Experimental animation: Why I’m so excited for Marvel’s ‘What If…?’ and Star Wars ‘Visions’

Last week when I started the first episode of Marvel’s new What If…? series on Disney+, I knew right away that I was watching something special. 

What If…? provides an opportunity to return to our favorite storylines from the Marvel Cinematic Universe in animated form. However, this definitely isn’t the same version of events that we’ve seen on screen before — What If…? takes a key plot point and then twists it, taking the story in a completely different direction. For example, instead of Steve Rogers taking the super serum and becoming Captain America, it’s actually Peggy Carter who becomes the super soldier. Steve now fights alongside Captain Carter in an Iron Man-like suit called the “Hydra Stomper.” 

I know I’ve commented on this before, but I’m incredibly excited that the MCU is starting to play around with the concept of multiverses and alternate realities. I’ve never been strictly beholden to a rigid concept of canon when it comes to storytelling, which is possibly why J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek reboot is my favorite version of Star Trek. I love it when creators are able to take a fictional universe we know and love and turn it on its head, combining concepts that are both fresh and familiar to create an entirely new tale. 

Also, the animation in What If…? is absolutely gorgeous. It’s computer animation that has a splash of classic hand-drawn 2D animation style, and it’s just as cinematic as the live-action films themselves. This medium allows the MCU to tell an epic story without the massive budget it would require to tell this type of story in live action (although if Disney wants to greenlight some big budget live-action versions of these What If…? stories, you know I’m there). 

The Star Wars franchise is also playing around with some new storytelling methods in its upcoming animated series, Visions. This Disney+ series will be unlike anything we’ve seen from Star Wars before: six anime studios were invited to create their own short films featuring original stories. 

I will confess that historically, I haven’t been the biggest fan of anime as a genre. The hyper-stylized animation and storytelling just isn’t my personal jam. However, I can never say no to new Star Wars, and I will be watching this with an open mind. I can think of plenty of examples where I wasn’t excited for a project initially, but because I gave it a fair chance, I ended up really loving it. 

Maybe I won’t like all these short films in the Visions project, but maybe one will end up speaking to me. Also, not every Star Wars project has to be targeted to the specific interests and opinions of Ashley Marie Pauls — I know plenty of Star Wars fans who are really, really hyped for Visions, and I hope they love it as much as they’re hoping to. 

There’s always the temptation for big budget franchise storytelling to grow stagnant, sticking to the same old storytelling techniques that have proven popular in the past because studios don’t like to take financial risks. I think we’re going to see studios growing even more cautious in the post COVID era, as it may take years before we get back to the glory days of wildly successful blockbusters like Avengers: Endgame (if we ever return to those days at all). 

That’s why shows on streaming services, like What If…? and Visions, are so important. Creators working on a multi-million dollar project like a live-action blockbuster film probably wouldn’t be given this level of creative freedom. But since these projects have a smaller scope, I feel like the creators are allowed to take more chances and experiment with new styles and concepts. I’m encouraged to see the success of trippy live action shows like WandaVision and Loki on Disney+, and if What If…? and Visions are also successful, it could pave the way for more projects that, in the famous words of The Magic School Bus teacher Ms. Frizzle, aren’t afraid to “take chances, make mistakes and get messy.” 

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