4 Marvel 'What If' Stories Way Too Bleak For Disney+
Like Marvel itself, the story of What If…? is one of unlikely success. As a comic book, What If…? was a staple of the bargain bins for decades, a place for writers to spew out their own quickfire fan fiction (most of which had a cameo by Wolverine). And now that Disney is putting actual money into What If…?, Cracked is celebrating some of the series' forgotten (and WTF) alternate realities.
Marvel Studios' What If…? has answered fascinating questions like "What if Thanos was chill?" or "What if your favorite superhero had a different voice because some Hollywood big shot didn't feel like sitting in a booth for two hours?" For the most part, the show has been a fun and lighthearted romp -- but the original What If comics could get surprisingly dark. So let us imagine an alternate reality in which Disney+ decided to traumatize its audience by adapting real Marvel What If stories like ...
"What If Everyone Turned Into Giant Snakes?"
This delightful 1991 issue imagines a world in which Marvel's heroes apparently get tired of saving the world from some cosmic threat every freaking year and go "Eh, let's just let the forces of evil have one for a change." The starting point for this "What If" scenario is Atlantis Attacks, a crossover event in which the Avengers and friends defeat the elder god Set, who is either a big snake with seven heads or seven snakes with one body. In this parallel reality, the heroes manage to bungle every part of the mission and meet one of two possible snake-related fates: becoming a snake or becoming a snake's lunch.
The only Marvel hero who's having a good time here is Wolverine, who gives up on curing his snake-ified friends shockingly fast and just starts stabbing them to death. This is probably the best day of his long life.
Hulk, Wolverine, and the other survivors go on a mission to kill seven possessed female heroes Set has picked as his wives before they can give birth to some world-ending snake babies. But the good guys hesitate before killing the ladies, probably because they have regular lady heads instead of ugly snake ones. If this was a normal issue, this would be the point where the heroes get through to their friends and break the curse ... but this isn't a normal issue, so they all get slaughtered by the "Brides of Set." Here's Bruce Banner getting his head punched off by two muscular women at the same time, which, on the upside, is how he always wanted to die.
Eventually, some cosmic heroes get involved and manage to trap Set inside the late Dr. Strange's mystical amulet, but it's too late for Earth. The Brides of Set give birth to a bunch of giant snakes, and although Marvel spared us the painful birth sequences, they did show us Set's offspring eating their own moms and then the rest of the possessed humans.
This supreme bummer of an issue ends with The Watcher telling us that those snakes went off to consume other dimensions and spawn more dimension-eating babies -- "and, dear friend, YOUR reality MIGHT be next!" That kinda feels like something that would have happened in 2020, though, so we're probably on the clear by now. Probably.
"What If The Entire Marvel Universe Died (Repeatedly)?"
The bleakest episode of the What If show, as of this writing, is the one where Dr. Strange monumentally bungles his job and ends up destroying the entire universe. It's an unusually dark ending for what's technically a Disney cartoon, but that's the show -- in the comic, the same thing happened, like, every other month. Take this 1981 issue about what would happen if Jean Grey hadn't died to stop her Dark Phoenix persona, which shows Jean murdering Kitty Pryde when the little brat has the audacity to tell her to stop eating suns.
Jean goes on to kill the rest of the X-Men, then the city, then the world, and finally the entire universe, while The Watcher is like "Still think that comic where she dies was too sad, kids?"
Only five issues later, it was the turn of a story called "What If Avengers Had Become the Pawns of Korvac?" although a better question would be "Who the hell is Korvac?" What's important is that another all-powerful being murders every superhero and undoes all of creation, and this defeat is even more humiliating because at least Phoenix was wearing pants. Uh, not that there's much to cover down there in his case.
Then there's the issue where all humans are forcibly evolved into giant-headed geniuses and everyone ends up merging together until the Earth becomes a single sentient organism. Meanwhile, the mutants become gods and go around the universe absorbing cosmic entities, which eventually causes the universe to reset itself. There's a strong "Civilization IV save file that went on for way too long" energy to this story.
Another issue shows us what would happen if Wolverine got stuck in Conan the Barbarian's time period, simply because Marvel had the rights to Conan at the time and they liked to flex them. Wolvie feels right at home during an era where everyone went around stabbing each other with pointy things, but Conan doesn't do so well in the X-Men's present. Conan shows up just in time to watch Cyclops about to take down Dark Phoenix, but he mistakes Jean for his ally Red Sonja (because he's never seen another redhead in his life, apparently) and throws a rock at Cyclops' head -- causing the universe to get Dark Phoenix'd in this reality, too.
You know what's even more depressing than every single Marvel character dying, though? Every single Marvel character dying ... except one.
"What If (Insert Character) Was The Last Person On Earth?"
"What if The Road took place in the Marvel Universe and was somehow even more depressing?" has been the premise of multiple Marvel comics. First there's the 1997 What If issue about the Juggernaut murdering the X-Men, then regretting it when there's no one around to stop the Sentinels from nuking the whole planet and wiping out the mutant and human races. After walking around deserted cities for years, the lonesome Juggernaut stumbles upon an underground shelter full of other survivors and is overjoyed to find someone to talk to ... until everyone starts dying, because the big dumbass let the radiation in when he punched the doors open. Whoops!
There's also Hulk: The End, which isn't technically part of the What If series but belongs to the same brand of depressing alternate reality tales. In this one, a beyond geriatric Bruce Banner has been wandering a post-apocalyptic Earth for like 200 years because his big, green, radiation-resistant alter ego won't let him kill himself. Here's what happens after Old Man Bruce jumps off a cliff:
Then, nature finally takes pity on Bruce and he actually gets a glimpse of the afterlife as his body gives out ... only for Hulk to take over at the last second and decide that he'll simply never turn back into Bruce to prevent him from dying. At least that's a new spin on the What If formula: this particular ending is incredibly depressing because someone doesn't die.
And then there's Punisher: The End, in which an elderly Frank Castle willingly walks through an irradiated wasteland just to enter a bunker and hunt down the businessmen, politicians, and generals who instigated the war that screwed the world (yes, this comic came out during the Bush era, how did you guess). One of the fat cats hunkered down there explains that, as the last people on Earth, they're the only ones capable of saving the human race using their bank of frozen embryos, but Punisher is like "meh" and shoots them down anyway. Then he remarks: "The human race. You've seen what that leads to." Yes, Frank dooms mankind as punishment for dooming mankind.
This one ends with Frank peacefully burning alive as he walks to whatever's left of the park where his family had their fatal picnic decades ago. Aww. Now we're sad that the Netflix Punisher show didn't go up to season 43 so we could see this tender scene in live action.
"What If Every Single Marvel Origin Story Went Horribly Wrong?"
In 1994, Marvel published Marvels, a miniseries retelling classic moments in superhero history from the point of view of one of those regular schmucks watching the action from the sidelines. It's an awe-inspiring and optimistic tale, so when it sold well, Marvel decided to follow it up with, uh, the exact opposite. The result was Ruins, the most absurdly depressing Marvel comic ever printed, right from the front cover.
Ruins actually started as a What If issue spoofing Marvels, but then Marvel realized they could make more money by stretching it into 80 pages and giving it the fancy graphic novel treatment. The story (which definitely didn't need 80 pages) follows an alternate version of Marvels' protagonist, journalist Phil Sheldon, as he goes around the country investigating bizarre cases like the scientist who was hit by a gamma bomb and turned into a big, green ... mass of cancerous tumors, which immediately exploded, killing him.
In this reality, Peter Parker got a painful rash all over his body from the spider bite, the Fantastic Four died horribly when their rocket crashed down on Earth, and Ghost Rider simply dies after setting his head on fire instead of looking badass. But they got off easy compared to the X-Men: Cyclops had his eyes carved out after incinerating his family with his optic beams, Magneto got crushed by metal objects (including a full airplane) because he couldn't control his powers, and Wolverine's flesh is falling off because you can't just lace someone's bones with metal, come on. Oh, and here's Mystique after her brain imploded from shapeshifting too much:
Meanwhile, the Avengers are a group of secessionists who get blown up in their Quinjet by the government and Thor is a mentally ill pagan cultist holding on to a regular household hammer. At one point, Sheldon tries to interview government agent Nick Fury about these cases, but Fury confesses to being a cannibal, kills a random street prostitute, and shoots his brains off in front of the journalist. Oh, and the prostitute was Jean Grey, who was either too old or not old enough for Fury. Not sure we want to know which one.
Sheldon gathers all of his research and prepares to write it all down in a book called Marvels (we're assuming the name is sarcastic). But, just as he's heading home to start writing, he collapses from the radioactive spider virus he caught from his colleague Peter Parker and dies on the street as his evidence flies off in the wind. Yes, as if this comic wasn't depressing enough, it ends with a reminder of what happens when you don't socially distance and wash your hands. Hey, thanks for that, 1995 Marvel.
Top image: Marvel Comics