Episode 8 of What If…?, the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s unexpectedly depressing Disney Plus series, breaks THE rule. The Watcher, a cosmic being tasked with observing Earth, lives by a code in both Marvel comics and the What If…? series: Do not interfere with events, just note what happens. The Watcher is the perfect audience surrogate: What better way to imagine the viewers, than as onlookers who have no option to get involved with the story?
As What If…? production designer Paul Lasaine told Polygon earlier in the season, The Watcher was both a narrative and visual concept. Director Bryan Andrews wanted the omniscient, multiversal character (voiced by Westworld’s Jeffrey Wright) to be “essentially invisible at the beginning,” then slowly emerge in the background of episodes until “he becomes more physical.” Ryan Meindering, head of visual development at Marvel Studios, combined the idea with other Marvel lore to make it even more effective onscreen.
“The idea was to mix his visuals with something more akin to how Eternity looks in the comics, where he’s more of a background, where you literally see space, you see time, you see all the things he’s talking about in his narration,” Meindering says. “If we were going to stick The Watcher in a film, it would probably be much different. In this show, having him be the entrance point to each episode, having him be the narrator that speaks from a position of authority, I think all of that stuff is what evokes the sense of The Watcher from the comics.”
In “What if… Ultron Won?” the Watcher not only becomes “more physical,” but by the end, stars in his own alternate-timeline version of Avengers: Endgame. The entire What If…? series really has been leading up to this.
[Ed. note: This post contains spoilers for What If…? episode 9.]
In “What if… Ultron Won?” the Avengers fail to destroy the sentient, malevolent AI that Tony Stark once described as a “suit of armor around the world.” Ultron eventually inhabits the body of Vision, and goes on a killing spree. He nukes the Earth, then slices Thanos (not the nice one) in two when the Mad Titan arrives on Earth with the Infinity Stones. In the Avengers: Infinity War of this timeline, Ultron wields the power of the Infinity Stones, imbued in his alloy body, to obliterate everything from Asgard to Sakaar to the living planet Ego.
The ultimate power eventually awakens him to the existence of The Watcher, and the possibility of overtaking an entire multiverse, including one parallel universe where Steve Rogers becomes president of the United States. Somehow, after episodes focused on Doctor Strange’s destruction of an entire reality and a Marvel zombie apocalypse where there’s little to no hope of a superhero savior, this episode is peak bleakness.
So The Watcher stands up to fight. The fight is one of the show’s most triumphant, thrilling moments. Thus far, What If…? has mostly been contained within the known events of the Marvel universe, which has suffocated some of the story possibilities. Instead of propelling off compelling Marvel twists that lead to their own internal drama and stakes, the series has mostly settled for reskinning known characters and jumping from referential setpiece to referential setpiece. The episodes haven’t been great stories, mostly because they’re variations on movies ingrained in Marvel-lovers’ brains. But in the background, the creators have been building toward a moment of narrative freedom: the introduction of the Watcher as a dimensional character, and a unique story that probes the ethical bounds of a godlike entity.
Much like Eternals is poised to do in November (with trailers hinting at a post-Blip reckoning for the all-powerful characters), “What if… Ultron Won?” forces The Watcher to atone for the sin of standing on the sidelines during the most destructive moments in the multiversal timeline. Luckily, the questions of responsibility sink in better than they did for Jerry, George, Elaine, and Kramer during the Seinfeld finale — The Watcher does believe that, with the entire multiverse at stake, it’s time to punch Ultron in the face and save the day. But by the end of episode 8, his intervention isn’t enough, and it’s clear how things will ultimately end. All the tragedy we’ve seen throughout What If…? will come back, as teased in trailers, in an Avengers-like team-up from across the multiverse. Expect Doctor Strange, Black Widow, and Captain Carter to all return in episode 9 for one final showdown, led by The Watcher.
The big question remains: Can What If…? put the Watcher back in the
bottle sky after season 1? And can the show branch out from simply iterating on the MCU that fans know? Writer A.C. Bradley told Polygon at the top of the season that she initially pitched a Cronenbergian body-horror episode involving Spider-Man’s transformation into an actual spider, but that idea got killed for being “PG-13 stuff.” But with the rules fully broken, far-out ideas seem a little more possible for the future. And there is a future. All signs point to another batch of What If...? episodes in the works, with additional animated Marvel projects coming as early as 2022.
“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,” executive producer Brad Winderbaum told Polygon earlier this year. “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 it or create it. And it needs an infinite canvas.”