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Confronting Bias Against Animation: I Didn’t Want To Finish WHAT IF…? Because I Didn’t Trust Marvel Anymore

*Spoilers*

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Every week I was genuinely excited about watching WHAT IF…? and reading the commentary afterwards. But as episodes kept coming in, I lamented to my brothers that something was missing and that I kinda thought it would be a better show than it is. It is incredibly fun and imaginative, but the short spurts of storylines really did leave me feeling like the hype was just flowing from the WANDA VISION and LOKI excitement. Not as many fans were in love with the more traditional MCU style of THE FALCON AND THE WINTER SOLDIER, hoping for something more splashy, a “bigger swing” or a risk that folded into WHAT IF…? .

It only took me 3 episodes of WANDA VISION to understand that they were going somewhere special and that I wanted to be on that ride. It took WHAT IF…? All Season. Don’t get me wrong, starting with Captain Carter was a huge hit, I sobbed through half of the episode. Every line was a gift to the viewer. It was so well crafted. But then I failed as a fan and didn’t trust the process.

A.C. Bradley (Head Writer and Executive Producer of WHAT IF…?) said exactly the issue I had with the shows,“What If…?” comic books are known for having darker twists and abrupt endings, and we definitely want to pay homage to that.” And that answers where my heart was being ripped out after episode one and then my attention fell off dramatically after the zombie episode. I felt lost in the series, like there wasn’t a point anymore – to me, there were no stakes at all. And, I was exposed as just a Film/TV watcher, not an avid comic book fan. I didn’t like feeling left out in that way. But that’s my problem.

I was too short sighted. How could I forget that Marvel always delivers. I didn’t know we were ASSEMBLING THE GUARDIANS OF THE MULTIVERSE!

In “6 THINGS TO KNOW ABOUT THE WHAT IF…? FINALE” by Erik Amaya, “Although you might not expect a show like What If…? to answer questions – its anthology format is meant more to suggest scenarios than to linger on them – the first season finale tied up a number of ends that would be considered “loose” on another show. Sure, there may be a handful of bigger puzzles left to solve, like whether or not the Watcher (Jeffrey Wright) will turn his gaze to the mainline Marvel Cinematic Universe or if any of the characters we met in the last nine weeks will filter into Loki’s second season.

[…] While What If…? treated itself as an anthology series with stories in disconnected universes, Bradley said the idea of having The Watcher interfere “like the dramatic mofo that he is” was an eventuality “since day one.” Soon, the threat of Ultron presented itself in story discussions and since the show is a Marvel production, building a team became the natural conclusion.

“As we were cracking the stories, we were like, ‘OK, who’s landing close to home? Who are we loving so much that we need to see [again]?’ Obviously, Peggy Carter and Star-Lord T’Challa,” she said.

That advance planning led to the inclusion of Gamora (voiced by Cynthia McWilliams), whose episode was pushed to season 2 for “COVID production reasons,” according to Bradley. The tantalizing notion that Gamora defeated Thanos and rid her universe of the Infinity Problem should lead to an interesting story. And even though the episode was delayed, Bradley said the “surprise” affection the production team had for that version of the character made her a natural addition to the Watcher’s team.

And as for the more ambiguous members of the team?

“Dr. Strange was always such a tragic character. We weren’t too sure how he was going to play into the bigger story, but it’s the first hero — or villain, depending on how you look at him — that The Watcher interacts with,” Bradley said. “Same with Killmonger. We knew we wanted to revisit that world, give it some resolution and see him again.” Killmonger’s world is safe now, but What If…? viewers know Killmonger’s situation has changed immensely … possibly even into the darkest of Marvel’s corners.”

It is a great read (tons more to pull from), I found the possibility of seeing these characters again to be the very thing I needed to re-invest myself. BUT, I found myself (again) hoping to specifically see them in live-action storytelling. I undercut this amazing company by relegating animation to be a second-tier form of Marvel entertainment. And I was disappointed with myself in this realization.

What is this bias against animation?

Am I just in love with the actors? Not to discount this, loving these characters and these actors have become one-in-the-same for me and many other fans. But is my lust for their individual beauty and choices and details somehow not a draw when watching their animated choices? And, with that, did I even believe their choices were true to the character since a team was crafting the acting instead of the actor independently? When Thor threw his hammer and raised a “Viva Laaaaas Vegaaaaaaas,” why was I annoyed and thinking that it would have been better motivated, supported, and more enjoyable with the actor on the screen? Or was it just this ‘style’ of animation? Or…?

I had to step outside of myself and remember that animation is generally a far better storytelling medium than live-action. Animation is fantastical, malleable, and creates a version of reality that taps into my whole being. There is a ton of research around animation vs live action (here is a fun rabbit hole of varying degrees of substance: Proof That Oscar Voters Are Clueless About Animation, Why Anime Films Will Always Be Superior To Live Action, 4 Reasons Why Animation is Better than Live Action, and the interesting off topic piece- 3 Examples of Racial Bias in Animation Storytelling). And if I reflect on it for just a minute, I can feel that bias creep up in me and recognize that I’m not alone.

From “Is Animation Just For Kids?: Breaking Down Hollywood’s Bias Against Animated Films”, by Joshua Mitchell, “Animation is a wonderful medium. It can be used to portray ideas, tell stories, and arrest audiences in ways live-action films simply cannot. Tomm Moore, two-time Oscar-nominee for directing Secret of Kells(2009) and Song of the Sea (2014), feels that “animation is pure filmmaking and at the same time a medium and method that transcends filmmaking.” Mark Osborne, director of the Oscar-nominated Kung Fu Panda (2008) and this year’s The Little Prince, adds that at its best, animation “is unlimited pure expression,” and thinks that “the stories that can be told in animation speak directly to our subconscious in a magical way.” And yet, animated films aren’t taken as seriously as they should be. So often, they are dismissed as “kids movies.” “Animated films aren’t serious films,” many insist. But they’re wrong. Objectively, even.”

[…] Still, audiences tend to ignore this crucial point. And this serves to reinforce the animation bias in two ways. For one, it means that there are less films for audiences to point to when trying to think of examples of animated films of merit worthy of “excellent” status.

The second is that, as a result of the animation bias, many find it downright peculiar when animated films target adult audiences specifically. Josh Spiegel insists that “too often, the assumption is that animation is for children only; anything that’s challenging to that perception is treated oddly or ignorantly.” Americans aren’t used to seeing animated films with strong violence, language, or sexual content. Middling box-office returns for PG-13 animated films like 9 (2009) and Beowulf (2007) reveal the lack of audience interest, and the fact that most adult animated films open in very few theaters is a direct result of this bias. So with adult animated films failing to make much money, they aren’t made very often in the States. “There’s nothing wrong with an all-ages piece of animation,” Spiegel says, “there’s only a problem if that is all that’s offered to a wider audience. Animation can do anything. It doesn’t just need to be for kids; it’s inaccurate to suggest otherwise.” Unfortunately, studios are rarely willing to risk financing adult animated films. Richard Starzak says that, “because of their enormous cost, [animated films] have to appeal as broadly as possible.” Jorge R. Gutierrez, director of The Book of Life (2014), also bemoans the current state of adult animations, saying that studios require that, “big budget [animated films] need to be for children.”

That’s not to say adult animated films are dying. Many great mature animated films are made every year outside of the USA. But without American support, they sadly don’t have much place within the States.”

I find that awards really do sway the general audience opinion. It’s not just my personal views that I need to deal with, it’s systemic. Yes, it’s systemic!

From Animation is still trying to come of age at the Oscars, by Jen Chaney, “As ridiculous as it may sound to those who study the medium’s hand-drawn, computer-generated, and stop-motion marvels, the fact is that to most Americans, the words “animated movie” still means “cartoon,” which still means “childhood.” For better or worse, the animated sensibilities of American moviegoers have largely been molded by the world’s Disneys and Pixars. Consequently, some of those moviegoers (and Academy voters) may settle in to watch an animated film and subconsciously crave the crimson-lipped princesses or plucky cowboy dolls they encountered during their most formative years as film-watchers. When they encounter, instead, an animated film that deals with complicated, non-child-friendly themes, or visuals that don’t match the playful picture-book aesthetic they associate so strongly with the medium, they may view that as a negative instead of a potentially refreshing, groundbreaking departure. Given recent changes to the Academy’s rules regarding how films in the animated categories are nominated, which may increase the number of people handpicking the nominees, that unintentional bias could become even more of an issue.”

If I address my anti-animation bias, even if it’s incredibly small and insignificant in my body since literally 90% of what I watch is animated and I LOVE IT, then I can come out the other side excited by what’s to come. Addressing the tiny bias issues is not an admittance of a big bad awful thing, it’s just recognizing that 2% of me wanted to walk away from this series before I was done enjoying it. I knew it, but now I know to push past it.

And there is so much to come, I DON’T want this tiny bit of bias to stand in the way!

From “Inside Marvel’s ‘What If…?’ Finale, Season 2 Plans and the T’Challa Spinoff That Never Was” by Adam B Vary, “There’s also a brief moment in the finale where we meet an alternate version of Gamora with a sort of space Tony Stark. Will we get to see more of that universe in Season 2?

Bradley: That’s a definite yes. Basically what happened was we originally had an episode planned for earlier in the season that was a fun, light-hearted, living, breathing Tony Stark-centric episode with Gamora. However, due to the COVID pandemic, one of our animation houses was hit incredibly hard, and the episode needed to be pushed into Season 2, because it would not be finished in time. Given everything that we’ve all went through over the past two years, pushing an episode of television is absolutely nothing in comparison. And we understood. We hope fans enjoy the ride next year.

It almost felt like a nice teaser for what you could expect, suggesting that there are these other universes that you hadn’t seen yet.

Bradley: Definitely. I think everyone’s going to be surprised by the way Gamora gets that armor, and how her relationship with Tony evolves, because they’re obviously good friends in that bit that we see. So, it will be a fun universe to see, hopefully, next year, and I think you found the silver lining there. It is a promise of more stories to come.

Will Season 2 incorporate any alternative universes of the live-action Disney Plus shows?

Bradley: We definitely use the characters.

Andrews: In Season 2, a lot of the stuff that we’re doing, we’re doing concurrently with the Disney Plus live-action shows. We were already writing. So we may not get a chance to explore some of the stuff that showed up in those shows, because we’re doing them almost at the exact same time. [Marvel Studios chief] Kevin [Feige] was like, “No no no! No touching! Don’t touch that! Not yet!” Maybe one day, maybe, if these things continue, we can play with some of that stuff. But we definitely get to play with some other parts of the MCU, for sure. There’s fertile ground.”

But the promise of Steve in Season 2 did it for me. I didn’t realize how much that would mean to me. I cried. I cried hard. My kids were very confused why I was crying so hard. But I cry the hardest in truly magnificent animated works. I guess I should have seen the finale sooner, I had stupidly waited DAYS because of my lack of enthusiasm, I’m sold that this show is going on the mantle with the other great groundbreaking outside-of-the-box content of Marvel entertainment. All I want is my heart to be handled with care and I can see that the choice to animate this series came from the right place. I just want to see AND TRUST that they have plans for my heart.

And once again from A.C. Bradley, “Whether or not that’ll be reflected in the greater MCU? Who knows. They always have plans.”

Jennica Schwartzman, Managing Partner at Purpose Pictures Productions, Co-Founder of Little Sister Entertainment, and a member of The Producers Guild of America, SAG/AFTRA, and Moms-In-Film LA, loves tackling a project from idea to distribution as a multi-hyphenate actress-writer-producer. Jennica has been published in the Producers Guild Magazine "Produced By," Legacy Arts Magazine, Paragon Road, Bustle, and she is a guest writer for the acclaimed entertainment industry websites MsInTheBiz.com, FilmmakingStuff.com, Artemis Motion Pictures' #WomenKickAss Forum, and WomenandHollywood.com. She has been invited to speak on film festival panels and is a workshop teacher for The International Family Film Festival's Road Scholars intergenerational filmmaking camp. Jennica has produced ten feature film releases. Jennica and her husband /producing partner /writing partner Ryan have two kiddos and reside in Hollywood.

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