Ryan Meinerding has spent much of the past 15 years bringing some of the world’s most iconic superheroes to life. After starting as an illustrator on the original Iron Man, he rose through the ranks to the head of visual development at Marvel Studios and has spent over a decade figuring out how to incorporate comic book characters into live-action movies. So it was a nice change of pace when he learned What if…?, an animated anthology which takes up these same characters but remixes them in new and often strange situations.
“I don’t think anyone could have come up with an animation project that I would have been more interested in working on,” he said. The edge. “The endless possibilities that are created by having the multiverse, by being able to ask questions like and if, really means that the creativity is just amazing.”
What if…? is currently streaming on Disney Plus, and the premise is there in the name: each episode imagines a different “what if” storyline in which a tiny moment changes the trajectory of an iconic character. What if an assassin starts killing the Avengers? What if T’Challa becomes Star-Lord instead of Peter Quill? The most recent episode wonders what would happen if Doctor Strange didn’t lose his hands, but instead lost the love of his life.
Visually, all of the characters are recognizable by their live appearances, but with a decidedly stylized look. Meinerding says the art style was heavily inspired by the famous illustrator JC Leyendecker, aiming for a look that is both realistic and exaggerated. “The fun of the show is taking something that’s based on reality – in a live action setting – and keeping the animated style relatively realistic,” Meinerding explains. “That’s what Leyendecker did. He stylized and idealized, but they were always meant to be more real than not. “
Meinerding says the team didn’t explore a lot of different styles; from his first days working on What if…?, Leyendecker was the goal. “I think we focused on Leyendecker because of his ability to stylize, to make the figures monumental,” he says. “If you’re looking to translate a cinematic universe of superheroes into animated form, there have been a lot of superhero projects that have already been done… Which version has never been seen before, but which also keeps them somehow realistic, makes them feel monumental and powerful? “
It was also an opportunity to have fun. While the characters of What if…? are mostly recognizable, they’ve also been remixed in interesting ways. Steve Rogers remains a skinny kid, and now he’s piloting a 40s version of the Iron Man costume. (In the first episode, Peggy Carter receives the Supersoldier Serum intended for Steve.) T’Challa doesn’t just don Star-Lord’s leather jacket and mask; he changes those around him, turning Ravagers from a shady criminal syndicate into a Robin Hood-like organization trying to do good.
In the fourth episode, viewers can see both sides of Doctor Strange, one warped by the absorption of powerful creatures. “Design for animation is so much about the silhouette, simplification and readability of the characters,” Meinerding explains. “The idea of being able to push Doctor Strange’s collar just right this much further, so that he can feel a little more evil … and also just a little more animated. Each character has a version of it.
The biggest challenge, according to Meinerding, wasn’t coming up with new ideas – it was keeping up with the show’s writers. “There is a definite opportunity to push things forward,” he says. “But in a lot of ways, they pushed things so much with the story, with how far they strayed from the MCU timeline, that we were really doing our best to keep up with it.”