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Thanos’ turn in Marvel’s What If...? was inevitable

T’Challa as Star-Lord was the ‘what if,’ but the Mad Titan was the ‘then what’

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Thanos drinking whiskey at a bar with Yondu and Korath the Pursuer in Marvel’s What If...? Image: Marvel Studios
Matt Patches is an executive editor at Polygon. He has over 15 years of experience reporting on movies and TV, and reviewing pop culture.

In sprawling franchises, and especially the Marvel Cinematic Universe, a fan-favorite villain can often be too perfectly cast to waste on a one-off. Tom Hiddleston’s Loki burrowed his way into the Thor franchise and came out the other end with his own heroic turn in a Disney Plus show. Bucky’s turn as The Winter Soldier only lasted a few movies before he chilled out in Wakanda and Sebastian Stan became Avengers material. In Elizabeth Olsen’s hands, Wanda Maximoff swung from a villain to a hero to somewhere in between in WandaVision. And Karen Gillan’s traumatic arc as Nebula hit so hard that Avengers: Endgame hinged on her jumping over to the hero side.

Marvel loves to reform villains, and in What If...? episode 2, they take on one of the mega-franchise’s biggest reform challenges yet: making Thanos a good guy. In “What if... T’Challa became a Star-Lord,” Josh Brolin voices the Mad Titan, who has become slightly less Mad under the influence of an idealistic Wakandan prince.

“There are no rules, [to what we could and couldn’t do with the mythology],” says executive producer Brad Winderbaum. “The biggest ‘rule,’ or the biggest benchmark we looked for was less about the ‘What if?’ and more about the ‘Then what?’ Because that’s really where the story would come from. How can this new situation that the character finds themselves in really test their mettle, and really challenge them as an individual and show us a new dimension to them? So that was kind of the the biggest factor in choosing which which concepts to develop. There are obviously many stories to tell. And this is just one one way to do it.”

Winderbaum describes the spin on Guardians of the Galaxy as an “exploration of how one character, one individual, can change the galaxy just by their very influence.” The Thanos of this alternate timeline, in which T’Challa is kidnapped by the Ravagers, still possess a desire to eradicate half the universe’s population. But he’s chill. T’Challa convinced him there might be better ways to go about balancing the scales between consumption and resources — like redistributing existing resources. The Ravagers who follow the Wakandan Star-Lord are more Robin and his Merry Men then Captain Jack and the pirates of the Caribbean — they live to save and serve. T’Challa got to this timeline’s Thanos early enough to sway him away from his master plan, and whenever he brings it up he’s rightfully jabbed for talking genocidal nonsense.

Thanos in Wakanda snapping his fingers at dinner in Marvel’s What If...? Image: Marvel Studios

“Josh was so excited to play that version of Thanos — the recording session was just so much fun,” Winderbaum says. “And at least for the duration of this story that we’re telling, Thanos seems to have a different outlook on on life in the universe. But part of the fun of Ravager Thanos is that he’s always right there on the razor’s edge of maybe slipping back into his genocidal maniac scheme. Some of the funniest parts are when he’s trying to justify it to the people around him. And everyone’s able to talk him down again.”

Throughout the one-two punch of Avengers: Infinity War and Endgame, Thanos’ plans for the Infinity Gauntlet, and desire to make change through violent means, made him one of the more debatable, meme-able villains in Marvel history (and right up there with the Joker as an evil-doer who a few too many people on Facebook seem to agree with). His transformation into a nice guy is a daring move, and one that will soon be followed by an episode involving T’Challa’s adversary in the first Black Panther movie, Killmonger. Michael B. Jordan’s antagonist had his own defenders, and a chance to put the character back in action, potentially without the baggage, seems to be a silent agenda for What If...?.

Winderbaum pushes back a bit on the critical takeaway: In his estimation, the creators of the animated series aren’t so much putting an ear to the ground to hear fan chatter and interests, but reacting to their own personal fandom.

“It was just born out of that same enthusiasm of loving the thing you’re watching and then also wondering what it would be like to do it differently, whether it’s imagining other ways to do franchises — if you were making those movies — or [to explore] the past not traveled. There’s just infinitely fun stuff to talk about. And we’ve got a roomful of geeks.”

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