Marvel Comics has a long tradition of publishing a series called What If?, in which the alien being known as Uatu, The Watcher, observes alternate realties in which key characters and events in Marvel history are sent down a different path. So in that grand tradition, AE presents its very own take on What If?
While it’s the actors and actresses that make up the Marvel Cinematic Universe who receive most of the attention, the true star is someone who’s never even appeared on screen, not even in the form of a cameo. I’m talking about Marvel Studios President and producer, Kevin Feige. It’s Feige who decides which Marvel properties to bring to the screen. It’s Feige who organized a cinematic universe into phases with strict rules of continuity. And most importantly, it’s Feige, in one of the greatest apprentice-usurping-their-master stories of all time, succeeded his former boss Avi Arad, who seemed to care more about turning quick profits than the actual characters. You may recognize Arad as the (former) producer of the Spider-Man films. While he helped Marvel out of bankruptcy in the late ’90s, he licensed their characters out to other studios resulting in the overwhelming release of bad Marvel movies in the early and mid-2000s (Fantastic Four, Daredevil, Ghost Rider). He may have helped Marvel gain its footing in the movie world, and the poor reception of the aforementioned films don’t fall squarely on him, but a number of his decisions are pretty damning. Bloomberg Business ran a great feature last year prior to the release of Winter Soldier, which detailed Marvel Studios’ success. Avi Arad later refuted aspects of the story in an email ran at Deadline. While the exact nature of the business interactions may never become clear, what is clear are how things at Marvel would have proceeded if not for Feige. So, What If Marvel Studios had never regained control of its characters?
What If Nicholas Cage was Iron Man?
Filmmakers tried getting Iron Man off the ground as early as the ’90s. The property bounced around from Universal Studios, to 20th Century Fox, to New Line and finally back home at Marvel Studios. Over that time various filmmakers were in discussion to make the project, including Quentin Tarantino. Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Cruise (who would make a great Tony Stark) were rumored for the role at different points before moving on. But the most startling candidate for the role was Nicholas Cage. There probably isn’t a superhero Cage hasn’t wanted to play (after all this is a man who changed his name in reference to hero for hire, Luke Cage).
It’s 1997 and Cage is just coming off his work in Con Air and Face/Off. He’s in full-blown Cage mode at this point still about six years off from the self-parody and meme-generator he’s become today. He signs up to play Iron Man under the helm of his Con Air director Simon West. In the film, Cage takes the eccentric billionaire thing too far and Tony Stark is now a cyborg struggling between the nature of man and machine. He doesn’t have a suit, and certainly not a helmet (the ’90s were all about star power and that meant faces had to remain visible at all times). Instead, his hands transform into repulsor rays. Stark’s whole struggle between being a man and machine leads him into alcoholism, but instead of tackling it with any subtly, Cage takes it to Leaving Las Vegas levels. It’s up to Pepper Potts (played by Bad Boys’ Tea Leoni in a terrible red wig) to get him sober so that he can defeat the terrorist cell AIM, and its leader M.O.D.O.K. (played by John Travolta) who has kidnapped the president. In the final battle Cage screams the now famous line “I AM IRON MAN!” and accepts his role as the cyborg hero the world needs.
The greatest travesty of this timeline is that because Marvel’s characters weren’t united under one studio, Cage still would play Ghost Rider a decade later.
What If Thor had been a UPN Show?
Before he took on Spider-Man, Sam Raimi pitched Thor to 20th Century Fox without any success. The project remained dormant until 2000, when someone had the great idea to turn Thor into a UPN show starring wrestler, Tyler Mane. The idea was thankfully scrapped and never heard of again. For our younger readers who may be wondering, ‘What is a UPN?’ It’s a dead thing that has been molded and reformed into the modern television utopia where ratings don’t matter, known as The CW.
The year is 2001 and the pilot of Thor has just premiered on UPN in a prime spot right after Roswell. Tyler Mane plays Thor, a god sent to Earth to live as a man named Donald Blake, who’s just Tyler Mane in plainclothes. By day he’s a bouncer casually flirting with the waitress Jane Foster played by Jolene Blalock (who leaves after the pilot episode to star in Star Trek: Enterprise and is replaced by Ashley Scott). By night, Blake slips on his black leather, sleeveless getup to become the Mighty Thor and wield a staff with a hammer attached to the end of it. He must defend the streets of Chicago from gangs given magical abilities from evil crime lord and night club owner Liam (played by Matthew Fox) who is secretly Loki. The show references Odin and Asgard occasionally but ignores the larger mythos and supporting characters. Set pics online suggest a Troll may show up in a future episode, but further investigation proves it’s just an extra who wandered over from the Buffy set. Thor lasts 15 episodes before being cancelled. You can now find the DVD set packaged with Birds of Prey in Best Buy bargain bins. As a result of the show, no attempt was made to bring the character to screen again.
What If Captain America had been a comedy?
Captain America was one of the few characters Marvel retained and was allowed to make with Paramount acting as distributor. This is probably because no one really wanted to touch the character after the disastrous film from 1990. In 2005, Avi Arad referred to an in the works Captain America film as “Back to the Future kind of stuff” in a feature MTV ran on him. Jon Favreau met with Arad about tapping into the comedic side of a man frozen and awoken in the future to fight crime. Luckily, he decided to go for Iron Man instead and we all know how that turned out.
It’s 2006, and America’s hottest family comedy has hit the screens. From the director of Elf, it’s Captain America. The film opens during WII and Steve Rogers (played by Channing Tatum) is on the battlefield, determined to take down the nefarious Baron Zemo. In an attempt to stop Zemo from bombing America, Captain America jumps aboard his plane, causing it to crash into the ocean. This whole World War II part takes about 20 minutes. Cut to present day, and S.H.I.E.L.D. has found the frozen body of Captain America. After he’s thawed Rogers is placed under the guardianship of Agent Jesse Carter (played by Ron Livingston) who takes him to his home to adjust to modern life. At Carter’s house, Rogers struggles to adjust to new technology and pop culture references in an unending wave of comedic gags. Rogers tries Doritos for the first time in a heavy-handed bit of product placement. He tries to understand the importance of The Hills. Another scene features Carter’s eldest daughter, Sharon (played by Zooey Deschanel) attempting to teach Rogers hip-hop moves, and he tries to teach her ballroom dancing. But Sharon and Rogers’ budding romance is stalled when Agent Carter is killed in an attack on the Pentagon. S.H.I.E.L.D. tells Rogers they need him to suit up once again to uncover the man behind the attack. Despite Rogers’ strict command for Sharon to stay at home, she follows him and both find themselves in the clutches of the descendent of the original Zemo (played by a heavily made-up Vince Vaughn). Sharon and Rogers must rely on each other in match of old school know how, and modern technological prowess to escape Zemo’s stronghold and stop him, preventing WWIII. After the film’s climax, Sharon is sworn in as a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent. Captain America asks out dancing and they go to a hip-hop club where Rogers gets down Tatum-style.
While we our world has followed a much brighter path, somewhere in some other dimension, in some other time, in some other universe, these questions of “what if?” are very much a reality.