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Rejigging superheroes: AC Bradley on tweaking the Marvel universe

Mohammed Rayaan | Updated on August 25, 2021

Fan girl: Marvel Comics have been an enduring fascination for AC Bradley, and it helped in no small measure in creating the unique universe of ‘What If...’   -  Image Courtesy: Marvel Studios

What if Peggy Carter was Captain Carter? What if Iron Man was a zombie unleashing mayhem? The show creator of ‘What If...?’ on exploring these moments in the anthology series

* AC’s success with Trollhunters made the heads of Marvel Studios take notice

* “Marvel is funny because they don’t really tell what the meeting is about until they invite you inside the room and talk”

* “I basically was tossing ideas of what the studios hasn’t done yet”

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Since its release on Disney+Hotstar this month, What If...?, a 10-part anthology series from Marvel Studios, has managed to add more charm to the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). The show, based on the comic series of the same name, throws up the possibility of alternatives — what would happen if major events in the MCU had taken place differently.

“It was absolutely exciting,” tells AC Bradley, the show creator, over a Zoom call with BLink. The show’s final trailer puts forth multiple questions: What if King T’Challa aka Black Panther was Star Lord/Peter Quill of the Guardians of the Galaxy? What if Peggy Carter, Captain America’s love interest, was Captain Carter instead? What if Iron Man was a zombie unleashing mayhem?

Role change: Peggy Carter as Captain Carter in the pilot   -  Image Courtesy: Marvel Studios

 

After the resounding success of Avengers: Endgame which assembled top-line Hollywood stars as superheroes to battle Thanos, several actors of the MCU, reprised their act, albeit in an animated avatar of themselves, in What If...?.

In a freewheeling conversation, AC shares how the show came about.

Early Hollywood days

Born and raised in New York, AC grew up in the Bronx and later moved to Los Angeles to study screenwriting in USC School of Cinematic arts — “a great experience”, as she calls it. She started her career by reading scripts of the literary manager who represented screenwriters. “I would read their work and learn from it,” she recalls. Eventually, AC took part in contests and started working on her own scripts, which helped her have managers of her own and facilitated screenplay submissions to producers.

AC had a small stint for the TV show Arrow for which she wrote an episode.

“During this time, I became good friends with its creator Marc Guggenheim. Marc was working on an animated show called Trollhunters (Netflix) with Guillermo del Toro. He invited me to join him and we did about 52 episodes in two years. It was an insane amount of episodes to produce! Kids absolutely seemed to enjoy it, which was the best part.”

The success of Trollhunters pushed the team to also create a spin-off — Three Below.

“I was the story editor which meant I was basically the highest ranking writer for the show,” says AC. “Guillermo del Toro wants to show more non-white and female characters. He felt that children need to see a reflection of themselves on the screen. He wanted them to see different kinds of families such as kids who are raised by their grandparents or aunts or uncles. This meant so much to me. When you write for the media that is consumed by children up under the age of 10, it always has a long lasting impact. We always remember the theme songs of cartoons we watched when we were young. That’s the power of children’s television.”

Her success with Trollhunters made the heads of Marvel Studios take notice. When Brad Winderbaum, then VP of Production & Development at Marvel Studios, wanted to create an animated show for the MCU, the studio had recommended AC. “Turns out, Brad’s kids had seen Trollhunters and they enjoyed it,” adds AC.

How did the first talk with the studio happen? “Marvel is funny because they don’t really tell what the meeting is about until they invite you inside the room and talk,” she says. But AC was excited when she heard the plan. “They wanted to explore the possibilities of all the characters of the Marvel Universe. We got nearly everyone in the show from Doctor Strange to even Howard the Duck!”

Marvel Comics have been an enduring fascination for AC, and it helped in no small measure in creating unique ideas for the MCU. “I basically was tossing ideas of what the studios hasn’t done yet,” she says. The mandate of the show was to keep the characters true to themselves. “Even when they’re exposed to weird situations, they should react in a way that still makes sense to who they were.”

AC cites an instance. In the pilot episode of What If...? Peggy Carter was seen as Captain Carter while Steve Rogers dons Howard Stark’s (Iron Man's father) Hydra Stomper suit. “Even though Steve doesn’t get the super serum, he is still part of the war efforts. He is always supportive of Peggy. That’s how he is. Super serum or not, they always have to stay true to themselves or it wouldn’t be fair to the audience,” AC explains.

Character-driven stories were what the show always aimed to tell. “It would be me going ‘I want to talk about Nick Fury’. He’s a man of secrets and knowledge. He’s the brainchild of all the Marvel wars. But I wanted to see what would happen if it fell apart for him,” she says. The studio, AC observes, supported the creative process and the production, making sure the stories were told in the best way possible.

Filming during the pandemic

While the pandemic posed challenges that fact that What If...? was an animated series definitely did help. “We were lucky to be honest. Animation happens on the computer and it doesn’t require a set or a sound stage,” AC says. Her team of screenwriters started working from home once the first lockdown was announced in US. “We started our day by joining our Zoom meeting and we always began by chatting about our pets for 10 minutes,” laughs AC.

Working with actors, now doing their turn as voice actors, proved to be a fascinating experience too. A few of them were doing animation for the first time. They didn’t have to wear make-up or face the camera, but merely say the script, and that was new to them.

“These actors have been playing their respective characters for over 10 years in different movies of the MCU and they know their role more than anyone. When they first read the script and said they enjoyed it, it made us feel we were on the right track. The actors loved our ideas and the best compliment we got from them was ‘You guys are weird!’ as they read our plot.”

However, among the 10 episodes, the one AC enjoyed the most was the Doctor Strange installment. “It is quite dark. The reason why I loved writing and working on it was because it dealt with loss and tragedy. When I sat down to write it, I was like ‘Do I want to go there? That’s a dark place to go!’ But then I realised that it was actually about love because the reason loss hurts us so much is that we lose the thing we love and we end up in pain,” she says.

Upcoming projects

AC has since worked on some new projects including Ms Marvel, where the lead character is a Pakistani Muslim. “I think it’s important to see more men and women of colour on the screen as the heroes. That’s the world I want to live in.”

She is also working on a romantic-comedy screenplay based on Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing. “This is very different than writing about superheroes,” she says. “When you write a superhero, you try to bring out what makes the characters more human despite their powers. Writing a romcom is almost the same thing — you aim to show what makes us human but there’s a lot less chase sequence!”

AC, however, is confident that What If...? will appeal to hardcore Marvel fans. “They are going to love seeing their favourite superheroes in a different way.”

(What If...? streams on Disney+ Hotstar every Wednesday.)

Published on August 25, 2021

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