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SYFY WIRE Marvel's What If?

Jeffrey Wright calls his 'What If...?' overseer 'the biggest Marvel fan'

By Brian Silliman

The timing of certain entries in the Marvel Cinematic Universe has a touch of destiny to it, despite many of the projects in question shifting dates around several times. The multiverse was just blown open by Sylvie on Loki, and sure enough, here comes the MCU's first animated foray, What If...? The title says it all: What if things went differently? What happens in those aberrant branches of the MCU when different decisions (or screw-ups) are made?

A multiverse full of infinite possibilities needs someone to watch over it, to bear witness, and to have a front-row seat to the greatest live-action binge in the galaxy. The new series uses the character of "The Watcher" in that role, one of many omnipotent beings that appear in Marvel Comics, and the role is played by master actor/genre star/stage legend Jeffrey Wright.

Wright, as well as the creators of What If...? (Head Writer A.C. Bradley, Director Bryan Andrews, and Executive Producer Brad Winderbaum) recently took part in a press junket focused on the series, which will begin streaming on Disney+ on Aug. 11. SYFY WIRE was there to learn all possible wisdom from the Watcher himself.

Wright noted that the Watcher was once described in the comics as "the most dramatic being in all the known universe" and that is something that the series definitely leans into. "He's a fairly powerful guy," Wright said. "He's kind of overseeing the entire MCU. He's overseeing the multiverses... he plays somewhat of a Rod Sterling role here. Kind of narrating, kind of not." Wright delivers every line on the show with godly gravitas, as he begins (and ends) every episode with godly gravitas. The Watcher is dramatic, but he's also a fan.

"In some ways... [he's] maybe the biggest Marvel fan there is, watching all that transpires," Wright said, adding that the character is "dealing with certain temptations to involve himself." This is something that the Watcher will not (and cannot) do, and if we ever forget, he reminds us over and over.

Wright also said that he's "just kind of living vicariously through these characters, these stories, this mythology, and taking it all in." Is he the ultimate binge-watcher? "He's got probably the highest cable bill that you can possibly imagine," according to Wright.

Of special interest to him is Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell), or "Captain Carter" as she appears in this series, possessing all of the power of Captain America because of one small alteration of choice. According to Winderbaum, as the team started to receive scripts from Bradley, they realized there would be a character that "bubbled up and became more important," as he said.

What If Still

"Not more important than the rest, but had a strong relationship with The Watcher," Winderbaum said, adding that the character is "really our driving force behind the series." This is why "Captain Carter" will reappear on the series, showing up at least once per season.

The Watcher connects with Captain Carter, but he looks to do this with all of the characters, as connection (across the board) is key, according to Bradley. Speaking of the vast array of characters on the series, Wright said, "I think he, in some ways, he's kind of defined by them. It's his life's passion to observe and connect with them, with their heroism, with their flaws."

"As I think about these characters and what they've come to represent for, you know, we who watch them, we, who are like The Watcher, I think that the passion behind, fans' connection to these characters is this level of trust," Wright said. "This level of understanding... we can always place our trust in these characters."

When it comes to connection in real life, everyone was very aware that the second episode of the series involves the character of T'Challa, and marks the final performance of dearly departed Chadwick Boseman.

"I think he may have been even one of the first actors that signed on and said, ‘Oh, yeah, I'm gonna do that voice,' Andrews said. Wright recalled meeting Boseman for the first time years ago at a convention, where, as he said, "we had a really wonderful exchange."

"It was a lovely surprise, to find that we would have the opportunity, at least, to be in the same space," Wright said. "And this being his, you know, the last, I guess, performance that we'll get from him... I find it very moving. I guess the thing that strikes me most, you know, what he does here and what he's done with these films is that, obviously, these are films about heroicism and all the complications of that. And what we all discovered was that the kind of mythic quality that he brought to these performances kind of paled in some way, to the mythic quality that was his life... the grace, the dignity, the power."

Fans who study the MCU's continuity are no doubt wondering if the alternate tales inWhat If...? are "canon," especially after the events of Loki, which totally frayed the timeline. According to Winderbaum, "it's no coincidence" that What If...? is premiering after Loki.

"The multiverse has now erupted in every possible direction," he said. "What If...? gives us a chance to explore that. I think you can tell that in this next saga, the multiverse is gonna be crucial."

The Watcher will be taking it all in, watching everything slowly unfold. As Bradley noted, him watching us is not unlike humans watching a rat slowly drag a piece of pizza.

What If...? starts streaming on Disney+ on Aug. 11.