This is a rare situation in the What If? Series – the revisiting of an alternate reality. This story is a continuation of the world created in What if This was the FF (Mike Wieringo tribute) in which the original Fantastic Four were replaced with Spider-Man, Wolverine, Hulk, and Ghost Rider.
During a battle between Kang, the time-travelling conqueror, and the combined forces of the New Fantastic Four, X-Men, and the Avengers, all but four of them blink out of existence. Only Spider-Man, Hulk, Wolverine, and Iron Man remain. The effect is not limited to those combatants. Many other heroes, villains, and random people disappear for no reason.
It is soon revealed (to the reader) that this is the result of Thanos and his new toy, the Infinity Gauntlet. By possessing the individually powerful cosmic gems that control soul, mind, time, reality, space, and power, Thanos has elevated himself to the threshold of true omnipotence.
As one can imagine, in the wake of a mass unexplained disappearance, the general public is terrified. The remaining heroes do what they can to maintain order but it proves to be more than they can handle.
The "newer" FF are visited by Doctor Strange, Adam Warlock, and the Silver Surfer. They are informed that Thanos is behind the disappearances and that they must follow the lead of Adam Warlock to defeat him. Despite Strange's complete trust, the FF are still unconvinced. When the Hulk indicates that he's not scared of Thanos, going so far as to call him a coward, they are immediately teleported to his floating monument in deep space.
Thanos and the Hulk exchange threats. Hulk brings out the standard "the madder I get" line; Thanos counters with the destruction of half the Milky Way galaxy. It becomes clear through both his words and actions that Thanos is doing this to win the favor of his true love, Death. Death is depicted as a robed figure with the face of a woman that remains silent and shows little emotion.
To further prove his power, Thanos then separates Hulk from Banner, much to everyone's surprise. As he prepares to kill them, Mephisto (his advisor) encourages him to refrain from such a cavalier display of power. He'll never win Death's favor if he flaunts his power in this way. Thanos agrees with him and returns the heroes to the Baxter Building.
Iron Man immediately agrees to work with Warlock. However, when Iron Man asks about his plan, Warlock refuses to share it with the FF. He claims that what they do not know, Thanos can't learn. This level of secrecy doesn't sit well with them. They go so far as to accuse him of working with Thanos and they refuse to cooperate. Warlock, Strange, and the Surfer leave to find other allies.
Tony, Peter, and Bruce search through Reed's inventions to find something that will help them defeat Thanos. Aware that they are out of their league in this area, Hulk and Wolverine excuse themselves and order pizza. The three scientists eventually find the best items from the weapons cache and are able to isolate the residual energy Thanos used to teleport them. This allows them to trace the energy back to Thanos' monument.
Bruce remains behind to operate the FF's portal while the rest of the team return and find Thanos engaged in battle with the most powerful beings in the universe: The Celestials, Galactus, Love & Hate, Kronos, The Stranger, Uatu, Lord Chaos, and Master Order. Instead of attacking, Wolverine casually walks up to Thanos and announces he's changing sides as they can't defeat him. He quickly gains Thanos' trust by flattering him with comments about his new godlike power. Thanos takes an instant liking to him and doesn't kill him on the spot. He then convinces Thanos that Mephisto is making a play for Death and points out specific behaviors to back up his claim. Thanos disintegrates him on the spot.
The remaining FF have abandoned their attack on Thanos. They discover the empty armor of a Celestial and drag it back through the portal to the Baxter Building for analysis. Hulk makes one final appeal to Wolverine to come back with them but is refused. His answer is that Thanos is the key to making Jean Grey love him instead of Cyclops. The Hulk bluntly tells Wolverine that he's making an enormous mistake, but his advice falls on deaf ears.
Hours later, Stark is able to make some minor modifications to the Celestial's armor and resumes his attack on Thanos. In this case he was able to draw energy from the Negative Zone and funnel it through the armor. He is able to fire one energy bolt at Thanos before it ceases to be effective.
Wolverine encourages Thanos to reach out and touch the face of Death. He reminds Thanos that despite his reservations, he has overlooked the fact that she is a woman and needs physical contact. As the lovestruck Thanos reaches out for Death, he concentration wanes. Wolverine uses this opportunity to slice off the arm containing the infinity gems.
Once Thanos is captured, Wolverine admits that this was his plan all along. Similar to Warlock, he couldn't share it with anyone. Spider-Man comments on how Wolverine managed to beat the Prince of Lies at his own game. With that Wolverine turns over the Infinity Gauntlet to Spider-Man who restores reality.
In the aftermath of the battle, Thanos is turned over to the "great beings of the universe". They remove all of his powers and give him a new life as a gardener on a remote planet. The Infinity Gauntlet is given to the Watchers as they are the only beings capable of guarding the gems. The Watchers allow Bruce Banner to stay on an as honorary member, giving him the peace and solitude he has searched for over the years.
It was clear from the start that Wolverine's "defection" was meant to be a ruse. However I will admit that his "confession" involving Jean Grey caught me off-guard. Anyone that has read the X-Men over the years knows that Wolverine has the hots for Jean. I liked that particular wrinkle and was curious if that would be used in any way. However my original conclusion was correct and the Jean angle turned out to be a "red herring" (bad pun I know). I do feel somewhat gullible, but this is all about suspension of disbelief.
Spider-Man speaks for all readers when voices amazement at the ease in which Wolverine manipulated Thanos into a false sense of security. Perhaps the lesson here is that to achieve true omnipotence, one must grow beyond worldly concerns.
3 webs. An entertaining story despite a few minor items.
This story is based on the events that begin in Infinity Gauntlet #1
Iron Man actually fought Thanos well before the events in this issue. Invincible Iron Man #55 to be exact.