The Disney+ series “What If …?” continues to be a visually stunning bridge between the live-action films of the Marvel Universe and the animation adaptation of the Marvel comic book that launched in 1977. The stories are unique tales told through images that look and sound like the ones from the movies. That’s because many of the performers who brought characters from Iron Man to Thanos to life are reprising their roles for the animated series.
Just like the comic book, the nine-episode series on the streaming channel looks at scenarios that have been the source of speculation among fans for decades. The most recent focused on what would have happened if instead of Dr. Strange losing his surgical skills he had his heart broken. The previous episodes looked at what would have happened if the Black Panther had become the leader of the Guardians of the Galaxy and what would have happened if the members of the Avengers had been killed.
The series kicked off with an Agent Carter (voiced by Hayley Atwell) tale that offers a whole new look to the Captain America mythology. Creating the visuals – that included a super suit for the beefed up Agent Carter was particularly pleasing for Ryan Meinerding, Head of Visual Development and Character Design for “What If…?”
“Captain America is near and dear to my heart because I designed all his costumes for the films,” Meinerding says. “The notion of trying to do a variation that was elevating Peggy Carter to a superhero and trying to find a compelling look for her that would let her fit in that 1940s World War II era is some of my favorite stuff to work on.
“I really enjoy it and Peggy is such an amazing character. She was really the first character we started working on to find the style of the show.”
The process included looking back at American illustrators who were working in the 1940s such as J.C. Leyendecker and Mead Schaeffer. Their work was used to develop the right style for that episode.
Meinerding’s ability to link the Marvel live-action movies to this animated series comes from him being part of the live-action movie world since director Jon Favreau hired him to work on the first “Iron Man.” He has had a hand in a long string of offerings in the Marvel Cinematic Universe through the Art Departments “Thor,” “Captain America: First Avenger,” “Guardians of the Galaxy,” “Ant-Man,” “Doctor Strange” and “Black Panther.”
Between Marvel films, he worked on costume designs for “Watchman” and the look for robots in “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen.” The Ohio native started his career working on the video games “Gauntlet: Seven Sorrows” and “Return to Castle Wolfenstein 2.”
It was imperative that Meinerding, production designer Paul Lasaine and animation supervisor Stephan Franck got the look right for the cast of Marvel characters whether it was using the looks from the films or creating new costumes. That’s because the voices are perfect with 50 cast members from the MCU reprising their roles.
The cast includes Angela Bassett, Benedict Cumberbatch, Benedict Wong, Benicio Del Toro, Chadwick Boseman, Chris Hemsworth, Clark Gregg, Cobie Smulders, Dominic Cooper, Don Cheadle, Emily VanCamp, Evangeline Lilly, Hayley Atwell, Jaimie Alexander, Jeff Goldblum, Jeremy Renner, Josh Brolin, Karen Gillan, Kurt Russell, Mark Ruffalo, Michael Douglas and Natalie Portman.
The cartoon versions of the characters from the real-life movies are so perfectly rendered it is as if the entire MCU collection has been rebooted. There is no doubt when Bruce Banner arrives on screen that Mark Ruffalo is the basis for the design. The same goes for every character in the series.
“The idea of using characters and stories from the MCU and deviating from them in interesting ways is the spirit of the show,” Meinerding says. “In terms of the visuals, I have worked on Marvel films since ‘Iron Man’ and designed a lot of characters.
“The idea of trying to do an animation spin on them was hugely compelling to me. The notion of looking at them maybe a little more realistically than a lot of other animated projects would was a lot of fun. We had to decide how far to push things. How realistic should it be. How stylized it should be.”
His great hope is that there is enough animation to allow for compelling an interesting action without feeling radically different from what fans of the live-action films know so well.
Meinerding is proud of all the work that has been done to bring “What If …?” to the small screen. But, he will always have a special appreciation of getting to work again with the look of Captain America and to develop the look for what Peggy Carter would have looked like in an alternate universe.