Lost Legends

What If...? zombies episode reveals a new kind of Marvel hero

This deadly story has a Marvel history all its own.

Marvel’s What If...? seems to get its inspiration from the source.

At first glance, the upcoming Marvel Disney+ series looks like a faithful adaptation of the What If...? comic series, complete with introductions by Uatu the Watcher. However, a close look at the trailer reveals a key clue about an episode that finds its inspiration outside the What If...? branded comics.

In this one case, the premise isn’t hypothetical. It really did happen in Marvel Comics, and it wasn’t pretty.

While the What If...? trailer was full of teases of Captain Carter and T’Challa as Star-Lord, one of the more fantastical shots showed an undead, decaying Iron Man and Captain America as zombies. This isn’t a reference to a particular What If...? comic issue, but instead an entire crossover arc beginning with Ultimate Fantastic Four #21, ultimately leading to a spinoff comic series known as Marvel Zombies, published in 2006.

The alternate Earth where zombies roam the streets was originally introduced as the main threat against the Fantastic Four, but in their spinoff comic, the zombies are the stars of the show. Because these comics were released before the Walking Dead led to a wave of zombie-focused media, Marvel’s zombies feel completely new and fresh.

Lost Legends is an Inverse series about the forgotten lore of our favorite stories.

Marvel’s zombies, as introduced in Marvel Zombies #1, published in 2006. Marvel Comics

Marvel’s zombies don’t follow the “rules.” Yes, they’re mindless creatures who think only of eating brains, but that’s only when they’re hungry. Once their hunger is sated, they’re all too conscious of their actions and must reckon with the fact they not only let the Earth fall to ruin, but they became the ruin themselves.

In one scene of Marvel Zombies #2, Hank Pym retreats to his secret laboratory where he keeps a secret stash of “food” sedated on an operating table — T’Challa. While slicing off his foot like he’s carving a Thanksgiving turkey, Hank talks aloud about his new zombie identity, saying:

You want to hear something really scary? Well, something that scares me, at least. I like the way flesh tastes. If I were to somehow find a cure for whatever’s going on with us — if things went back to the way they were...or as close as they could get... I think I’d still eat people.
Spider-Man confronts his own actions in Marvel Zombies #1.Marvel Comics

It’s this kind of introspection that sets Marvel Zombies apart not only from other zombie media but from other Marvel special events. It’s a surprisingly nuanced and emotional exploration about what makes us human, combined with a lot of images of people eating humans.

If What If...? models their zombie episode off of these comic series, the monstrous creatures we see in the trailer may not be as gruesome as they look. Maybe they’re just grumpy because they need a snack, and the story will have the touching emotional resonance that fans expect from Marvel.

What If...? premieres on Disney+ August 11.