‘Marvel’s What If…?’ took us to an under-the-radar MCU moment. Why?

The Marvel Cinematic Universe isn’t just a bundle of movies. It’s also fandom-fueled opportunity space for wild flights of fancy. Often, the only thing more fun than watching the latest Marvel thing is tearing it apart and pondering the possibilities.

Well, get those tearing gloves ready. There’s a new episode of What If…? on Disney+ and it turns a little piece of the MCU puzzle into a really big deal.

You may not realize it if you just stick to the movies and streaming shows, but the dismantling of the Avengers depicted in What If…?’s latest episode is a direct, intentional riff on a specific MCU story. Yes, the episode also ropes together the events of Iron Man 2, Thor, and The Incredible Hulk as well — but that already happened in a 2012 comic book tie-in.

“Fury’s Big Week” is a four-issue run of comics that dropped in March and April of 2012, the two months leading to the May 4 release of The Avengers. If you watched the new What If… then you already know the basic layout of the comics, too.

It obviously goes in some very different directions since none of the three heroes killed off in “What If… The World Lost Its Mightiest Heroes?” actually, ya know… die in the MCU. But the 2012 movie tie-in, released under the “The Avengers Prelude” banner, showed deep-diving fans how Nick Fury, Black Widow, Agent Phil Coulson, and Hawkeye all had their background parts to play in the emergence of the MCU’s three of the most central heroes through Phase Three.

We’re not cynics. And we’re certainly not realists. We’re Marvel fans!

Watching the episode, my first thought was: “Holy shit, the core of the Avengers came together in the space of one week?!” That was before I knew the comic existed. Once I realized Marvel had actually told this story before, the thinking started to shift. Why go back to this hyper-specific moment that’s generated very little public conversation in the almost-decade since the story was first told?

Look at our other two What If…? episodes released so far. The first one is pretty much a straight remix of Captain America: The First Avenger, swapping in Captain Britain after Steve Rogers misses his chance to get the super-soldier serum injection. The second episode hinges on Yondu’s dim-witted crew being unable to differentiate one human from another. But if we pull back far enough, the events of the episode are clearly a direct riff on the first Guardians of the Galaxy.

But this? It’s based on a comic. A cynic would tell you Marvel probably did it to drum up sales of a limited series from 2012 that never sold enough copies. A realist would say “Fury’s Big Week” is simply a really cool and fun platform for a What If…? story, not to mention a convenient one for exploring a question like “Where would the MCU go if three members of the Avengers died before the team ever formed?”

But we’re not cynics. And we’re certainly not realists. We’re Marvel fans! So instead of accepting the episode at face value, I dove head first into a rabbit hole unearthed inside my own brain and started wondering what kind of game Marvel is playing here.

We know the multiverse is coming. Like really, truly know it now. The stunning Spider-Man: No Way Home trailer served up a bunch of seismically huge moments, and it also gave us this revealing Doctor Strange voiceover: “We tampered with the stability of space-time. The ‘multiverse’ is a concept about which we know frighteningly little.”

This version of Tony Stark is about to have a very bad day.

This version of Tony Stark is about to have a very bad day.
Credit: Marvel Studios / screenshot: Mashable

The good Doctor is right, we still don’t know much about how Marvel’s infinite sprawl of universes actually works. There are lots of clues that can be pieced together now, between WandaVision‘s potentially paradigm-shifting final moments and the entire finale (and premise overall, really) of Loki. But the rules of play for this thing — which, make no mistake, are poised to fundamentally shape the MCU’s Phase Four and beyond — are, at best, extremely hazy.

What If…? would seem to exist outside of it all. It was only a few weeks ago when I wrote that the show feels “like an intermission from the MCU, before shit gets really wild.” I heaped praise on the idea that there was this low-stress Marvel outing where fans could enjoy a half-hour story without having to cart along all the baggage of connecting each one to a bigger picture.

What a stupid, gullible idiot I was. Just a week earlier, the show’s head writer, A.C. Bradley, had told IGN: “The events of What If…? are canon. It’s part of the MCU multiverse. The multiverse is here. It is real, and it is absolutely fantastic, people.”

The multiverse is a big space, no doubt. What If…? could still absolutely occupy a tiny corner of that space without ever intruding on the MCU or having an impact on its mainline stories. But that’s an overly realistic view for this Marvel fan.

I’d rather hunt for patterns in the chaos. It’s more fun to spend time wondering, and chatting with friends, about how it’ll all connect in the end. And for this week’s episode, that forever-ongoing thought experiment forces us to consider why on Earth-199999 Marvel would draw our attention back to an obscure movie tie-in comic from nine years ago.

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