The Real Question Behind Marvel’s What If . . . ?

LeMarr Jackson

Thank God we serve a God who intervenes in our lives.

What If . . . ?, an animated Marvel series on Disney Plus, offers a unique spin on time-travel tropes by looking at alternate universes where characters we are familiar with have radically different lives, mostly based on one simple change in their timeline. Each episode explores a thought-provoking question. What if T’Challa (voiced by the great Chadwick Boseman in his final MCU performance) was kidnapped by the Ravagers instead of Peter Quill? What if Ultron defeated the Avengers? What if Thor was an only child? Across all of these stories and timelines, there is one character who records, narrates, and sees it all: Uatu the Watcher (Jeffrey Wright).

Uatu is a very old character steeped in the history of Marvel Comics. He is extremely powerful, but he rarely uses his powers because of a vow made by his people to watch and record events but to never intervene. Uatu is to be a Watcher only. On What If . . . ?, he’s shown as a translucent figure looming in the background. But with every passing episode, he grows closer and less transparent, culminating at the end of the fourth episode, when he fully reveals himself. This effect is used to show us both his attachment and detachment to the events at hand. Major things go wrong in these episodes and we see that Uatu does care, but he cannot intervene.

Do we see YHWH as Uatu the Watcher in our lives? Do we think that God is only an observer who won’t use his power to intervene? I admit that life gets hard and unfortunate things happen to kind, caring people. Our close family members lose their lives to the tragedies of gun violence, sickness, and unexpected car crashes. We can’t find a way to make sense of it, but we acknowledge that YHWH is still sovereign. In What If . . . ? we see villains win; in our own world, we see sin rule. I know that these times can leave us hopeless and broken, but YHWH is not Uatu. Our God intervenes!

Uatu is to be a Watcher only.

In the Book of Daniel, three Hebrew boys named Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah (given the names Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego by their Babylonian rulers) are confronted with a golden image and instructed to bow down to it. According to the law, anyone who does not obey this command will be killed. Yet these boys serve YHWH. When they are personally confronted by Nebuchadnezzar, King of Babylon, he asks them, “What god will be able to rescue you from my hand?” Facing what looks like imminent death, they tell the king that their God can deliver them, but even if he doesn’t, they won’t bow down. The three men are thrown into a blazing furnace, but looking inside, the king sees four people walking around, unharmed. Nebuchadnezzar calls them out, recognizing them as “servants of the Most High God.”

This story lets us know that YHWH doesn’t leave us alone in our suffering. Not only did he intervene, he even stepped into the furnace with Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah. YHWH is the same yesterday and today and he is willing to step into the furnace with you! YHWH even puts on flesh and lives a human life to show us that he will not sit back and only observe our lives. He will intervene.

In the penultimate episode of What If . . . ?, we see the biggest threat to the MCU yet: Ultron with all of the Infinity Stones and the ability to travel across the multiverse. He discovers Uatu the Watcher and attacks him. This turns into an all-out brawl, shattering layers of the multiverse. Uatu is eventually forced to retreat and contemplate a major dilemma: should he let evil run amuck across the multiverse or intervene, breaking his vow? He chooses the latter, but in an interesting way: empowering a crew of somewhat capable heroes from across the multiverse. But when they are overwhelmed by the task, Uatu ultimately steps in with a plan of salvation.

In this moment, Uatu reflects the character of YHWH. He has a watchful eye and does not abandon his team. Uatu finally chooses to intervene. Yet YHWH takes it one step further; he is always intervening. He is our “ever-present help in trouble.” He is Immanuel, “God with us.” He is Jesus. Thank God that YHWH intervenes!

Topics: TV