The wait for What If…? is finally over. Weeks after the season finale of Loki caused the Marvel multiverse to erupt, we finally get to see new and different stories birthed from all the chaos. This season one premiere has just delivered a massive rewrite of Captain America: The First Avenger, where Peggy Carter is given Dr. Erskine’s super soldier serum instead of Steve Rogers, and fans are eager to see where the anthology series will go from here.
The head writer of What If…?, A.C. Bradley, was gracious enough to sit down with us for an exclusive interview. Read on as she discusses her journey in animation leading to What If…?, her process when tackling iconic characters like Spider-Man, and some ideas that didn’t make the cut for the first season. We also dive deeper into the series premiere and everyone’s new favorite iteration of an MCU legend, Captain Carter.
Starting off with your previous animation writing on Tales of Arcadia for Netflix, was that your first foray into animation?
A.C. Bradley: Actually it’s not. I was hired years and years ago to write an episode of Tron: Uprising, the Disney XD series. It was a funny situation: I handed in my outline, I was waiting to go to scripts, and I heard nothing, like crickets. I emailed the head writer and got really uncomfortable because I was worried that my outline wasn’t good or that something happened. At the same time, I had just sold a pitch to Disney features, for a proper Disney movie. I was like, “Oh crap, I don’t want to tell them that I apparently don’t know what happened to this outline, but let me just be quiet because I want to write this movie, really bad.”
Then about six months later, I see the show had been cancelled. I called my agent and he went “Oh, did no one tell you? The show got cancelled like two days after you handed in the outline.” No one told me! I emailed the showrunner and he was obviously upset. I actually got paid out [for] the episode, but they canceled the show after the first season. And I was writing a season two episode (laughs). I was like, “Oh, okay. So I didn’t mess up the outline.” And he’s like, “No, you were great. Just no matter how good your outline was, that show was getting cancelled.” So now I just joke about that being my first episode of animation.
So what was it like working with Guillermo Del Toro when entering animation fully with Tales of Arcadia?
A.C. Bradley: I came to the Tales of Arcadia series, kind of from a very roundabout way. I’m mostly a live-action writer; I had pilots and features sold, and I had done a stint on Arrow with Marc Guggenheim, who’s a friend of mine. He was the one who had written Trollhunters as a feature movie, for Del Toro, and then DreamWorks and Netflix, along with Guillermo, wanted to turn it into a TV series. They had hired the Hageman brothers as the head writers, and Marc called me up and he says, “Can you do a meeting with these people? I would like you to be in the room because you have live-action experience, and this is going to be a completely serialized show.”
Basically, he liked my writing and wanted someone in the room who’s ironically [into] comic-books and that kind of storytelling. Because the Hagemans had come from a very animation background – the two other writers in the room were very funny YouTube kind of sketch guys – so I was the one with the more story experience. I was like, “Yeah, this sounds great” so I jumped on. We did 52 episodes in under two years writing-wise, which was a lot for a very small writers room. I then stayed on for the last season and handled the rewrites because Guillermo had come in and had a bunch of notes. While I was doing that, we were all talking about doing a spin-off [3Below] – it was important for Guillermo to do a show that showcased Latino and female characters. We’ve got the audience hooked, now we get to show them different sorts of heroes. And I was super down for that!
So I ran that for two seasons. Again, we did 26 episodes in about 14 months. I am really proud of the work, but it was a lot. At the end of the day, I think I worked on 70 episodes in like three and a half years. People always ask the difference between animation writing and live-action writing, and sometimes I joke that my live-action TV writer friends will write one, maybe two episodes a year, and I usually write 10!
There’s been times where like that first run of Trollhunters is 52, I worked on every episode, but I wrote 26 or 25 of them straight out. So when it came to after 3Below, I took a much-needed break. I went and did some feature stuff, I had already been talking to the Marvel guys that I met a few times, I had known a couple of producers there. That summer, Brad Winderbaum asked me to come in, and you never know why you’re in the room until you’re in the room. He goes, “We want to do an animated TV show.” I was like, “Oh, once I’m out, you pull me back in!” That was how Tales or Arcadia kind of led to this.
How did the creative process differ for What If…? when compared to something like Tales of Arcadia?
A.C. Bradley: There’s two questions there. So here’s the first question, the first meetings at Marvel, you never really know why you’re going in, they don’t even tell your agents or your managers until you’re literally in the conference room. So you kind of get excited, but don’t get too excited because you don’t know why. But me and Brad talked about what they want to accomplish. I think the first thing I said was “Don’t do CGI, because I just did 70 episodes of that and CGI is very expensive and very time consuming.” But, of course, we ended up having to go the CGI route, and he gave me a couple of episode ideas they were playing around with, [and Brad said] “Would you come back and pitch me a few episodes?”
So I went away, I played around with the MCU. I think we might have just did it over the phone. I pitched him a bunch of episodes, and he’s like, “This is great. I want you to meet with Kevin [Feige].” I got a phone call from his assistant,”Hey, can you come in today, like in an hour?” And then I had to very politely tell his assistant, “I’m literally at the physical therapist office, I have a busted knee. So I’m going to come in with my knee taped up funny and a pair of gym shorts and sneakers. How bad is that? Am I about to ruin my career?” She laughed, “Don’t worry, you’re going to be more than fine.”
The reason they wanted me to come in was that they had pulled together a bunch of concept art and had made the pitch to Disney+, and it looked like this was a green light almost. “We want to show you what we’re going to be doing.” So it was almost like a sales pitch to see if I wanted to do the show. And I went with my knee all covered in tape and wearing a pair of gym shorts, a week later to pitch Kevin and I pitched him about three to five episodes. Some of them actually made it to the first season, some of them were just kind of like shared ideas, and that’s kind of how I got the job.
When it came to writing What If…? versus Tales of Arcadia, they’re very different shows. [With] Tales of Arcadia, the whole point is that everything’s connected. And in a way, all the shows take place almost at the same time. They overlap, it’s very serialized storytelling. What If…?, although it’s in the Marvel Universe, is an anthology series. The episodes for the most part stand alone. So that was quite nice. If you change episode five, it doesn’t really affect episodes four and six as much in the way it would a serialized show. So when it came to breaking the story, it was like “What’s the best story we can tell in 30 minutes and have the most fun?” instead of always looking at the huge 13, 26, or like 78 episode arc that I was used to dealing with before. So in a way it was really freeing.
Focusing more on What If…?, The Watcher is easily comparative to the narrator in The Twilight Zone. How was that concept pitched to Jeffrey Wright and being in each episode in different ways, how did you want to implement him as this guide throughout the whole show?
A.C. Bradley: We wanted the Watcher to be the thread that connects the episodes, the literal guide for [What If…?] – to hold the audience’s hand. While we have a lot of fun with the Marvel Universe, I knew going in that, hopefully, we would also have people who are only casual viewers in the Marvel Universe, who are not really that aware of it. So I wanted the Watcher to always set the table for the audience, so they knew what they were sitting down to enjoy. When it came to developing his character, we asked, “What do we want to say with him? What’s the point of the Watcher?”
The idea is that in a way, he’s the audience. He comes in very cold, very disinterested, almost as a higher being watching these little ants run around [trying to] save their world. But the more he watches, the more invested he becomes, and the more he finds himself rooting for these little teeny creatures. When it came to casting, Jeffrey Wright was always on top of the list. He was our first choice because I can’t remember there being other names that were seriously tossed around. I love Jeffrey’s voice. When we met with him, the way he spoke about what he would want to do with the character and the way he spoke about Marvel – how he watched the movies with his son – I was like, “This feels like the perfect casting. He feels right.” And Marvel was able to make a deal.
Speaking of casting, I’m curious how you managed to get a character like Spider-Man, given all the stuff with Disney and Sony? Based on what we’ve seen, it’s a slightly different suit and I imagine it’s not Tom Holland’s voice. How did you approach using such an iconic character like that?
AC Bradley: When we were figuring out what our first episodes would be, I did ask, “What are the rules for Spider-Man?” because I actually have friends over at Sony who work on the Spider-Verse movies. I’m a huge fan of them, but I’m also like, can we use Spidey? Marvel and my executive, Brad, were like “Don’t worry about it just yet. We’re going to figure all that out.” Because the whole Marvel Spider-Man – I don’t want to say fight, I don’t know what was really happening around the same time we were writing season one – but those kinds of deal makings are above my pay grade.
So I just approached it as “We’re gonna write the best episodes possible and we’re going to use the Spider-Man characters. If I find out in three months that I can’t, I’ll just go and rewrite them.” Television writing is rewriting anyway – just don’t worry about a problem that hasn’t arrived. It’s always the best advice when it comes to TV. We were very lucky that I was told “Just go ahead, we’ve got Spider-Man, this is going to be an awesome episode.” And I didn’t have to do any rewriting on it! I was really happy to have Spidey on board, because how often do you get to write Peter Parker in your career?
Now, you’ve probably been asked this loads of times, but what can you tell us about episode ideas that were very close to featuring in the first season of What If…? but had to be decided against?
A.C. Bradley: A few episodes will, hopefully, be in the second season. Then if [What If…?] continues onward, they might pop up later, so I can’t talk too much because I don’t want to screw over future writers on the show. But I’ve said that I wanted to do a big epic space opera episode, like a big romance I’ve always wanted. I’ve always wanted to combine a bit of romance storytelling with the superhero genre. I did have an episode pitch, it was one of the ones I pitched that very first meeting with Kevin. The main issue was that it was just too big of a story, and it involved Iron Man. There’s so many great Iron Man stories and we went for different ones. We probably could have done an entire series of “What If Iron Man?” Oh well, you can do an entire series of What If with almost any of the Marvel characters. And I would love to do it, but budget wise?
I mean, hey, who knows? Do you have any update on What If…? season two, and how work has been on that especially during the pandemic?
A.C. Bradley: Work on season two has been different because of COVID, and I think all our lives are very different right now. But we’ve had an amazing team and writing is knee-deep. almost done actually. Because these episodes are so difficult to animate, the writing has to happen quite a bit before the show airs. As hard as the last year and a half has been for production, it’s been harder on people – it’s been hard on everyone, I can’t complain.
I’ve got a good friend whose girlfriend is an ER nurse and I’m complaining about writing in my house. I’ve had friends who’ve lost family members to COVID, lost their jobs, and their livelihood because restaurants have shut down. You can’t complain at all. I’m sure it would have been great to hang out in the writers room and the edit bay, of course, but hopefully that time will come again. It’s one of those situations where as much as COVID has made production harder, it’s made so many lives so much harder. So my hope is just people get vaccinated, wear a mask, and let’s get through this.
Couldn’t agree more. Diving into the What If…? premiere, how did casting Josh Keaton as Steve Rogers come about, especially when you still had Hayley Atwell as Peggy Carter?
A.C. Bradley: So when it came to casting Josh, that credit falls to our casting director, Jason Stamey. He basically sent us four or five options. Josh was a standout. It wasn’t a hard decision. He was great, and I’m really happy that he came on board.
Are you able to say any of the other options just out of curiosity?
A.C. Bradley: I can’t remember, I would have to go through emails. Josh was great. During this scratch phase, we always hire actors, a lot of them are actor friends of mine, to come in and do the voices. So a buddy of mine came in and actually did the voice in the animatic. He’s a TV actor, I won’t say his name, but he did me a real solid because it was the first episode, and I wanted to make sure the animatic played well. One of my other good friends, she came in and I think voiced every single female Marvel character for the the animatic scratch. It’s just the temporary voice to see how the episode is working before we have in the Marvel actors. So we actually owe a lot of credit to our behind the scenes scratch actors. They let me test out lines and scenes – they were awesome and helped make the show thing.
Now, the commentary on Captain Carter being a woman on the front lines in WWII, very important thematically, but I was wondering if you had anything to elaborate on that?
A.C. Bradley: When I came onto [What If…?], it was already sort of decided that they wanted to do Peggy Carter as the First Avenger. So my job was finding the moment, finding the what if actually. While rewatching The First Avenger, there is a moment, It’s a pretty innocuous moment, it’s Dr. Erskine asking Peggy to wait in the booth. But given the state of the world and where we all are, and as a woman in the industry, it felt like a great opportunity to have Peggy stay in the room and let that carry weight. Let that moment carry a different connotation now, and let that be the change that started the whole universe.
Marvel was very supportive. Victoria [Alonso] was incredibly supportive. It was her idea after the first animatic screening, she’s like “Let Peggy have more fun with that shield. Let her have fun kicking ass. She doesn’t have to be serious about it. She wants to end the war, of course, but let her have fun.” That was nice because so often we make our female heroes super serious, and this let me have Peggy cracking jokes just as any other hero would. I was pleasantly surprised that they were totally open to pushing it and the mandate was “Do right by Peggy. Give her a good episode.”
It is a very good episode.
A.C. Bradley: Oh, thank you.
Now, the HYDRA Stomper is a very cool. Where did the idea of introducing this early version of Iron Man come from?
A.C. Bradley: Funny story with the HYDRA Stomper. Originally in the script, there was a joke with Dum Dum Dugan, where he goes, “Look at the HYDRA Stomper. No, HYDRA Smasher. HYDRA Smasher is better.” Because in the outline, it was called the HYDRA Smasher. Kevin [Feige] read the script and he went, “No actually, Stomper is better. Go back and change it all.” So from the HYDRA Smasher to the HYDRA Stomper. It was really a device to keep Steve Rogers in the story. So we could get more of the Peggy and Steve romance, which audiences always love and can’t get enough of.
I was pleasantly surprised to see not Steve sidelined just because he didn’t have the super soldier serum. It really is a testament to his character. Now before we end, we have to talk about that final fight with the tentacle monster. There’s some very clear multiversal, time travel stuff going on there. How did that originate?
A.C. Bradley: The squid monster came from the 1940s pulp serials. First Avenger played a lot with those old movies and so did we – that kind of fun, big pulpy sci-fi. So we wanted a big monster at the end, and it’s kind of just funny and fun. We went with the tentacle monster, I forget whose idea that was, it might have been Brad’s? My nervousness was that tentacles are very hard to animate. CGI guys! So I loosely based it on the Abilisk from Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, which is a big tentacle monster in outer space, and the animators just kind of went nuts with it. They had a lot of fun. All the credit for the animation goes to our animation studios – who despite COVID, despite a harsh timeline, despite a very complicated design – really gave it their all and brought their A-game. We owe them a big debt.