Why What If isn’t connecting with viewers – and what could change that

Animation continues to be a hard sell with mainstream viewers, but Marvel Studios has a trick up its sleeve.

Marvel's What If...? on Disney Plus

We’re now over halfway through the first season of Marvel’s What If…? on Disney Plus, but you may have noticed that conversation surrounding the series is rather muted in comparison to what came before.

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For example, at this stage in WandaVision‘s run, fan theories were becoming increasingly untempered as many viewers screamed the word “MEPHISTO” until they were blue in the face. Likewise, The Falcon and The Winter Soldier generated much discussion as it explored pressing real-world themes and complex new characters such as Isaiah Bradley (Carl Lumbly) and John Walker (Wyatt Russell). Loki topped both series in terms of viewership with a stellar premiere and went on to burst the MCU wide open, paving the way for Marvel Studios’ first foray into animation.

Yet just six episodes in, it feels as if What If…? is losing momentum and recent statistics suggest it might not have had a huge amount to begin with. Data measurement firm Nielsen has been monitoring television ratings in the United States for years and recently moved into the streaming space, providing helpful (albeit not watertight) insights into viewership on Netflix, Disney Plus, Hulu and Amazon Prime Video. Their final count for the week of What If…?’s launch (9th-15th August) reveals the series couldn’t crack the top 10 most-watched shows, despite a considerable marketing push.

For comparison, all three of the preceding Marvel TV series on Disney Plus enjoyed strong debuts on the week of their premiere and remained in the chart for the full length of their rollout, making this a significantly weaker start. The strong performance of recent trailers for Spider-Man: No Way Home and Hawkeye suggest the cause can’t be franchise fatigue, no matter how much Marvel’s detractors might hope so. Alas, a more realistic theory is altogether more disheartening: the general public simply isn’t very interested in seeing animation on television.

In multiplexes, family films from Disney and Pixar have basked in box office glory on numerous occasions, but on the small screen only zany comedies have proven palatable to Western adults, from ailing veterans The Simpsons and Family Guy to more recent hits like Rick and Morty and Bojack Horseman. There seems to be a bizarre notion in this region of the world that mature, dramatic stories cannot be told in animation, which is why anyone searching for such material is usually forced to look towards anime (a growing, yet still niche, interest on our shores).

Invincible on Amazon Prime Video
Invincible on Amazon Prime Video
Amazon

The few dramatic animated series to come out of the West in recent years have been modest hits at best (in the case of Invincible and Castlevania) or have drifted by unnoticed at worst (see Prime Video’s criminally underrated Undone). But if there’s one company with the power to break this cycle, it would be Marvel Studios under the leadership of super-producer Kevin Feige who, up to now, has been gifted with a remarkable Midas touch. Yet even with that bright red banner to bolster it, Marvel’s What If…? has seemingly not been able to escape the unfair assumption of being childish, skippable entertainment, despite its showrunners’ frequent claims to the contrary.

Of course, the show could have done more to try to dodge this fate. While Hayley Atwell is an undeniably brilliant talent, the opening episode of What If…? starring her much-hyped Captain Carter proved to be rather lacklustre. The 30-minute offering is little more than a rushed retelling of 2011’s Captain America: The First Avenger, a film that many Marvel fans don’t have much affection for anyway (note: I love it, but I’m in the minority). Had the show kicked off with its touching tribute to the late Chadwick Boseman or its gimmicky-but-fun zombie story, perhaps it might have had more luck taking root in viewers’ imaginations.

Hayley Atwell voices Captain Carter in Marvel's What If...?
Hayley Atwell voices Captain Carter in Marvel’s What If…?
Disney

Additionally, the show might have benefitted from making its connection with the Loki ending more explicit. Tom Hiddleston’s blockbuster series had no trouble drawing in big crowds from the beginning and What If…? is essentially a spin-off linking directly to the final episode, although you wouldn’t know that from the marketing campaign. Casual viewers with a passing interest in the Marvel Cinematic Universe couldn’t be blamed for not understanding where What If…? falls into the franchise canon, but this confusion could easily have been avoided had the two shows shared a little more connective tissue.

Some might argue that, while What If…? isn’t performing at the same pace as its live-action brethren, Marvel Studios would have expected as much from the market trend we’ve just discussed. It’s a fair point. No doubt Feige and co have done their research and seen how the audience of Star Wars: The Bad Batch is dwarfed by the colossal fanbase of The Mandalorian. But the studio behind $2.8 billion mega-hit Avengers: Endgame hardly seem like the type to aim low, while What If…?’s positively star-studded cast means it probably comes with a heftier price tag than Dave Filoni’s Clone Wars successor.

Benedict Cumberbatch voices evil Doctor Strange in Marvel's What If...?
Benedict Cumberbatch voices evil Doctor Strange in Marvel’s What If…?
Disney Plus

There’s a possibility Marvel Studios is playing the long game. Rumours are gaining traction that certain alternate realities from What If…? could be glimpsed in live-action in next year’s Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, an inclusion that could attract more interest in the (already confirmed) second season. We’ve seen this strategy work wonders before. After Captain America: The First Avenger underwhelmed at the box office with a worldwide gross of $370 million, well below its peers Iron Man ($585m) and Thor ($449m), some were surprised to see a sequel move ahead.

However, after Chris Evans’ star-spangled man gained a horde of new fans from his supporting role in 2012’s The Avengers, he soared back to the silver screen in a solo sequel that made almost double the amount of his debut. If Marvel’s first animated endeavour can’t muster a similar turnaround, one has to wonder whether it will reconsider its plan to form a dedicated in-house animation studio primed to churn out similar content. Those decisions are well above my pay grade, but I can’t help but ponder the question: What If…?

Marvel’s What If…? is streaming now on Disney Plus. You can sign up to Disney Plus for £7.99 a month or save with the annual plan for £79.90 (savings based on 12 mo. of monthly subscription).

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