Warning: The following article contains spoilers for the What If…? series and potential spoilers for the rest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Please proceed with caution.

In early October, the Marvel Cinematic Universe finished their first full foray into animation with the season finale of Marvel’s What If…? The Disney+ anthology series was received in a mostly positive light by viewers, though that begs the question: what was the cause of the series’ success?

In truth, there are several factors. There’s the fact that What If…? is another staple in one of, if not the biggest, media phenomena in recent history. It’s also the first Marvel animated property to be canon to the MCU— following the events of fellow MCU show Loki — instead of being set in its own offshoot continuity as is the case for Disney XD’s catalogue of Marvel cartoons. More sentimental audience members might have tuned in to see Chadwick Boseman’s final portrayal as T’Challa, which he completed prior to his death in 2020 (Nebens).

I believe that there is one reason that largely goes overlooked. To understand that reason, we’ll have to look at a subject that lives in a limbo of notoriety: fanfiction.

The Sacred Timeline. Of Fanfiction!

If you’re vaguely familiar with the term “fanfiction,” the first thing that comes to mind is probably one of several websites housing a rather sizable collection of writings based on pre-established properties. While this is a rather cut and dry explanation, it doesn’t quite do fanfiction justice.

Let’s go back a bit. For starters, fanfiction isn’t a 21st (or even 20th) century concept. The relative definition of fanfiction is “when someone uses the characters or universe created by a book, television series or movie to write their own fiction based around it” (Outlaw et al.). While the term “fanfiction” wasn’t coined until around 1939, the practice was there long before it was named. The earliest, relatively agreeable example of what we would call fanfiction emerged around the time of Shakespeare, as most of Shakespeare’s plays were based on pre-established works, namely Romeo and Juliet and Othello. The former was based on a poem, with Shakespeare expanding the plot elements and adding new characters; the latter was based on an Italian cautionary tale, which Shakespeare turned into an on-brand tragedy. Obviously there are exceptions, as Romeo and Juliet was a 14th century work, while Dante’s Inferno, which involved the Christian mythos, was 13th century material.

Looking ahead, one of the first instances of modern fanfiction and fandom culture in general came with Sherlock Holmes. Originally written by Arthur Conan Doyle and published periodically in magazines, the chronicles of Holmes’ adventures quickly caught on with readers. So much so that they began to write their own stories starring the beloved detective.

Star Trek is the most often cited piece of media deemed responsible for creating the basis of modern day fandom culture. In fact, most early sci-fi properties inspired the first waves of modern fanfiction, leading to the term being coined, though it was far from flattering. Regardless, Star Trek gained a massive audience even before its second season, leading to the creation of fanfiction that was often printed in fanzines, with one of the most notable being Spockanalia; the first issue was completed just in time for the second season premiere of Star Trek.

When the Harry Potter fandom began to take root, fanfiction and fandom was migrating to the internet. In the early days of this migration, fanfiction sites were more niche and split; often sites were dedicated solely to a single fandom and spread out in niche internet pockets. Fanfiction.net wouldn’t become available until October 15th, 1998, with later contenders such as Wattpad and the now mainstream Archive Of Our Own (aka AO3) following in the late 2000s (TVTropes, “FanFiction.net”).

Now that the admittedly scuffed history lesson is over, why do people bother writing (and in some cases, reading) fanfiction? Putting aside the copyright grey areas and the lack of a profit motive, the answer to this question lies in a rhetorical: “what if?”

“What if” the story continued after its supposed end? “What if” these characters were romantically interested instead of these characters, OR “what if” these characters were more romantically inclined? “What if” these parts of the story changed? “What if” I put these characters into another narrative altogether?

For many, fanfiction is the ultimate gateway into the hypothetical. If you like statistics, then you should know that the majority of fanfiction writers were, and still are, women. 80% of user-submitted data showed that most AO3 users identified as female in 2013. However, it’s obviously not just for women. Fanfiction is free reign for people of any gender, orientation, race, and religion, allowing them to explore any work in the ways that they see fit whilst exploring themselves. Even the best kinds of stories can’t give their fans everything. That’s why fanfiction exists; so the fans can create and provide whatever is “missing,” be it in representation or in lore moments.

What About… The Marvel Cinematic Universe?

Alright, we’ve still got a few more stops left on the time machine. Assuming you’re one of the few that have yet to hear about Marvel’s What If…? or even the Marvel Cinematic Universe as a whole, consider this a crash course.

In 2008, following several outside studio deals and other failed personal attempts, Marvel came out with Iron Man. The film was a hit with both comic book fans and general audiences, and fans were eager for more with the practice-defining post-credit scene hinting at more to come. Several films followed: The Incredible Hulk came out in the summer the same year as Iron Man, connecting back to it with a post-credit scene with Tony Stark himself. Iron Man 2 followed in 2010, reintroducing Nick Fury and introducing Natasha Romanov/Black Widow, whilst using its post-credit scene to set up 2011’s Thor.

Following the release of Captain America: The First Avenger that same year, these five films culminated in 2012’s Marvel’s The Avengers, with the build up and good will of previous films allowing it to be a major success. It also teased the future, with the post-credit scene hinting at comic book villain Thanos eventually throwing his gauntlet into the mix.

If you’re interested in where things went from there, it’s best to just go see the films for yourself, but if you need a quick explanation or refresher, here’s the short version. Phase 2 of the Marvel Cinematic Universe ran from 2013 to 2015, following the aftermath of the Battle for New York whilst introducing the Infinity Stones plot point and bringing in new characters such as the Scarlet Witch, Winter Soldier, Guardians of the Galaxy, and even Ant-Man. Phase 3 ran from 2016 to 2019, with the Avengers splitting up following an internal breakdown, leaving the stage to be filled by old plot threads and characters while establishing new characters like the Black Panther, Spider-Man, and Dr. Strange, among others.

After 21 films, the MCU paid off that build up with the release of Avengers: Endgame in 2019, ending the 11 year journey set up by Iron Man. Afterwards, Spider-Man: Far From Home would introduce audiences to the aftermath of Endgame and set up what was to follow in Phase 4 of the MCU.

It’s important to know all of this because What If…? tends to jump around the entirety of the MCU’s continuity. The first season mostly stuck with the first three phases, with a few minor exceptions. Even if you know what happened in the original MCU, you won’t know what’ll happen in What If…? That’s where the show’s intrigue begins.

It’s The Little Things

Based on an on-and-off Marvel Comics anthology that debuted in 1977, What If…? draws its inspiration from the hypothetical presented by its eponymous title, similarly to fanfication. Bearing such a similar base of origin, it’s only natural that some of What If..?’s characteristics ran closer to fanfiction than it would seem upon first glance.

For starters, the entirety of What If…? relies on the concept many fandoms would consider alternative universes (or AUs), a popular trope amongst fanfiction and in mainstream media in recent years. Almost every episode takes place in a reality similar but different to the main MCU timeline, changing one if not several aspects that cause various degrees of change to the alternate reality compared to the original. Here’s a few more examples:

Both Episode 1 and 2 are examples of “role swaps.” The first episode features Peggy Carter becoming the first Avenger instead of Steve Rogers in an alternate take on Captain America, while T’Challa becomes the infamous intergalactic thief Starlord in the second episode. Both episodes result in various degrees of canon divergence, including Steve getting access to a prototype Iron Man suit, and T’Challa reforming the Ravagers and several other antagonists to the side of good, whilst also creating new problems in the wake of the butterfly effect at play.

Later episodes take a darker tone to their inspiration stories, primarily relying on a story type called “darkfic” within fandom circles. Episode 3 is a murder mystery with an anonymous assailant attempting to kill off candidates of the Avengers. The episode also incorporates the use of Continuity Nod, revealing the murderer to be Hank Pym, now wearing his Yellow Jacket suit, which was his alter ego in the comics (TVTropes, “Continuity”). Episode 4 is a more angst-based entry, turning Doctor Strange’s traumatic accident from losing his hands to losing the love of his life, with devastating consequences. Episode 5 is a genre-buster, combining the elements of superheroes with a zombie apocalypse, as the characters are either dead or struggling to survive. Whilst this episode ends on a more positive note, it’s still dark nonetheless.

Episode 7 is a lighter toned adventure, which would be considered “fluff” or “crack.”. The episode stars a version of Thor that was not raised with his adoptive brother Loki, leading to him becoming a more easygoing, irresponsible god and holding a planetary party on Earth without his parents’ knowledge. The fluff of this episode comes from the more lighthearted and at times wholesome moments throughout the episode, while the crack comes from sheer absurdity of the plot’s scale, as well as several  debatably “out of place” cameos from across the MCU. These are just a handful of examples regarding how What If…? uses various fanfiction tropes.

Rise of the Fandom

So What If…? resonated with the audience so well because it tapped into that desire for the unexplored, that unfamiliarity in something familiar, that “what if.” However, this begets another question: how and why are the practices reserved for fanfiction starting to leak into mainstream media?

With the advent of the internet and social media, the metaphorical distance between people has shrunk significantly, including between an author and their audience. As the fans get closer to the work, some creators may feel the need to pay back their audience in some way, often resulting in fan service. After a body of work is finished, if the original creators or a group of dedicated fans feel up to the task, they can create an official continuation, reboot, or offshoot with the fandom’s input as a frame of reference.

Speaking of reboots, that’s another major contributor to the increase of fandom practices entering a mainstream space. Ignoring the less noble and more capitalistic motives for some of these reboots, retellings, and continuations, the fact is that all of them are reintroducing pre-established properties in the hopes of securing an audience. However, people usually don’t want to see the same thing over and over. That’s why some reboots are asking themselves “What if?” in a manner somewhat similar to fanfic writers. It’s similar to the process of adding small (or large) instances of canon divergence to the original work. There’s been a popular sentiment among fandom circles that various sequels, spin-offs, and other derivative materials often feel like fanfic, good or bad, compared to the source material. Even Marvel itself is guilty of this; the MCU is essentially a re-telling of its old comic book properties, and the entire multiverse is just a canonized collection of AUs.

Whether you yourself love or hate Marvel’s new series or the practice it takes notes from, it’s not wrong to admit that both have had a significant impact on the entertainment industry. Whether it’s Marvel showing its fans scenarios beyond their imagination, or it’s fanfiction encouraging people to create those scenarios, it goes to show the power of a simple question: “What if?”