of Peggy Carter who becomes a World War II super-soldier as opposed to Steve Rogers (who instead pilots an Iron Man-like armor designed by Tony Stark's father Howard) will appear in The Multiverse of Madness, played by Harley Atwell. Though that's just a rumor right now, it would corroborate the notion that the concepts MCU viewers will be introduced to in the animated series might be seen again in live-action.
Captain Carter and Doctor Strange do appear together in the What If…? trailer and other quick glimpses suggest Atwell's character appears in another episode other than her World War II origin story.
The actual first and now fourth episodes of What If...? are only serving to bolster the theory.
Spoilers ahead for What If...? episode 4.
First of all, the tentacled monster Captain Carter fights off in the premiere episode 'What If... Captain Carter Were the First Avenger' appears to be long-time Doctor Strange villain Shuma-Gorath, and the same still-unnamed monster seems to have appeared again in September 1's 'What If... Doctor Strange Lost His Heart Instead of His Hands?'
The first episode concludes with Captain Carter emerging from the multi-dimensional (multiversal?) portal she forced the assumed Shuma-Gorath back into in the present day with Nick Fury and Hawkeye on hand, seemingly around the same time Loki appeared to them in 2012's Avengers. This sort-of-cliffhanger appears to set her up to meet Doctor Strange in a more present-day episode of What If...? (which did not happen in the fourth episode).
The fourth episode of What If...? introduces a couple of interesting wrinkles: For one it establishes the same creature exists in multiple timelines/universes; that it is super-powerful (Doctor Strange Supreme amasses enough power to destroy his universe just by absorbing a few of its tentacles); and Jeffrey Wright's the Watcher already breaks his passive observational stance. While he doesn't interfere with the corrupt Strange destroying his universe, he does interact/converse with him and makes him aware of his presence and seems on the verge of interfering, a development that seemingly begs for a follow-up.
Also interestingly, if you look at the image from the trailer, Captain Carter seems to be meeting the corrupted version of Strange, and not the regular version of him. Could this be from a What If...? post-credits scene?
Just throwing that out there.
But all of these questions being raised as opposed to being answered in what at first glance are supposed to be one-off stories appears to be what we call world-building. Characters and situations are being introduced for pay-off at another time and place, with perhaps that place being The Multiverse of Madness, a conceptual cousin to What If...?
Another What If…? concept seen prominently in the first look and trailer – zombie versions of Marvel superheroes like Iron Man and Captain America (a comic book franchise all its own) – seems ripe for the Multiverse of Madness, which Marvel Studios and director Sam Raimi have made clear will incorporate horror movie elements.
Also, consider the trailers indicate the Winter Soldier is the surviving hero of that story. Sebastian Stan voiced his character for What If...? episode 1 and would presumably do it again for the Zombies episode, and Stan seems like the type of MCU star that would make a lot of sense to appear in a cameo in Multiverse of Madness.
An Earth in which Ultron won (an alternative take on Avengers: Age of Ultron), which is hinted at in the What If…? trailer and poster, also seems like low-hanging fruit to be the type of nightmarish scenario The Multiverse of Madness would visit.
And bear in mind, Marvel Studios has something of a challenge – it faces an increasingly uphill battle figuring out ways to surprise its most ardent and aware followers.
Actor Jonathan Majors (Kang and He Who Remains) had to flat out deny (falsely, it turns out) he was appearing in Loki to preserve the surprise of the introduction of Kang and his variant in episode 6 – and which actors from previous incarnations of the Spider-Man franchise are or are not appearing in Spider-Man: No Way Home remains a guessing game all its own.
As the Loki show aptly demonstrated, the idea of unique 'variant' spins on familiar characters and concepts is the lifeblood of the Multiverse concept that fans can't get enough of, so Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness was always likely to feature surprise cameos by MCU actors in alternative takes on their characters.
Given the impressive list of actors who are voicing their MCU characters for What If…? and given Marvel Studios trademark standard operating procedure of everything begetting everything else, if you're an MCU fan inclined to overlook the animated series thinking it's not part of the ongoing narrative, we'd advise you to reconsider.
It may be as vital to MCU canon as anything – and everything – else we've seen so far.
Captain Carter's presence in the What If...? trailer reminds us of all the great female characters in Newsarama's list of the best women superheroes of all time.