What If…? is a Marvel Studios series unlike anything fans have ever seen before. There’s the fact that it’s MCU’s first animated series, obviously, but the difference between What If…? and everything that came before is way more, uh, intense. What If…? is dark as hell.
For a franchise that tends to err on the side of family friendly, What If…? has only gotten increasingly more distressing over the past few weeks. The first two episodes were fun! Agent Carter becomes a superhero! Black Panther goes to space! And then we saw a serial killer take out the Avengers’ starting lineup, witnessed Doctor Strange destroy his reality, and visited a world overrun by zombies… and watched several of our faves get ripped apart. What If…?’s darkness is only enhanced by the fact that these surprisingly sinister tales are being told via animation. The show may look all Disney-esque, but the vibe is way more Stephen King.
What is going on here? Where does What If…? get off being so horrific? What’s with all the death? Those are valid questions to ask if you haven’t read Marvel’s volumes of What If…? comics. If you have, then you’ve probably spent the last few weeks thinking, “Yeah, this bloody mayhem checks out.”
So, is What If…? (the animated series) any darker than What If…? (the comic book series)? To find out if the comic series really was as dark as I remember it being when I was in elementary school, I became my own kind of Watcher and visited dozens of alternate realities via my iPad. In addition to reading 50 What If…? comics published between 1977 and 2018, I also analyzed data from all 219 issues of the franchise and counted deaths. Someone had to do it!
When it launched in 1977, the first What If…? ongoing series (47 issues) was a place for the kinda stories told in the first two episodes. “What If Spider-Man Joined the Fantastic Four?” “What If the Hulk Had the Brain of Bruce Banner?” “What If Jane Foster Had Found the Hammer of Thor?”—these definitely weren’t always happy stories and plenty of them had twists, but they didn’t end with mass murder. As the series has progressed, starting with the second series in 1989 (115 issues) and continuing with the semi-regular release of one-off tales since 2005 (57 issues), the What If…? genre has gotten increasingly apocalypse-ish.
Let’s use Disney+’s What If…? as a baseline. People started to wonder why the show was going dark with Episode 3, “What If… the World Lost Its Mightiest Heroes?” That episode featured the deaths of five superheroes (Iron Man, Hawkeye, Hulk, Thor, Black Widow). Episode 4, “What If… Doctor Strange Lost His Heart Instead of His Hands?”, obliterated an entire reality. And Episode 5, “What If… Zombies?!”, was, uh, an apocalyptic zombie massacre. The first two episodes had zero hero deaths in them, so essentially any What If…? comic issue that contains a big superhero death is darker than what viewers thought they were getting with the animated series. So, with that metric in place:
- Volume 1: 36% of the issues are darker than the animated series
- Volume 2: 51% of the issues are darker than the animated series
- Volume “3”: 75% of the issues are darker than the animated series
That’s pretty broad, since any issue with at least one big (usually violent) hero death is counted. For example, “What If… the Avengers Had Never Been?” ends with Iron Man dying of a heart attack; and “What If… the Alien Costume Had Possessed Spider-Man?” shows Peter Parker getting the youth sucked out of him by an alien symbiote and left an elderly husk.
Now let’s drill down even further! What about issues that are as dark or darker than Episode 3, the one with the serial killer and at least 5 dead heroes?
- Volume 1: 8% of the issues have five or more hero deaths
- Volume 2: 24% of the issues have five or more hero deaths
- Volume “3”: 42% of the issues have five or more hero deaths
Obviously “What If… the Hulk Went Berserk?” and “What If… the X-Men Died On Their First Mission?” fall into this category. The body count is practically in the title. Then there are the unexpected ones, like when the obscure Marvel UK bounty hunter Death’s Head stabs Mr. Fantastic through the skull, decapitates Namor, and explodes Luke Cage and the Thing.
In some cases, the body count goes way higher than 5 but stops short of total annihilation. “What If… Legion Had Killed Magneto?” concludes with Phoenix turning Washington, D.C. to ash and killing 100,000 people.
Also on that level are a few stories where maybe the body count isn’t so high, but the endings are bleak AF. “What If… Captain America Were Revived Today?” leads to the USA becoming a full-blown, “America First” fascist hell-scape. And could you predict that Kraven the Hunter successfully killing Spider-Man would lead to the end of the Avengers and the criminalization and vilification of all superheroes?
There are plenty of stories that descend into the kind of madness seen in Episode 4, “What If… Zombies?!” The moon gets destroyed, the majority of Earth’s population are turned into Skrulls and then exterminated—there’s an issue titled “What If… Marvel Comics Went Metal with Ghost Rider?” that ends with demons taking over the Earth!
That brings us to the darkest of all endings: total obliteration, as seen in What If…? Episode 3. Chaos on this scale is actually rare in the line, with only 17% of all What If…? stories ending with a scenario where everybody is dead.
“What If… Phoenix Had Not Died?” and “What If… Vulcan Gained the Power of the Phoenix?” are two of those. Another one is, hilariously, “What If… Phoenix Had Fallen for Wolverine?” One wrong hook-up and all of reality is destroyed!
When you crunch the numbers, What If…? was a pretty dark comic book franchise. If you pick up any random issue of What If…?, there’s a 50/50 chance you’re gonna see at least one superhero get killed, and there’s a one-in-three chance that you’re gonna get a bloodbath.
It’s too soon to tell if Disney+’s What If…? is going to follow that precedent. We’re gonna need a few more stories that lean more towards bloodless and bizarre than bloody and bizarre just to balance things out after the past few weeks. But right now? Yeah, What If…? is doing what What If…? does best: wreak havoc.