Archives on TV: Marvel's What If...?
What if the hero turned into the villain? What if a misguided decision led to the end of the world? What if an archives held the key to saving the multiverse?
Most comic book readers and fans of science fiction are familiar with the concepts of multiverses and alternate timelines as they're a staple of both the medium and the genre, respectively. For those who enjoy the works of DC Comics, the Elseworlds books and imprints like Vertigo and DC Black Label have offered reimaginings of popular characters removed from their continuity, but still exploring what makes them tick even as they're acting seemingly out of character. Or, sometimes you just want to tell a story about Batman set in Victorian era Gotham City.
On the Marvel side of things, however, there was once a multitude of books that took place in alternate universes that mostly resulted in continuity confusion. To be honest, I still don't know what's happening with the books, but we eventually got Miles Morales in the "main" continuity and, really, isn't that all that matters at the end of the day? Anyway, one of the many Marvel books that explored the multiverse of characters and timelines was the What If...? anthologies that were first published in 1977 with the most recent volume published in 2019. The regular conceit of the anthologies is looking at a major event in the Marvel timeline and tweaking a character's origin, motivation, or some basic "the bad guys win" storytelling.
So, of course, with over 20 films worth of story in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and a cast of beloved characters, it was inevitable that the What If...? question would be asked. It's also a good tie-in to the wave of Marvel tv shows and movies that have or are specifically dealing with the concept of timelines and alternate universes in the wake of Avengers: Endgame.
Which leads us to What If...?, a 2021 Disney+ series created to answer those questions fans have been asking, and probably a bunch they didn't think to ask. Each of the nine animated episodes beings with the titular question and ends on a mostly somber, bittersweet note. All of the episodes are under the ever watchful eye of Uatu, the Watcher, voiced by the impeccable Jeffrey Wright, as the infinite being shows the audience the myriad stories involving familiar characters that are all significantly changed by one decision, one moment in time. While we get some inklings that the Watcher can be perceived under the right circumstances (i.e., an alternate Dr. Strange who went the extra mile to gain ultimate power), it isn't until the last three episodes that the bigger picture is revealed and Uatu finds himself pursued by an infinity stone powered Ultron and in need of some help to save the multiverse.
It's in the penultimate episode, "What If...Ultron Won?", where the stakes are at their highest and the Watcher finds himself torn between his solemn oath to never intervene in the events of the multiverse and getting involved in order to stop Infinity Ultron. Infinitron? Ultrinity? Big Bad Robot Daddy? I'm gonna go with Infinitron.
It's also the episode that features an archives.
After Ultron destroyed the world and ascended with the infinity stones - like ya do - the last two humans on earth appear to be Natasha "Black Widow" Romanov (voiced by Lake Bell doing a damn fine Scarlett Johansson impression) and Clint "Hawkeye" Barton (voiced by Jeremy Renner). Fighting their way into Russia, the two venture into the KGB Archives located beneath the ruins of the Kremlin where Nat is certain there's an analog solution to their Ultron problem. Uatu watches them in desperation as they finally find the one box in the entire archives that will led them in the right direction only for Infinitron to show up where Uatu lives and forces the Watcher to finally do more than passively perceive the multiverse.
Overall, I enjoy the episode and the entire series as a whole, to be honest. It's fun seeing the Black Widow/Hawkeye dynamic back in action and the animation makes everything look so gorgeous and slick. The fact that a good chunk of the episode takes place in an archives is a cherry on the sundae despite the fact that there are the usual mistakes that shows make regarding archives no matter how much we scream about it. The first is the Indiana Jones reference that Hawkeye makes as row after row of stacks light up. The two make their way down an aisle and the camera sets up the same shot from the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark as Clint asks Nat if she's seen the film. She has, obviously.
The second is the lack of a finding aid to help guide them to the box they need. Look, I get that it's an apocalypse and there probably wouldn't be an archivist alive to help them. I get that. I accept that. But after all the effort they put into getting to Russia, plus Black Widow's knowledge of the archives' location and the conversation between the two about saving paper over digital copies...the fact that she doesn't know where the finding aids are, or any kind of directory or index, is the least believable thing about the episode. Black Widow is one of the World's Mightiest Heroes and a superspy to boot, she knows how an archives works. And yes, it's more dramatic to show them scouring through the boxes, but they're picking them at random. Random! You can't - that's not helpful! The archives are enormous and they're picking out random boxes! Nope. Nope, that's not how this works. Not even in the apocalypse.
I did like the little conversation about keeping paper over digital files. A lot of people think that digitization is some kind of gift that will allow us to retain knowledge forever, but it's not. Digitization isn't preservation and it comes with its own set of problems that often fall on the shoulders of archivists and records managers to fix. Nat is correct that paper is harder to trace, but much easier to destroy, though it's heavily implied by Clint that somehow the KGB Archives are less sophisticated than other modern archives because of the boxes filled with paper and artifacts. That or they're more paranoid. Hate to break it to ya, Clint, but I'm absolutely certain that S.H.I.E.L.D. has an archives or a storage unit full of paper somewhere. No institution or government body is fully digital, not even in the MCU.
I would love to hear from actual Russian archivists about how their archives are set up. I can only speak from an American point-of-view, so looking at how the KGB Archives are depicted, through the lens of an American production largely for English-speaking audiences, would be intriguing to examine from a Russian perspective.
The scene in the archives also serves to push the Watcher closer to the edge of breaking his oath as it seems the one box with the solution to all their problems might go unnoticed. He debates with himself, out loud, that he could reveal himself and tell them, but before he can commit to a decision Black Widow pulls the box and finds their answer. While I understand the point of the Watcher's back and forth with himself is a step towards his final decision to finally do something, it's still an episode that hinges on a silent observer/"neutral" party taking action. To be fair, when Uatu wants to act it's spectacular and riddled with Kirby krackles, but I've made my opinions known on such characters and how they've long been connected to misconceptions of archivists regarding archival materials.
The series glosses over the looming conflict of the Watcher's previous inaction, which Black Widow rightly calls him on, but then he goes on about how their stories are important and blah, blah, blah. It doesn't solve the central issue and I'm pretty sure there will never be a resolution that's satisfactory.
Otherwise, the series is solid and I hope they make a second season. Just leave the zombies out.