Is there a greater Marvel Comics moment than Bruce Banner trying to Hulk out so that Magneto’s leg bone doesn’t burst through his belly? That was the moment Marvel Zombies had me hooked, and I knew, thanks to writer Robert Kirkman (also responsible for Invincible and The Walking Dead), that I was in for a wild, wild ride.
So you’d think I’d be excited for What If…?, which is set to bring the Marvel zombies to the small screen this August, alongside other alternate takes on the Marvel Universe. But I doubt What If…? will have the guts to give us the real, Kirkman-penned Marvel Zombies.
It’s not so much that it’ll shy away from piling on the gore, though that seems like a given. As endearing as the image of Bruce Banner’s stomach rupturing or Captain America cradling his brains in his hands might be, Robert Kirkman’s run was so much more than just splatter.
The costumed flesheaters were brought to unlife in the Ultimate Fantastic Four comic, when writer Mark Millar trolled readers into thinking they were getting a crossover with the regular Marvel Universe. Instead, the three-issue arc took the UFF to an Earth where, infected by a zombie virus, the world’s superheroes had devoured the non-powered populace.
But it wasn’t until Kirkman got his hands on them and penned the five-issue Marvel Zombies series that they really came into their own. What made Marvel Zombies such a fantastic slice of horror was that, having toyed with a “last man on Earth” scenario, Kirkman elected to make the super-zombies the stars of the series.
And not just any super-zombies, either — we’re talking about Marvel’s A-listers who, far from being brainless shamblers, were absolutely aware of their condition. Captain America (Colonel America in this continuity), Iron Man, Thor, Spider-Man, Wolverine, Luke Cage, Daredevil, and more all embraced their hunger in a largely uncomplicated manner.
Kirkman dialed up the world’s wrongness with some suitably macabre dialogue; the series made no bones about letting you in on the Marvel zombies’ skewed perspective. Cradling a chunk of his brain, Captain America had a few choice words to say about the value of going for the head. Wonder why I didn’t mention Black Panther earlier? Uninfected, he was too busy getting carved up by Giant Man, who reflected that, “If things went back to the way they were… or as close as they could get… I’d still eat people.”
As both a Marvel fan and a zombie aficionado, this skewed version of the Marvel Universe felt like it was written for me; the gore was just the icing on the cake. So why do I doubt we’ll get a Marvel Zombies that’s true to Robert Kirkman’s original vision? One word: Disney.
The fact that What If…? has a Marvel Zombies episode is surprising in itself. In the introduction to the first Marvel Zombies hardback, Kirkman (who departed after Marvel Zombies 2) expressed his absolute astonishment in what he was able to get away with (thanks partly to editor Ralph Macchio). But at that time, Marvel was just Marvel. I can only imagine the sheer number of meetings that had to take place before Disney, famed for being a wholesome, family-friendly company, would countenance the idea of putting a zombie Captain America on screen.
This isn’t just supposition, either. The Marvel Zombies series continued after Kirkman’s departure, but once Disney purchased Marvel in 2009, the hand of Mickey fell upon the franchise. Marvel Zombies merchandise, such as Gentle Giant’s busts and Diamond Selects’ Minimates, were renamed to “Villain Zombies” and focused exclusively on, as the name suggests, zombified villains. Barring a brief appearance by Zombie Thor in Marvel Zombies Destroy, by the time 2015’s Marvel Zombies: Battleworld rolled around, Disney’s position that only villains get to be zombies was pretty clear.
One problem was likely that, despite their infected status and whatever mind-altering effects the infection might have had, the Marvel zombies were recognizably themselves — not just physically, but mentally. For instance, Marvel Zombies: Dead Days had the line, “You saying you don’t want any of this Jarvis meat?”
The Avengers retained their camaraderie, but instead of defeating Thanos, they were focused on sating their hunger for human flesh. When Galactus arrived, they united to fight him, not to save humanity but because, in Giant Man’s words, “The bigger they are the longer it takes to eat all of them!”
If the series had continued along this path at the same time Marvel was building the Marvel Cinematic Universe, all it would have taken was for one pundit to discover that major Marvel characters were embracing “cannibalism” for the press to have had a field day. Aside from tarnishing Disney’s image, that revelation could have made a significant dent in the MCU’s box office.
It might have been a relatively small risk, but Disney isn’t known for taking risks. So when Marvel Zombies was resurrected as, er, Marvel Zombies: Resurrection in 2020, the zombies were given a grim, collective mantra,“Come and see!” that they uttered frequently throughout the first issue and to a lesser extent later. But it wasn’t just an invitation to join their gruesome number; it was an important reminder that the respective characters weren’t in the driving seat.
This wasn’t Captain Marvel sinking her teeth into her former friends and allies; something else had hollowed her out and moved in, something with a hive mind and a hunger for living flesh. As for the Avengers? Spider-Man was the hero of the series, but Captain America, Iron Man, and the rest of the team barely got a look in.
So, where does that leave What If…?’s Marvel Zombies episode? The chances are it’ll be a very safe take on the comic if, indeed, it draws upon the original series at all. Every single character shown in the trailer resembles their movie version, except for the zombified Captain America and Iron Man who are generic, rotting flesh-munchers, a sure sign that Disney wants to distinguish them from their MCU counterparts.
Ultimately, Bucky will probably have to put his friend down and end up being a bit sad about it, and we won’t get the gory, Galactus-munching glory of Kirkman’s Marvel Zombies. But if you want a taste of what might have been, the original horror spectacle is still out there and more than worth sinking your teeth into.