One of the many secrets to Marvel Studios' success is the willingness to take a risk; and so far, Marvel's What If...? series may have been the biggest risk of all.
In addition to being the studio's first animated series for Disney+, What If...? tackled the Marvel multiverse, focusing on characters fans knew but in situations that they didn't, from Peter Parker taking on a Quantum Realm-related zombie apocalypse to Peggy Carter receiving the super-soldier serum.
However, fan reception to the series has been mixed at best, due to continuity issues, some unusual choices in storylines, and Thanos' all-too-easy death in "What If... Ultron Won?"
Now that the series' inaugural season has concluded, What If...?'s creators have opened up about some of their decisions, including their seeming death wish for the Mad Titan.
Marvel Explains Thanos' What If Death
In an interview with ScreenRant, What If...?'s director Bryan Andrews responded to questions about Thanos' losing record by emphasizing the multiverse's "infinite possibilities" and even acknowledging that, "I'm sure there's a universe where Thor aimed for the head:"
"Well, I think Thanos is pretty badass on his own. And I think it's important for everyone to remember that it's infinite possibilities. So yes, there are universes where Thanos maybe didn't get his act together and isn't quite as badass as we thought. Or he was on the verge and was defeated in a different way. I'm sure there's a universe where Thor aimed for the head."
In Season 1's penultimate episode, titled "What If... Ultron Won?", an Avengers: Infinity War-style Thanos appeared before Ultron.
However, as opposed to the beginning of Avengers: Infinity War, Thanos' Infinity Gauntlet only lacks one stone - the Mind Stone.
Ultron, who had the Mind Stone embedded in his forehead just like Vision, only reacted to Thanos by saying "Fascinating."
Thanos never had time to react as he was quickly sliced in half by Ultron who, again, only had one of the Infinity Stones as opposed to Thanos' four.
In regard to that particular story beat, Andrews said, "I think that particular Thanos just maybe was a little bit full of hubris:"
"And I'm sure there are probably hundreds of universes where Thanos steps out of that gate to see the Infinity Ultron and he just destroys that droid. That was one particular story that played out that one specific way to allow this certain thing to be achieved. And for that to happen, I think that particular Thanos just maybe was a little bit full of hubris. He didn't check where he was going in advance and he was a little ill-prepared, but I don't think that means that's the only way that particular situation ever played out by a longshot."
A.C. Bradley, who served as What If...?'s head writer, chimed in with a bit of humor, saying, "There's definitely a universe where Thanos got to McDonald's after they stopped serving breakfast and decided to destroy the entire world.
Was What If Criticism Inevitable?
While reception for Season 1 of What If...? varied throughout its nine-episode run, the fact is that the series faced an uphill battle from the beginning.
The jump from live-action to the medium of animation was bound to lose (or confuse) some sections of the Marvel audience, as well as the premise of revisiting iconic characters and spinning their tales in new, and sometimes strange, ways.
What If...? also had the challenge of following phenomenons and awards contenders like WandaVision and Loki on Disney+.
Still, many Marvel fans enjoyed What If...? and appreciated the show's ambition and creativity. However, managing to strike the right balance between ambition and creativity in a franchise where canon and continuity are essential is a tall order.
The decision to have Ultron kill Thanos may have been too ambitious since three phases of MCU storytelling had informed audiences that Thanos, armed with the stones, would've made this plot point impossible.
Perhaps, in order to be worthy of investment, these alternate stories need to be built upon the rules of the MCU or at least inform audiences of what the new rules will be.
All Season 1 episodes of What If...? are streaming on Disney+.