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What If...?’s art style aims to keep characters ‘feeling monumental and powerful’

Marvel’s Ryan Meinerding on creating a style for the animated Disney Plus series

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Image: Marvel Studios

Ryan Meinerding has spent much of the last 15 years bringing some of the world’s most iconic superheroes to life. After starting as an illustrator on the original Iron Man, he worked his way up to head of visual development at Marvel Studios and has spent more than a decade figuring out how to bring comic book characters into live-action films. So it was a nice change of pace when he learned about What If...?, an animated anthology that takes those very same characters but remixes them in new, and often strange, situations.

“I don’t think anyone could have come up with an animated project that I would’ve been more interested in working on,” he tells The Verge. “The endless possibilities that are created by having the multiverse, by being able to ask questions like what if, really means that the creativity is just incredible.”

Image: Marvel Studios

What If...? is currently streaming on Disney Plus, and the premise is right there in the name: each episode imagines a different “what if” scenario in which a small moment changes the trajectory of an iconic character. What if an assassin started killing off the Avengers? What if T’Challa became Star-Lord instead of Peter Quill? The most recent episode questions 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 from their live-action appearances, but with a decidedly stylized look. Meinerding says the art style was strongly inspired by famed illustrator JC Leyendecker, aiming for a look that was both realistic and exaggerated. “The fun of the show is taking something that’s based in reality — in a live-action context — and keeping the animated style relatively realistic,” Meinerding explains. “That’s what Leyendecker did. He stylized and he idealized, but they were always meant to be more real than not.”

Meinerding says the team didn’t explore many different styles; from his earliest days working on What If...?, Leyendecker was the goal. “I think we were homing in on Leyendecker because of his ability to stylize, to make characters feel monumental,” he says. “If you’re looking at translating a cinematic universe of superheroes into an animated form, there have been a lot of superhero projects that have been done before… What is the version that hasn’t been seen before, but also keeps them kind of realistic, keeps them feeling monumental and powerful?”

Image: Marvel Studios

It was also a chance to have some fun. While the characters in What If...? are mostly recognizable, they’ve also been remixed in interesting ways. Steve Rogers remains a skinny kid, and now he pilots a 1940s take on the Iron Man suit. (In the first episode, Peggy Carter receives the supersoldier serum meant for Steve.) T’Challa doesn’t just don Star-Lord’s leather jacket and mask; he changes those around him, turning the Ravagers from a shady criminal syndicate into a Robin Hood-like organization trying to do good.

In the fourth episode, viewers get to see two sides of Doctor Strange, one warped from absorbing powerful creatures. “So much about designing for animation is about silhouette, simplifying, and making characters very readable,” Meinerding explains. “The idea of being able to push Doctor Strange’s collar just that much farther, so he could feel a little more evil… and also just a little more animated. Each character has a version of that.”

According to Meinerding, the biggest challenge wasn’t coming up with new ideas — it was keeping pace with the show’s writers. “There is a definite opportunity to push things,” he says. “But in a lot of ways, they were pushing things with the story so much, with how far they were deviating from the MCU timeline, that we really were just doing our best to keep up.”