I knew that What If…? was gonna be a show of twists on stories that we knew, different takes on characters and events in the Marvel universe. What if T’challa became Star-Lord? What if Ultron had gotten his new body? What if there were zombies? It’s been a merry delight. They’re variations on a theme, a collection of covers where each musician puts a different spin on the original song.
What I wasn’t quite expecting was got the series to also be a meditation on stories and the impact they have. And it all came down to the fact that we weren’t the only one watching each episode play out.
The main throughline of the show is the Watcher, an omniscient being who serves as the narrator as he watched the events unfold in different worlds. His whole thing is that he watches without interfering (there’s an oath and everything). In the comics he usually shows up when Something Big is going down, the sort of event that warrants not just your usual narration, but narration by a cosmic being whose whole schtick is watching these sort of Big Events going down. And when he intervenes (which he does) it’s usually because of something Really Really Big.
In the tv show, it comes when a super-powerful Ultron threatens the multiverse — and the Watcher himself. In defense, the Watcher plucks an assortment of characters from prior episodes and has them team up against Ultron. It’s a lot of fun, in the way that Marvel movies are, hitting all those epic beats and bringing you along for the ride. The heroes save the multiversal day and get to go back to their worlds. All but Black Widow, whose world was decimated by Ultron on his rise to power. She calls out the Watcher on his passiveness; after all, he only intervened when the cataclysm threatened his existence, not hers. Her troubles, and those of the others, aren’t real to him, are they? They’re just stories. “Tell me,” she asks, “did you make popcorn while Ultron murdered my friends and burned my world to the ground?” He tells her that she and the others are more than just that, that their stories are everything.
He whisks her away to another universe that lost their Black Widow and the story concludes, but in that beat between the Watcher and Black Widow, the series shows its hand. It’s about stories, but it’s also about the connection between a story and its reader/player/watcher.
The Watcher is something of a meta-level audience surrogate, after all, he’s watching these stories with you. What’s his narration if not that one friend who likes to point things out to you while watching something? But he’s also far from a passive consumer — he’s invested! It’s clear in the fourth episode that he pities Doctor Strange’s descent into madness. In the eighth episode, he’s telling Clint and Natasha which box they need to defeat Ultron, even though they can’t hear him, effectively yelling at the tv screen to try and help them out. He cares about what happens, the stories matter to him.
What If…? for all its multiversal shenanigans is, at its heart, about a guy who really likes stories. And sure, one of the stories tries to kill him so he breaks an oath to make the other stories team up against that first evil story guy. The Watcher, like any person with a story they’re really into, is invested in it and wants to know what happens. He cares about the characters and what happens to them, rejoices in their successes and mourns their failures. He wants the stories to continue, enough so that he gives Black Widow a chance to continue hers, and he goes back to keep watching.