What If…?, Marvel Studios’ first animated series, continues to make good on the unfulfilled — or potentially impossible fulfill — promise of Hayley Atwell’s Agent Peggy Carter in Captain America: The First Avenger. The throwback movie from The Rocketeer’s Joe Johnston imagined Steve Rogers and Peggy as the ultimate golden-age couple, whose deep love could survive a mad science transformation, a world war, and 70 years on ice.
But as played by Atwell, Peggy was a hero in her own right. She had the ingenuity and aim of a spy. She could clearly plan an attack as well as any man holding higher rank. If Marvel didn’t need to debut Chris Evans’ Cap in under two hours, perhaps The First Avenger would have had room for Peggy to be more than an accessory.
While there was no admission that the character was underserved in First Avenger, future Marvel stories implicitly acknowledged that there was work to do. Marvel brought Atwell back in 2013 for the “One-Shot” short film Agent Carter, which found Peggy back in action chasing MacGuffins, staving off Dumb Men, and eventually founding SHIELD. The short, released with the Iron Man 3 DVD, served as something of a test-of-concept for ABC’s Agent Carter, the two-season spy drama that further carved out Peggy’s post-Steve life and confronted American sexism head on. Buried on a traditional network in 2015, Agent Carter lasted two seasons before becoming something of a cult favorite, as far as Marvel TV is concerned.
Agent Carter’s underdog status makes the kickoff to What If…? even more powerful: There was still room to redeem, empower, and imagine Peggy as the badass hero she was poised to be. There was more Marvel could do for this character, and Marvel did it.
“Captain Carter was one of the first, if not the first, concept we came up with for What If…?,” series executive producer Brad Winderbaum tells Polygon. “She had an amazing story to tell, with just that one little element shifted, and we knew that we’d be able to challenge the character in ways that were born of that time in that era, if all of a sudden the sole super soldier on Earth was a female hero.”
Starting with a story set in the Captain America timeline was always showrunner A.C. Bradley’s plan; the idea being that, if the team stuck close to the canon of one of the movies right off the bat, the show could “get the audience comfortable, get them used to the water before we throw them in the deep end.”
“The decision to make Peggy Carter the first Super Soldier actually came from Kevin and Brad,” says showrunner AC Bradley, who admits she pitched a slightly different story set in the Captain America timeline. “But they were like, ‘We actually want to do this story.’”
Winderbaum, who came up as an assistant at Marvel and produced the Agent Carter show, first met Atwell on the set of the One-Shot. “Hayley was awesome to work with,” he says of the actor, who returns to voice the character on What If…?. “And figuring out what to do with that character who we left in 1945 has always been exciting to [the team at Marvel].”
Bradley’s task was to find a way — logical within the events of First Avenger, and true to her character — for Peggy to step into the super soldier chamber. She seized the moment in the film in which Dr .Erskine asks the agent to wait in the viewing booth.
“I was like, Well, that’s it. There we go. A woman ‘staying in the room’ is incredibly powerful in the 1940s, and even more so I think today in 2021, because this is how we change the world. When it came to the character, we all knew Peggy Carter was going to be a hero. She just doesn’t have the hammer, the shield, the Iron Man suit. So this was my opportunity to finally let the outside match the inside.”
Bradley arrived to What If…? an Agent Carter fan; she’d seen the movies and shows, and held a few of the ABC series’ writers as friends, including showrunner Tara Butters. Her love for the character went deep enough that there are even a few nods to the One-Shot movie in the episode. Fans should keep an ear out for one particular voice cameo that carries over from the Marvel short.
In What If…?, Captain Carter commands the screen, free to run, jump, and bust skulls without the gravitational limitations of onscreen reality. And unlike in The First Avenger, her love interest doesn’t remain on the sidelines. In this tweaked universe, Peggy and Steve — voiced in the animated episode by Josh Keaton — became romantically entangled superheroes, with the gangly soldier stepping into a tesseract-powered Howard Stark invention dubbed the “Hydra Stomper.” The origin movie confines of The First Avenger couldn’t emphasize the power of their relationship by leveling the heroic statuses of Peggy and Steve; What If…? becomes something of a corrective.
“Once you knock over that first domino, a lot of dominoes fall,” Winderbaum says. “We knew that the Peggy-Steve relationship is its own sort of nexus. No matter how you spin the reality around, that love is true. So if Steve Rogers was going to remain skinny Steve, it became fun to imagine what would happen. He’d still want to be join the war effort. He wouldn’t stay still, even if [becoming a super soldier] didn’t go his way. And with Howard Stark on the table, we realized there might be some fun to be had with building this proto-Iron Man.”
The end of the Captain Carter episode finds another parallel to the canon: Captain Carter, having battled a Lovecraftian horror back into its Tesseract portal, emerges from space decades later in the halls of SHIELD to meet Nick Fury. In theory, what happens next in the events of The Avengers now happens with Peggy in hero mode. Could we see the story play out again? Could Captain Carter get her own spinoff series? Everything is on the table at Marvel, where, according to Winderbaum, there are more animated projects in development.
“As we develop more animation, and let you know what those projects are — which hopefully we’re able to do soon — they all do justify the medium. That’s the most important thing. What If...? really had to be animated because of the breadth of material we had to revisit. We’d never be able to afford to create it, and it needs an infinite canvas. What If...? as a concept just needs to be able to to be unbounded and run freely through an infinite space. Animation allows you to do that.”