What If...? succeeds by using a meta trick only Marvel could pull off
The MCU learns to get its hustle on.
The Marvel Cinematic Universe is in absolutely no hurry.
This franchise has been expanding its rich mythology for over a decade, with no signs of slowing down. Even individual movies are epic works on their own, with all 20-odd films hovering around the two-hour mark and Avengers: Endgame even clocking in at over three hours long.
For those keeping track at home, that means the total runtime of all the MCU movies is over 50 hours — and that’s not including TV shows. How do alt-universe versions of these huge stories get condensed into half-hour anthology episodes?
Marvel’s What If...? provides an answer more complicated than you may think.
Marvel fans may be a little shocked by the breakneck pace of What If...?, but just because it’s different doesn’t necessarily mean it’s worse. Yes, the entirety of Captain America is summed up in a few minutes, with Peggy’s reign as Captain Carter played out over montages and snapshots, but the half-hour runtime forces Marvel to hone a strength its movies could use more of: economical storytelling.
“Marvel” and “economical” aren’t exactly synonyms. The MCU is known for big-budget blockbuster films. But by forcing these episodes to a half-hour runtime, What If...?’s narratives are streamlined to only the bare necessities.
A similar approach was taken with the first episodes of WandaVision, modeled after the 22-minute sitcoms of days past. By limiting the runtime, that series had to restrict its story and focus on what mattered to its narrative without worrying about overstaying its welcome. This model also meant weekly episodes went by in a flash, increasing anticipation for the next installment.
With What If...?, Marvel is reaffirming the concept of “appointment television.”
How What If...? pulls off its pacing
What If...? does something many series are afraid to do. It doesn’t retell the stories that inspired it, trusting the audience to fill in the narrative gaps and create a story that feels a lot bigger than it really is. To the diehard Marvel fan, Captain Carter happens within the already established world of Captain America, meaning there’s no reason to re-lay the groundwork with unnecessary world-building.
Whatever world-building is necessary can be done in abbreviated form. What If...? viewers don’t need to know who Red Skull is in detail. They either remember it from past works or just recognize him as a “bad guy.”
What If...? has the ability to build upon an existing treasure trove of stories without worrying about losing its audience. The MCU is so ubiquitous, and What If...? wouldn’t exist without its added context, so the writers’ decision to lean into this advantage makes sense.
To the non-Marvel fan, the series is a fast-paced, distilled alternate to the franchise’s daunting filmography. For the MCU stan, it’s a fun playground showing alternate endings to beloved stories. In both instances, What If...? is on track to succeed.
What If...? is now streaming on Disney+.