Both Marvel and Star Wars can get a little too serious for their own good. Their stories are often so focused on what happened before, or what’s coming next, that they forget about the fact that people are tuning in to watch thrilling adventures about superheroes and space wizards. What I’m saying is, both franchises often put canon ahead of fun. But Disney Plus has offered them a chance to cut loose a little in the form of the animated anthologies What If…? and Star Wars: Visions. The two series take very different approaches to the concept of messing with established stories and characters — and some extra freedom means that Star Wars ends up being a lot more exciting.
The premise of What If…? is pure comic book fodder: each episode imagines a scenario in which a pivotal moment from the MCU goes in a completely different direction. In the very first episode, Steve Rodgers remains a skinny kid while Peggy Carter becomes a shield-wielding supersoldier. Later stories imagine Thor as a single-child-turned-interstellar-party-animal and explore how T’Challa’s inherent goodness can change anyone around him, whether it’s some space scavengers or Thanos himself. There are episodes with zombies and robot armies, and the most recent ponders what would happen if Ultron defeated the Avengers.
Most of the episodes are entertaining twists, particularly for long-time Marvel fans. I particularly enjoyed seeing superpowered beings turned into various types of undead monsters. (If there isn’t a Marvel zombies video game in the works, I’ll be very disappointed.) But the series never strays too far from the MCU. These are still the characters fans know from the live-action movies and shows — they even look and sound the same, thanks to What If…?’s JC Leyendecker-inspired art style and the fact that stars like Chris Hemsworth and Tom Hiddleston reprised their roles. And each of the storylines is intrinsically tied to something that’s already happened. They’re even starting to tie in with each other rather than being standalone. The twists are fun, but they also only make sense if you’re already invested.
Star Wars: Visions, meanwhile, manages to break away from the Skywalker saga and its associated baggage completely. In fact, aside from brief appearances by Boba Fett and Jabba the Hutt, the anthology consists of entirely new characters and stories, largely detached from the sci-fi universe as we know it.
Part of this has to do with how it was made. Visions is a collaboration between LucasFilm and a handful of anime studios, who were able to bring new ideas to the sci-fi universe. Because of this, each episode of Visions has a different look and feel. Studio Colorido’s episode is a rock opera, while Science SARU created something reminiscent of Astro Boy. The series opens with a short from Kamikaze Douga that’s like an Akira Kurosawa movie with lightsabers, complete with a droid wearing a straw hat. Visions also has some of the most memorable lightsaber duels in all of Star Wars, made all the more kinetic thanks to the incredible animation.
These are the kinds of stories you’d never find in the more straitlaced Star Wars canon. Cute as Baby Yoda might be, it’s hard to imagine him getting to perform in a rock band when he’s all grown up.
As both Marvel and Star Wars approach oversaturation — for some viewers, that point is already long gone — these kinds of one-off projects are important. They make things exciting again. They remind us why we love these universes in the first place, without all the added headaches that come from a big, interconnected storyline. There’s no wondering about the lineage of Rey or having to pretend to care about Hawkeye. Just cool, short stories full of laser swords and unexpected battles.
Visions does this fully and completely, carving out its own place far from the established mythos. What If…? doesn’t have quite the same freedom, and as it approaches its final episode next week, it appears to be building to the kind of epic showdown the MCU has become synonymous with. But it’s a start — and maybe one day, we’ll get to see what Studio Trigger could do with Spider-Man.