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What If...? hero Captain Carter is the Marvel show's keystone

The masterminds behind the Disney Plus MCU animated series talk about bringing Peggy Carter to the forefront, and Jeffrey Wright dishes on the awesome power of the Watcher.

Sean Keane Former Senior Writer
Sean knows far too much about Marvel, DC and Star Wars, and poured this knowledge into recaps and explainers on CNET. He also worked on breaking news, with a passion for tech, video game and culture.
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Sean Keane
6 min read
Captain Carter in Marvel's What If...

Kicking off Marvel's What If...? with Captain Carter proved crucial in the show's development.

Marvel Studios

The Marvel Cinematic Universe dived into animation for the first time Wednesday with What If...? The Disney Plus series is based on a beloved comics series that started in the '70s, and it explores divergent timelines in which iconic events turned out differently, in a multiverse reformed after the mind-blowing events of Loki's season 1 finale.

This anthology show was created and written by AC Bradley, whose previous work includes Guillermo del Toro's Trollhunters: Tales of Arcadia for Netflix, and directed by Bryan Andrews, who worked as a storyboard artist on Genndy Tartakovsky's Samurai Jack and Star Wars: Clone Wars, along with a bunch of MCU movies including Avengers: Endgame

What If…? might dive into a bunch of different universes, but one being is keeping an eye on events across the multiverse and providing all-knowing narration -- the otherworldly Watcher. Infusing this being with dramatic vocal gravitas is actor Jeffrey Wright, whom you might know from Westworld and the Daniel Craig James Bond movies

Watching the Watcher and making sure all the multiversal madness fits into the canon is executive producer Brad Winderbaum, a production and development executive at Marvel Studios.

In a series of super-quick Zoom interviews ahead of the show's Disney Plus premiere, I talked with Andrews, Bradley, Wright and Winderbaum about figuring out the right starting point, diving into the Watcher's long comic book history and recommendations for classic What If…? comics to read. 

Here's a transcript of our conversations, lightly edited for clarity. 

T'Challa in Marvel's What If...?

T'Challa engages in some stylish combat in the show.

Marvel Studios

Head writer AC Bradley and director Bryan Andrews

What if…? has huge scope. How do you home in on the kinds of stories that resonate with people?
Andrews: It all started in the writers room, working with AC and Brad and just trying to figure out what we wanted to see. We started with what we thought would be fun to do instead of chasing an audience. We had to start with us because we are fans ourselves. And then things just started coming to light and taking on a life of their own. We're like, "Oh, yeah, we got to do that." Some really great ideas just came, it was awesome. It was a lot of fun.

Bradley: The reason I was drawn to this project was because it wasn't just writing one hero, it was writing all of them. It was finding the character behind the famous silhouettes, looking for where's the hero and the heart, where do they meet? So with a character like Captain Carter -- with Peggy -- it was talking about who she is as a woman in the 1940s, and how that would resonate back then and today.

Jane Foster Thor What If

Jane Foster as Thor was off the table for What If...?

Marvel Comics

How did you decide to go with Captain Carter for the first episode? That episode is something special, and I guess you guys could tell?
Andrews: AC did an amazing job on all this stuff, and that one particularly. We felt like we wanted to start with something retro because I love the time period, I love the genre. But we didn't necessarily just want to do something with Cap. But then AC was like "Peggy Carter gets the super-soldier serum." Everything started coming together, as soon as that one thing was unlocked. 

Bradley: When I was brought in to pitch for the show, I was asked to pitch a different pilot -- "What if Steve fell off the train and not Bucky?" So I came in with this whole fleshed-out pilot, pitched it to Kevin, he's like, "I love it, it's great." We go to the writers room. "No you're not doing that because -- we're just trying to keep it secret -- we actually want to focus the first episode on Peggy, where do we go from here?" 

And the other part of that, my first day on the job, was that I came in, ready to go to the mattresses to do Lady Jane Thor. And I was told repeatedly by Brad Winterbottom, our amazing producer, that's not going to happen. And then he pulled me aside and said "Taika Waititi wants to do it."

As long as it was happening somewhere, you were happy?
Bradley: She was gonna be alive in the MCU, that was all I cared about. What surprised me was that I was allowed to play with a strong woman right off the bat. Oftentimes, as a female writer, you're banging on the door and you're fighting battles to try and get people of color, women, different gender backgrounds, sexual identities, in scripts. And I was very impressed that Marvel was open to exploration.

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Jeffrey Wright, voice of the Watcher

Did you read Marvel comics growing up?
Wright: A bit. I wasn't so much a comic head, but I was always intrigued by the Marvel characters. There was a modern edge to the Marvel stuff that was cool.

I've become much more clued into Marvel through my son. I took him to his first Marvel film like, 10 years ago, he's 19. He was born right into the sweet spot of the MCU and he's kind of grown up with them. In some ways, I view these characters, and maybe even play this role, through his perspective. He's the most passionate Marvel fan I know -- the Watcher's passion borrows a little bit from my son's passion.

The Watcher in Marvel's What If

The Watcher is your guide through worlds of What If...? 

Marvel Studios

Do you remember the first time you saw the Watcher, because he is an unusual-looking character?
Yes, he is. When they asked me to play the Watcher, I went back to the 1963 Fantastic Four comic where he first appears on the moon, in the midst of this battle between the political East and West -- it's a really fascinating first appearance. He's described as the most dramatic being in the known universe, or something to that effect, and I was intrigued by the scale of his power. 

If you're going to come into the MCU, he's a pretty interesting entry point for an actor into this space that's already been well crafted and laid out; it's populated by so many intriguing characters and he comes in with a different type of force. So yeah, my first real introduction to who and what he was going back to the beginning, and then kind of tracing him through.

Executive Producer Brad Winderbaum

Are we going to see Captain Carter again after the first episode?
Winderbaum: She is an incredibly important character in What If…?  As we were having meetings with AC and with Brian, and figuring out who these characters were and what roles they would play in the story, Peggy just emerged as an incredibly important player in the overall narrative of the show.

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Will we learn more about the Watcher? Like, where he was before the multiverse was re-created?
You will learn more about the Watcher; he is an impossibly powerful character in the MCU and in the comics. We had a lot of conversations about what the Watcher is, not just who he is, but what he is metaphysically. And we thought about him as being like a fifth-dimensional being who's standing outside of time and reality in a way that we can barely perceive.

What If Spider-Man had Rescued Gwen Stacy cover

The What If...? comics explored a different outcome for one of Spider-Man's darkest hours.

Marvel Comics

Is he the most powerful being we've seen so far in the MCU?
I think it's arguable, yeah, that he is. 

He promises he won't interfere. But in the comics, he sometimes does. Could we see that here? 
When we started developing the show, we realized it's fundamental to the Watcher that he says he will not interfere. He shows up and stands in the background when things go terribly awry in the story. And he's often an indicator to the other characters that things have gone really bad -- one of my favorite things about the Watcher in the comics is that when he shows up, you realize "Oh my god, now we're in the middle of a true Marvel event that actually matters holy crap."

We have a lot more terrain to explore with the character and we're just introducing him in this series for the first time, but there's certainly an exciting world to explore with him.

So do you have any particular favorite What if…? comic stories? I love What If Gwen Stacy Had Lived? I think that was an amazing concept to explore.
What If Gwen Stacy Had Lived? is definitely a highlight. The first What If…? comic I picked up was What if Danny Ketch's sister became Ghost Rider? instead of him, and that was my gateway into the Ghost Rider comics

And the first time that Jane Foster wielded Mjolnir and became the Mighty Thor was in a What If…? comic, which then became part of the main continuity in the incredibly written Jason Aaron run. There's a lot of inspiration to draw from those comics.