The Possibility of What If?

by Randall S. Frederick

Disney+ recently concluded the first season of Marvel’s What If…?, a show based on the concept that there are other worlds, other galaxies, other timelines, each negotiating slight differences to the world familiar to us through the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The concept has been around for decades. Indeed, the show is built upon a long-running comic book series that, like the show, explores slight (and then major) deviations from the canonical timeline of events familiar to readers.

What if Steve Rogers a librarian instead of Captain America?

What if Spiderman had been able to save Gwen Stacy?

What if Storm did not join the X-men, but remained in Africa as a tribal goddess?

Every TV show, every cartoon, every videogame based on a familiar property does this same thing. It is not unique to Marvel.

Batman: Arkham Asylum is a different interpretation of the titular character already familiar from movies, a rebooted movie, another rebooted movie, a comic book by DC Comics, a TV show, and an animated TV show, and the imagination of millions of children and some adult collectors. Believe it or not, these are not all the differences in Batman. There has also been a Victorian Era Batman, a caveman Batman, and at least 4 different future versions of Batman to say nothing of the “canonical” “reboots” – yes, I did physical airquote gestures after writing both of those – in the long-running comic book series. Superman and Wonder Woman have also gone through different iterations between comics, the reboots of those comics, tv shows, and cartoons. DC, the competitor to Marvel, reboots their franchise heroes and heroines every few years in an ongoing collision of worlds called Infinite Crisis.

In every “canonical” deviation and shift, the ongoing question is not so much “what if…?” as though we are overly attached to headcanon but instead “why this?” or “what does?” We know Batman well enough to know how he will behave, even in new circumstances. What we don’t know is why this Batman is different or in what ways those differences will appear. Batman remains Batman, regardless of time and space, but each iteration allows new insights, new depths of complexity. More than that, what will sometimes small, sometimes profound differences from the familiar do for us, as readers, viewers, audiences, fandoms? If a character does not do what we think they would do, we do not reject the character. We reject the premise of this new iteration. I refuse to acknowledge the campy Batman show of the 1970s as canonical, for instance. Batman is not funny. It is too inconsistent to accept. In the same way, many Star Wars fans were outraged by the actions and behavior of an aged Luke Skywalker. They don’t reject Star Wars. They simply reject The Last Jedi. And this says a great deal about them, but almost nothing about Luke Skywalker. Their acceptance or rejection of nuance says where their fault lines reside, what they project onto their favorite character, why they hold to a certain interpretation and resist another. By comparison, it says very little about the character being interpreted. Might it say something about our understanding of reality?

Outside of speculative fiction, the film Sliding Doors (1998) with Gwenyth Paltrow examines this question in the romance genre. If we missed a train, what might we discover? How might the world be different? Who would we become and what would happen to our relationships, careers, or sense of identity? Why do we prefer, say, the version of Tony Stark portrayed by Robert Downey Jr. – sarcastic, world-weary, and increasingly anxious – and not the recovering alcoholic futurist of the comics, the one who becomes so vested in the nationalistic enterprise that he becomes the head of government agencies that criminalizes, hunts, and incarcerates heroes like Captain America? What do these choices reveal about us? If we prefer the company man of the comics, are we complicit in his crimes against heroism? Does non-commital sarcasm and self-deprecating humor somehow excuse us when we cheer each punch against Captain America’s “perfect jaw”?

Ultimately, I don’t think we’re talking about superheroes here. Or Gwenyth Paltrow.

Rather, I think What If…? allows us to repeat the mistakes of the past and explore for a half-hour what might have been. We do not watch these shows because they are meaningful or because they change the future of our favorite characters. Thor will return to being Thor at the end of the half-hour. Steve Rogers will be heroic whether he is in spandex or becomes a walking tank. T’Challa may die, but Wakanda is forever. The show isn’t a vehicle for change, it instead reinforces reality. At the end of the half-hour, we are brought back to the familiar. We are returned to the world as we know it, reinhabiting our own lives.

These iterations of difference instead are glimpses into who we might have become if we had, say, taken that train after all.

Instead of focusing on the kidnapping of T’Challa and seeing him become Starlord, we are instead wondering what might have been possible if we had been raised by different parents.

Instead of conceptualizing a passive god figure who allows terrible things to happen to us (might we call this agnosticism?), we are – for a half hour at least – exploring the idea of a god figure who takes action, who needs others (yes, other humans) to set things right.

We are, I suppose, not only exploring our sense of self and identity but also exploring cosmology and theology. We are asking “what if?” but what we mean to ask isn’t the what so much as the why, how, who, when, and where. We’re familiar with the what. We lived it. We know it. It is part of us, part of how we understand and navigate. But now we want to change a few variables and see whether things will wind up the same in the end. Are we destined for the abuse we lived through or was there some way to avoid it? Where was god in all of this? Why did our parents allow this thing to happen to us?

In a writing exercise I recently assigned, I asked my students to replay events from their lives and change one thing, then write the outcome from a new standpoint. “Your anchor,” I reminded them, “is that the same thing has to happen – just not in the same way.” It was memoir as much as creative nonfiction as much as cognitive restructuring. It was certainly a challenge for them. “It still happens,” I told them, “And it still matters, but show me what changing one thing does to the memory or to the outcome. If your parents had been kind instead of harsh, or harsh instead of kind, show me how this changes things. If you had evacuated before the hurricane instead of after, show me how this changes your experience.”

After their essays were turned in, we debriefed. Not much had changed, they almost unanimously agreed. The fact that the thing happened was too much for them to get around. Whether it happened to them or to someone else, it still happened, it still mattered, and changes to setting or time didn’t change the event itself.

“It makes me sad,” one student said to a roomful of nods. “I couldn’t change it. I wanted to. Knowing that it still happened doesn’t make it easier; it just means it changes me in a different way.” The universe remains constant, no matter what we do. Really, in the end, even a god can’t change things alone. Other people would have to be different, too many variables would be needed, for us to actually exit the system and do something different, for any of it to change things.

Batman will win, whether he punches Joker in the face or the stomach. Sam I Am will still like green eggs and ham by the end of the book, whether he takes that first bite on the plane, the train, or the crane. Tony will still die – whether today or tomorrow or ten years from now.

It’s not just What If…? though. This thought exercise isn’t over just because we stop watching when the season comes to an end. Spiderman: No Way Home and Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness will continue to keep these questions front and center going into next year and, philosophically, we are going to continue to ask similar questions of ourselves.

A few years ago, I told my therapist that my complex trauma had gotten so profound that I was experiencing psychosis. The worst part of this for me was the awareness of it. I was torn between two realities, the one I was living and the other imagined. Reality always won. I told her that I liked and was even comforted by the concepts of string theory and multiverses in speculative physics because, as should be obvious, allowing for different worlds helped me understand those other realities as true, just somewhere else. I was a writer, just somewhere else. That made sense. I was married, just on another timeline. That made sense. But it was confusing, even at times disorienting to live lives that were impossible and which I knew were imagined, only to blink and return to the present darkness of my depression. Like many with complex post-traumatic stress, I had begun to live so deeply inside of my head that trying to live in reality was becoming difficult. Put differently, in the Harry Potter series, the recently deceased Dumbledore appears to Harry in The Deathly Hallows. They talk about the nature of reality and the choices we make, how our choices affect others. Harry asks Dumbledore whether the entire conversation they just had was real or if it was just in his head. “Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry,” Dumbledore replies, “But why on earth should that mean that it is not real?”

In session, my therapist asked whether these delusions were affecting my lived experience. They weren’t. “I’m very grounded in reality,” I mourned. “I know I haven’t won the lottery; I know this every time I blink or take a breath. These are not hallucinations or psychotic breaks, but a constant awareness of pain. I fail in these other universes. In some I win, but only here or there and only for a little while. In the end, I’m still me whether in this universe or the next.” Talking my way through what I was feeling, the only comforting thought was that in all of these variables I believed there must be one universe – at least one – where I was entirely myself recollected, my parts are brought back together. If all possibilities are equally true, then perhaps there was a possibility of reunion with myself where I could eventually begin to get things right. Speculating “what if?” wasn’t enough for an overpowered brain like mine in the midst of crisis. Awareness of the different turning points, cataloging them, wasn’t enough. I had to actually live them, to see them play themselves out until I could be certain nothing could have changed what actually had happened. In the end, every possibility was exhausted except the one where I gather together what I had learned, reorganized myself, and moved forward.

My psychosis was, in hindsight, just that – a caloging of the threads rather than allowing my brain to try and manifest them in a delusion or hallucination. At each point, whether good or bad, I was still grounded in this reality even as my mind wanted to explore what things might have been like had I been born to different parents, or a girl instead of a boy, or what wealth might have done instead of the poverty of my childhood. The psychosis wasn’t taking me somewhere else. It was reminding me that I am still here. It was just asking what if?

As theologian Bruce K Waltke of Reformed Theological Seminary writes in An Old Testament Theology, we must begin our understanding of reality by first recognizing all reality is infinite. “At any given moment in time, an infinite number of actions, thoughts, and states of being exist. Any attempt to speak of an event or to record it necessarily results in the process of selecting and editing material… these interpretations of the events represent ‘truth’” (44-45). In discussing ancient Near Eastern religions, what distinguishes the Jewish god from other tribes and religions is the permanence of reality offered by their god. As Bertil Albrektson writes in History and the Gods, historical facts – the events themselves – are not sufficient to create reality any more than our interpretations of them. Other realities are true and, together with other Near Eastern religions (rather than distinct from), Judaism emerges with the awareness that other realities exist. What differentiates them is a god who is outside of the events, outside of time, residing in and across the multiverse, continually inviting humans into new narratives and very often asking for their help in co-constructing “reality.” While Waltke asserts that reality is whatever God (the Christian God, revealed in Jesus Christ and manifest in the Christian understanding of history and “reality”) says it is, this is an ahistorical approach. It is not an approach shared by Jews, who instead see God asking humans to participate (and thus change) reality. Indeed, Hebrew Scriptures record a god often at odds with their own long-term objectives, who repents and makes mistakes, who can be challenged to do better (by Abraham) and be better (by David). He speaks of a god who incarnates in flesh, suspending their supra-universal otherness long enough to incarnate and actively ask for humans to participate in the construction of a kingdom without borders or constrained by time, an infinite series of possibilities beyond comprehension of finitude. This is why so many branches of the Christian experience differ in how they understand the afterlife. Some, like the Latter Day Saints, claim we will conquer new worlds and live with the families we made during our brief humanity in perpetuity (a rather limited view of the hereafter in that it lacks imagination). Others, like the Evangelicals, insist that the post-incarnated life of believers will be devoted to worshipping God who deserves our attention – an uncharacteristic twist since this is something God seems to reject at times in scripture. When David, the “man after God’s own heart” desired to build a temple to house God and spend his life worshipping, God seemed mildly surprised and outright rejects the idea (before reluctantly assenting when David continues to insist and make preparations as though the matter was settled). Still, other branches of Christianity and especially Jewish thought leave the matter open to interpretation. If there is an afterlife at all, it doesn’t seem to be the biggest concern of God in the Hebrew Scriptures or even of Jesus, god made flesh. When asked what the afterlife looks like, whether people will be married and whether the daily concerns of this life, this reality, will continue into the next, Jesus sidesteps the question by dismissing both the question and the questioner. “You don’t seem to understand the question, the scripture, or God. In the next life, no one is married or given in marriage. Rather, existence is similar to that of the angels” creatures who reside outside of time, space, or place (the pillars of what we think of when we think of reality). The subtext seems to indicate impermanence, a shifting of priorities and even a disregard for the quotidian. Progressive Evangelicals like Stanley Hauerwas, N. T. Wright, and Walter Brueggemann often speak of an upending of the status quo, a reversal of fortune, a shifting of priorities, located in a coming kingdom but might the prophets instead be speaking of something not defined by the borders of reality? When N.T. Wright writes about a reckoning that sets the created order back in order, might this be a rather – and yes, please forgive the inherent audacity of questioning such beloved theologians –  be a limited understanding of a god residing outside of both creation and order? In short, might we all be setting our expectations a little low?

To truly upend the established order does not mean trading Caesar for God. It does not mean, as Evangelicals are prone to do, revising history in our favor. Rather, a true upending of “order” (what we see, what we know, what we expect based on prior suppositions of “the way things are” and “the way they aught to be”) might instead mean a sliding door. It might mean not just a new heaven and earth, but new experiences from different angles and perspectives only made possible across an infinite number of possibilities.

And so I ask, what if?

What if we are known not only through what happened, but also through what might have happened and what never happened? What if there is a breakthrough moment where instead of finally understanding as defined by our current capacity for understanding (what we might call “an old wineskin”) we instead expand to fill new wineskins – not just new celestial bodies, but an existence not defined by bodies or time with  pesky aging prospects and tendency to decay? What if we are resurrected – souls returned to bodies – so much as recollected, the parts of us scattered across timelines made at each decisive moment now finally returned to one another? What if – and yes, I am indeed aware that this is a self-appreciating thought – the psychosis I experienced years ago was simply the awareness that I, like so many of you, feel lost in this world because I am also residing somewhere else? You see, as crazy a thought as that might be, I wasn’t somewhere else. I was reminded that I was, and am, still here. 

That’s the problem I’m trying to share with you. I’m still me. And the only comforting thought here is that in all of these variables, I think there must be one universe – at least one – where I am recollected, my parts are brought back together, and only then can I eventually begin to get things right.

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