Marvel’s What If…? series dropped on Disney+ on August 11, 2021, and almost immediately, viewers began drawing parallels to Loki. What If…? was the first new MCU work to drop after Loki, which launched June 9th of the same year. Loki establishes that the Marvel timeline can “branch” into alternate realities at points called “Nexus Events.” It’s the butterfly effect in action; one small change leads to vastly different outcomes and a seemingly infinite number of alternate universes, making up the Marvel “multiverse.”
This development in Loki was foreshadowed in Wandavision by the Nexus commercial in episode 7, and ties in to a lot of other upcoming Marvel projects that feature interdimensional travel, such as Spider-Man: No Way Home (December 2021), and Dr. Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (May 2022).
But one thing fans can’t seem to entirely agree on is whether or not What If…? is part of the continuity. Certainly, the finale of Loki seemed to imply that all possible and potential Marvel realities are canonical, which is great news for fanfiction writers. But episode 4 of What If…? cast some doubt on the matter. Let’s explore the various “Nexus Events” of What If…? and consider the implications defining them.
WHAT ARE ALL THE NEXUS EVENTS?
The first two episodes of What If…? offered very clear, straightforward, singular events that caused the branch of the timeline. But episode 3 seemed to be a bit less clear. That’s because, in What If…?, some episodes begin at the moment of the Nexus Event, while in others, the Nexus Event has already occurred and the episode is exploring the consequences much later in time.
For clarity, here’s the Nexus Event for each episode:
Episode 1: Peggy Carter chooses to remain in the lab instead of going up to the observation deck when Steve Rogers is about to get injected with super-soldier serum, leading her to be the one to get it instead.
Episode 2: Yondu gave the mission of finding Peter Quill to Kraglin and Taserface instead of doing it himself, and they abducted T’Challa by mistake instead of Peter Quill.
Episode 3: This Nexus Event is not clearly defined. However, the central conflict of the episode is that Hank Pym is hell-bent on exacting revenge for Hope van Dyne’s death, so Hope van Dyne’s death (or, even earlier, her recruitment to SHIELD) could be considered the Nexus Event. For the discerning fan, the theory runs even deeper; Hope van Dyne was specifically killed during an escort mission in Odessa, a call-back to Captain America: The Winter Soldier, in which Natasha tells Steve that she was ambushed in Odessa in 2009 by the Winter Soldier (and shows him the scar to prove it). Natasha survived, however. This implies that perhaps the Nexus event was Fury deciding to send Hope on the 2009 mission instead of Natasha.
Episode 4: Stephen Strange and Christine Palmer choose to remain together instead of breaking up. Consequently, she’s with him during his car accident and is killed. Her death is called an “Absolute Point” that is required to happen in this timeline.
Episode 5: This Nexus Event is not defined. We know that Janet van Dyne contracts a virus in the quantum realm, but what action of Janet’s led to this occurrence is not specified.
Episode 6: This Nexus Event is not defined. We know that Killmonger was a United States Navy SEAL with deployments to Afghanistan, so it’s not strange to see him in the same place and time as Tony Stark, but what led to him intervening in the ambush is not entirely clear. It could be due to his actions (i.e., he was patrolling a different area), or due to the actions of Tony’s convoy (i.e., a different route was taken).
Episode 7: Odin chooses not to adopt Loki but instead returns him to Laufey. Consequently, Thor grows up as a spoiled only child and Loki is raised as a Frost Giant.
Episode 8: The Nexus Event is not defined. Somehow, Ultron gains control of Vision’s body instead of JARVIS, leading to the Mind Stone being in his control. Reddit user u/le_snikelfritz suggests that perhaps Dr. Cho never paused the upload in Age of Ultron, giving JARVIS a chance to butt in, or while another user, u/jessebona, suggests that the Nexus Point occurs even earlier with the death of Wanda and Pietro the Sokovian Civil War.
Episode 9: A continuation of episode 8, this episode has no defined Nexus Event, though it does show us another reality in which the decision is made to release nuclear warheads to combat Ultron due the Avengers losing, resulting in the annihilation of humankind in that timeline.
SO WHAT’S THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN A NEXUS EVENT AND AN ABSOLUTE POINT?
Head writer for What If…? A.C. Bradley has stated that: “That Doctor Strange episode, I wrote in February of 2019. I think I should’ve called it a Nexus Point instead of an Absolute Point. The Loki scripts weren’t even written yet, so that animatic locked before Loki even finished their scripts because you’re always writing about two years ahead of animation.”
But within the fandom, a distinction has already been made: a Nexus Point is a branching event or a “fork in the road,” whereas an Absolute Point is an immutable event that must occur for the flow of time to continue without collapsing. One Reddit user, u/droid327, compares Absolute Points to pylons on a bridge, moments that are required to be passed and support the continuity of time.
SO WHAT’S IT ALL MEAN?
The wonderfully goofy original comics did not necessarily require a Nexus Event.
The Marvel multiverse contains trillions of worlds, but to pin every single one on a defined “Nexus Event” isn’t really necessary. With What If…? coming hot on the heels of Loki, it’s an easy assumption to make, one that was all-but confirmed in Episode 4: “We have watched how one moment, one choice, can ripple across space and time, giving birth to new stories, heroes, whole universes. But what if it’s the wrong choice? What if the best of intentions has very strange consequences?”
Each episode, The Watcher gives us a similar introduction, one you probably remember at the very beginning of episode one: “Time. Space. Reality. It’s more than a linear path. It’s a prism of endless possibility. Where a single choice can branch out into infinite realities, creating alternate worlds from the ones you know. Each a reflection of what could have been. Some heroes will rise, others will fall. And nothing will be the same. I am the Watcher. I am your guide through these vast new realities. Follow me and dare to face the unknown, and ponder the question… What if?”
And that’s all very well and good, but it bears emphasizing that the original What If…? comics were essentially one-shots and date back to 1977, long before the concept of a Nexus Event, Sacred Timeline, or TVA. (On the other hand, The Watchers were introduced in a 1963 Fantastic Four comic, though The Watcher was not used as a plot device in the original What If…? comics as he is in the television series.)
Personally I’m excited to see some of Marvel’s more batshit alternative worlds explored, defined Nexus Events be damned. Examples of these include:
- World 617 is the Nightmare Realm (aka “Dimension of Dreams”).
- World 59,822, in which Thor gets a haircut.
- World 61,828, in which Tony Stark develops an eating disorder.
- World 74,820 sees George Washington was assassinated.
- World 82,801 features the Fantastic Four as literal bananas.
- In World 82,809, Nick Fury wears the eyepatch on right eye instead of the left.
- In Worlds 82,810 through 82,812, Ghost Rider possesses a wheelchair-bound grandpa, a roller derby girl, and a baby, respectively.
- In 82,819, the Invisible Girl dyes her hair.
- World 89,130 is Old West London.
- World 92,202 sees Dr. Doom as a pediatrician.
- World 99,467 is Dino Land.
- In World 103,173, a dog named Wilson goes through an experiment with Mascara X and becomes this universe’s Deadpool (named “Dogpool”).
Trying to figure out a Nexus Event for some of these would be almost impossible, but it’s not necessary to enjoy these crazy worlds for what they are. Since Loki established any conceivable possibility as canon, Marvel can now invest in bringing in new writers, stories, and one-shots without worrying about whether or not it can define a Nexus Event, or whether or not it “fits in” with the continuity. The strength of What If…? as a series is that it’s an anthology of different ideas, some funny and some heartfelt, each independently digestible and therefore accessible to a very broad viewership.
Of course, there are still plenty of tips of the hat to the broader Marvel Cinematic Universe. For example, in episode 8 we see Natasha hoist Red Guardian’s shield from Black Widow (as well as her “superhero pose”). We have Natasha dropping Clint for the sake of saving humanity in a reversal of what we saw occur in Avengers: Endgame. Later, in Episode 9, we get a reference to Captain America: Civil War with Peggy and Natasha bantering before going to retake the Lemurian Star, and, when the Guardians of the Multiverse assemble, we get a call-back to the first Avengers movie in the way the camera pans around the crew.
But while all these little Easter Eggs are fun for seasoned viewers, the beauty of having self-contained stories is that it re-opens the Marvel Cinematic Universe to newcomers, those who fell behind, or those who simply don’t understand the more complex stories. In a word, What If…? is accessible, and it means to be.
In fact, What If…? gets a little self-aware l in episode 8, when dialogue between Ultron and The Watcher discussed the implications of creating and passively watching other worlds, referencing the audience as watchers themselves. But this self-awareness was inviting; the What If…? series expands the Marvel Cinematic Universe but does so in digestible one-shots that return the consumption of Marvel works to a comfortable place, one where backstory isn’t needed and you, a watcher yourself, can jump right in.
Watching What If..? evokes the same feeling of wandering into a comic book shop as a kid, picking up a random issue, and getting absorbed in the art and the story. It’s certainly no coincidence that What If…? employs cel-shading animation to invoke a comic book-like aesthetic.
What If…? is a return to Marvel’s skillful self-contained storytelling, and it invites fans to pull up a chair, suspend disbelief, and simply enjoy themselves without worrying too hard about backstory.
As The Watcher himself states, “Every story is my home.” The subtext is that it could be yours, too.