Features and Columns · TV

‘What If…?’ Pushed Marvel’s Design Team Into Its Most Daring Arena

We chat with Ryan Meinerding, the Creative Director of Visual Development at Marvel Studios, about knowing when to ditch legacy for story.
What If Character Design Interview
Marvel Studios
By  · Published on September 7th, 2021

Welcome to World Builders, our ongoing series of conversations with the most productive and thoughtful behind-the-scenes craftspeople. In this entry, we chat with Ryan Meinerding, the Creative Director of Visual Development at Marvel Studios, about how the What If character design differed from his usual live-action efforts.

Once upon a time, no one really cared whether the Batman on the screen captured the Batman from the page. Over the last twenty years, however, the popularity of the cinematic interpretations dragged many to the comic book source material. Especially the work of Marvel Studios, which differentiated their brand of superhero punch-ups by embracing the very earnest and often absurd concepts and designs baked into their funny pages.

For the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the studio was not scared of Loki’s helmet or Captain America’s spangly outfit. But that didn’t mean they could just yank Jack Kirby‘s skintight red, white, and blue attire and drop it on Chris Evans’ frame. No, some fine-tuning was required. It was less about how do they bring the cool to Captain America, and more about how do they bring out the cool of Captain America. And it would take a couple of tries and a few sequels to get it right.

Now, the MCU is deep into its fourth phase. As the Creative Director of Visual Development at Marvel Studios, Ryan Meinerding has been with the company since nearly the beginning. His team has touched every character, sketched countless iterations, and fabricated hundreds of heroes, villains, and everyone in between. They’ve only just scratched the surface of Marvel Comics’ nearly infinite universe.

With each new project, Meinerding and his artists charge into the comics. They snatch their favorite interpretations and start meddling, attempting to translate what works best for the live-action world. What If…?, the Disney+ cartoon series operating within MCU canon and outside the characters’ main timeline, has a little more freedom given its animated realm. Although, you can never be sure that these new characters, or new spins on old characters, won’t eventually show up on the shoulders of their human actors. They have to be prepared for anything.

Looming over the series is the cosmic peeper known as Uatu, the Watcher. The character is the creation of Kirby and Stan Lee, spinning out the earliest Fantastic Four comics. Members of Uatu’s species are determined to observe and catalog the known and unknown universe. And, as Uatu clearly states to one distraught Doctor Strange during What If…? Episode 4, they’re not permitted to interfere with humanity even when humanity threatens to destroy creation itself.

Uatu is a cherished Marvel character, and as the shepherd of the What If…? comic book series, he has interacted with every Avenger. Even more intimidating, his design has been altered by nearly as many comic book artists. It’s impossible not to feel somewhat uneasy when making those first cinematic adjustments, but it’s also a process Meinerding is well-versed in.

“There’s always huge challenges with a character that has as long a history as Uatu,” Meinerding says. “There are a lot of expectations there. People want to see certain things with him. But I think one of the fun components with the Watcher in the show is that, as the narrator, as that voice leading us into the show and explaining everything, the visuals reinforce his omniscient presence. He’s there, but not really there.”

The Watcher What If Doctor Strange

Meinerding became taken with the idea of Uatu as this translucent specter. He’s in the background, hanging back, merely taking in all our horrible decisions, wincing here and there, but never fully committing to the What If…? reality-of-the-week. His Watcher is almost a ghost.

“I think it’s one of the most fun parts of the show,” he continues. “The fact that the Watcher’s painted in the background and he’s just there watching. We’re combining some of those visuals where you’re seeing space and time through him. We’re being more ethereal with the design, or more conceptual than just doing a traditional character design. That makes it a lot of fun.”

If Meinerding spends too much time pondering the shoulders he’s standing on, the significance becomes unbearable. He learned early on to take the job at face value. He’s here to remove the characters from the comics and put them into the MCU. It’s best not to distract yourself with Kirby’s legacy.

“I’ve always felt the weight of it,” he says. “To speak about individuals like Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko. It’s so hard to quantify what creating those icons has meant, right? I look at it on a character basis. I love this character. I want to do right by this character, whether it’s Spider-Man, Iron Man, or Captain America. That’s the weight of what I can take on. I’d like to think that what that equates to is looking at those amazing peoples’ legacies and doing right by them. But that’s a heavy burden.”

At some moment in the creation process, the comics have to go away or fade into inspiration. Character design is like any other department on set. The cinematographer goes to the script and finds the visuals there. The composer does the same thing. Story drives every decision.

“We’re always using the comics as our generalized North Star,” says Meinerding. “We’re trying to turn the characters into a visual that’s going to be right for the story that the filmmakers are trying to create. If you look at Captain America across his journey through the MCU, every costume is different and each one is representative of a specific story, and it becomes hugely useful as a storytelling device. If we had gone with one design through all the film it would have felt like we were not using all the storytelling tools at our disposal.”

What If Doctor Strange

What If…? provides Meinerding a unique opportunity to revisit past designs and radically shift them. In the case of Doctor Strange’s most recent descent into madness, Meinerding needed to interject macabre wizardry into the hero’s noble costume and physique. How far could he push Doctor Strange into villainy before he no longer looked like Doctor Strange?

“We had a strong starting point of what we did in [the film] Doctor Strange,” he says. “It’s exciting that we can start from a position that’s so clear, and then we can do like ten or fifteen or twenty more versions. We can say, what if the stuff that he’s absorbing is part of his visual? What if he just goes darker? How do we make him look more sickly? We do a bunch of designs that are answering those questions and show them to the filmmakers and have them choose what feels right for the episode that they want to make.”

Having been there since Iron Man, Meinerding has collected an enormous vault of unused designs. A scroll through his Instagram is its own What If…? experience. There are so many rough drafts that we’ll never see cinematically, but do those discarded looks fall into the dumpster? Or do they find new life with future projects?

“We do lots of versions of things to feel like we’ve explored every angle, so the filmmakers have the right amount of stuff to choose from,” he says. “A lot of that stuff is very useful at the beginning of projects. Let’s say we’re going to do a different Doctor Strange; here are roughly a hundred and fifty versions from the past that we didn’t pick. Is anything compelling here? Sometimes there are things that we can pull out. Someone will say, ‘That collar kind of looks like something that would be interesting,’ or, ‘Oh, we like the way the cloak falls here.’ But for the most part, with What If…?, because of that deviation from the main timeline, you just want to go down a specific road.”

Ryan Meinerding is always looking forward. His archives run deep, and you never know what might return to the surface, but it’s impossible to predict story points or what vision the next filmmaker will necessitate. Marvel Studios builds proudly on its history and the artistry of talents like Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, but ultimately it’s the future that drives design. The characters are shaped by where the MCU is going and not where it was.

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Brad Gullickson is a Weekly Columnist for Film School Rejects and Senior Curator for One Perfect Shot. When not rambling about movies here, he's rambling about comics as the co-host of Comic Book Couples Counseling. Hunt him down on Twitter: @MouthDork. (He/Him)