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When the original What If..? series debuted in late 1976, it gave Marvel Comics a chance to answer tantalizing questions fans had asked over the years about some of the biggest events in the Marvel Age.
What If Uncle Ben had survived?
What if Jean Grey didn't die? (Yeah, we know she didn't truly die, but back then, we thought she was toast.)
What If the Hulk had kept Bruce Banner's brain?
These alt-scenarios had been debated and discussed to exhaustion by countless fans at comic shops, the still-novel at the time comic conventions, and anywhere else fans gathered to read and talk comic books. The genius of the series Roy Thomas dreamed up was that it gave fans a chance to see what would happen on the flip side of the coin of history.
But the series had a dark underbelly, too. It revealed that what you wish for, may not turn out the way you hope it will.
When it comes to What If...?, that is a monumental understatement.
The various What If...? series all share a common pattern of ambition mixed with erratic execution. Some of the original stories from that first run still hold up just fine today; others, not so much.
That same inconsistency continued through Volumes 2, 3, 4... you get the idea.
Part of it could be due to one of the most consistent elements of What If...? — its relentless depiction of apocalyptic scenarios.
The alternate realities posited across many issues had some unbelievably downbeat stories, with endings that would make the dystopian future of the X-Men's "Days of Future Past" storyline seem downright sunny.
A good number of the early What If...? stories ended in intergalactic calamity, or at the very least, with changes that left Earth in an infinitely worse place than it was in the 616 timeline. The unhappy endings were so common, I remember being surprised when What If...? #13, which told the story of Conan the Barbarian winding up in the 20th century, didn't end with the Cimmerian killed in a hail of bullets or some other modern-day cause of death.
Which is why Episode 2 of the current Disney+ animated series, What If...?, was so refreshing to see. It was wonderful to hear the late, great Chadwick Boseman's voice as T'Challa, and to see a portrayal of the character freed from the burden of royalty, reveling in his role as a galactic Robin Hood. It was a fun episode, and "fun" is not a word I've ever associated with the What If...? franchise.
Most of the time, it's about enduring these stories, because man, they typically go real dark.
I mentioned the Phoenix story earlier. That issue ended with Dark Phoenix not only incinerating poor Kitty Pryde and the rest of the X-Men, but also swallowing up the entire universe!
What If...? #21, "What If the Invisible Girl Had Married The Sub-Mariner?", was the first sequel in What If...? history. It was a follow-up to the first issue, when Spider-Man joined the Fantastic Four, and eventually led to Sue Storm's exit from the team to marry Namor. This story's real tragedy was how rejection turned Reed Richards and Johnny Storm into xenophobes who doctored footage to spark a war with Atlantis. And that's not even the worst thing they did — that would be Reed designing a genocidal weapon that could wipe out the entire Atlantean race. He came around at the very end, but Johnny did not. Seeing the demise of the First Family of Marvel in this was truly sad.
What If...? #29 showed what would happen if the Avengers banded together to take out all the other superheroes. This one was especially depressing because it showed Earth's Mightiest Heroes could be played for suckers quite easily by Rama-Tut posing as the Scarlet Centurion. Rama-Tut, of course, is an ancestor of Kang the Conqueror.
What If...? Enemy of the State from 2007, showed the horrible reality if Wolverine hadn't been de-programmed (based on Mark Millar and John Romita Jr.'s classic storyline). He killed most of the heroes off, cut off Captain America's limbs, and in the end, was only stopped when Kitty Pryde, who loved Logan dearly, sacrificed herself. How did she do it? She phased her arm into Logan's brain! Writer Jimmie Robinson didn't even have the decency to let Kitty survive after that gruesome effort. You monster!
No hero benefited less from divergent realities than poor Spider-Man. At various times, What If...? turned Peter Parker into a stooge for J. Jonah Jameson, a wanted criminal and perhaps worst of all… a selfish, greedy Hollywood producer!
The fourth issue of the second volume of the series, "What If The Alien Costume Had Possessed Spider-Man?," put perhaps the most tragic twist of all on poor Peter. In this parallel world, Reed Richards is unable to separate the symbiotic Spidey brought back from Battleworld during Secret Wars with his sonic blaster, and it ends up completely subjugating Peter. He eventually kicks him loose once he possesses the Hulk, but the damage to Peter has been done. The symbiotic literally sucked 50 years of his life away, leaving Peter Parker as an 80-year-old fragile man, clinging to life.
As if that's not heartbreaking enough, writer Danny Fingeroth and the art team of Mark Bagley and Keith Williams twist the knife some more by having elderly Peter drop in to visit Aunt May, just to lay eyes once more on the woman who raised him. He doesn't tell her who he really is, of course. As he walks away, we see Mary Jane Watson stare at the old man walking away. By this point, MJ knew Peter was Spider-Man, and wonders if one of his enemies finally got to him.
Almost as if they realized they had just piled on the pain a bit too much, Fingeroth and Bagley have Peter Parker die of old age on the very same page.
The story ends with Black Cat killing the symbiote in revenge, but there's little satisfaction in that, either. She had to sell her soul to the Kingpin to get payback. But that's how it went with What If...?
And that's how it often was with the What If...? series. You didn't enjoy the stories as much as endured them. I will be curious to see just how nihilistic an approach the animated series takes. The first episode, in which Peggy Carter became the super soldier instead of Steve Rogers, was sad, but nowhere near on the scale of some of the comics.
Next week's episode is about the Avengers, so perhaps that will give us a hint at just how dark the MCU is willing to dive into its multiverse. The possibilities are endless, after all. Truth be told, I'd be OK if they decided to not go full dystopian.
If I want to see a world where the heroes constantly lose and suffer immeasurable loss, I can just read the What If...? comics.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily reflect those of SYFY WIRE, SYFY, or NBCUniversal.