What If? Explores The Heartbreak of Doctor Strange In Latest Episode
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What If? Explores The Heartbreak of Doctor Strange In Episode 4

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BY September 3, 2021

The new Disney+ show – What If? – is exploring the Multiverse to bring us alternate versions of the stories and characters we love from the MCU. We have seen a brilliant Captain Carter (someone please make this a live-action show starring Hayley Atwell) and a bittersweet entry that brought us Chadwick Boseman’s final MCU turn as T’Challa who became Starlord. Now in episode 4 of What If? we get to see not one, but two alternate universe versions of Doctor Strange. This episode asks the question: ‘What if Stephen Strange had lost his heart, instead of his hands?’ The answer is a cataclysmic grief that will destroy an entire world.

What If Stephen Strange Lost His Heart?

Sam Raimi Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness Image via Marvel Studios

Episode 4 of What If? starts at the beginning, much like all of the episodes of the show so far. It goes back to the origin of Strange’s story with a summarized version of his movie. Only instead of being alone in the car for that fateful car crash, Stephen is joined by Doctor Christine Palmer, his former lover from the first movie played by Rachel McAdams. In this universe, it is her death in that crash that spurs Doctor Strange to seek out the mystic arts. He is determined to alter the timeline, and bring her back from the dead. But at what point does devotion become delusion?

After trying repeatedly to change the course of history, Stephen Strange discovers that his beloved’s death is a fixed point in time. It cannot be changed, or it will rip a hole in the time-space continuum and end that world. Strange ignores all of these warnings from The Ancient One and is determined to press on. If he is not powerful enough to change a fixed point in time, then he will absorb power from interdimensional monsters until he has enough to achieve his goal. Spoiler alert: it does not end well.

This episode of What If? is a powerful study in how grief can drive a person to do the unthinkable in order to bring back someone they love. We saw a similar meditation on grief and loss in the brilliant WandaVision. While What Ifdoesn’t quite achieve the powerful storytelling of that series, it is still an extremely compelling and emotional episode.

Bringing Cosmic Horror Into the MCU

What If? Tentacles Image via Marvel Studios/Disney+

What makes this episode work is the cosmic horror that comes into play when Strange decides to open a portal to summon these ‘mystic beings’ with incredible power. His first attempt is a very familiar looking tentacle monster, the same one that we saw in the first episode of the series with Captain Carter. While all of these stories take place across a variety of Multiverses, it is clear that there is a common link with this monstrous creature.

Also, there have been tentacles of some kind in every episode of What If? so far. This may be teasing the appearance of the ancient demon Shuma-Gorath, one of the “Great Old Ones” of the MCU. And with the knowledge that the upcoming Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness will be the first horror movie in the MCU, there is a good chance we might see this tentacled monster appear in a live-action feature film.

Beyond the implications for Phase 4 of the MCU, the cosmic horror of the episode works well due to the striking animation style. Towards the end, everyone in the world is starting to disappear. They seem to be infected by the darkness that the alternate version of Doctor Strange has brought into the world. It is an extremely effective art style, and one that works well with the cosmic madness of Strange’s story.

Doctor Strange Faces Off Against Himself

Doctor Strange What If Image via Marvel Studios/Disney+

This episode also introduced two versions of Doctor Strange in one universe. There is the Stephen who put aside his grief and decided to move forward, becoming more like the Doctor Strange of the sacred timeline that we know. But there is also the version of Stephen Strange who could not let go, who became obsessed with bringing back the dead and obtaining incredible power to do so. In the end we get a classic comic book showdown between the ‘dark’ and ‘light’ versions of a character. Watching the two Doctors Strange face off in an epic battle was reminiscent of the final fight between Loki and Sylvie at the end of Loki. With the introduction of the Multiverse in the MCU, we may see more of our favorite characters facing off with an alternate version of themselves.

In the end, both versions of Doctor Strange seemingly merge into one. But they have become a grotesque monster just like all of those interdimensional beings they absorbed. Strange both succeeds and fails at his mission: he brings back Christine only for her to be terrified of his monstrous appearance and horrified at what he has done. In his obsessive quest to bring back his lover, Strange never stopped to ask himself what she would think of his actions. Or what price he would have to pay in order to obtain the necessary power to achieve his goal.

Please Stop Fridging The Female Characters

Doctor Strange What If Image via Marvel Studios/Disney+

While the basic premise of this episode worked well enough, I do take some issue with the way this episode reduced Christine’s character to “love interest” and nothing more. She is an accomplished and intelligent woman, a doctor in her own right. But the only dialogue that she gets in this episode is about how much she wants some crème brûlée. This episode of What If? committed one of the oldest sins and outdated tropes in fiction: they fridged Christine. They killed her solely to give Doctor Strange a motivation, and stripped her character of anything that made her an individual outside of him.

In the original Doctor Strange film, it is established that Stephen and Christine were once in a relationship. Although it is clear that romantic feelings still exist between them, they are tentatively “friends.” I put that word in quotation marks because it is questionable how good a friend Stephen is to Christine in that movie. Strange treats her poorly and is extremely dismissive of her in that film. And while this is an alternate universe where things are a bit different, it is still hard to shake that memory of how badly he treated her. It made it a harder to believe that he loved her so much that he would destroy the world to bring her back. Unlike in WandaVision when we knew all too well the depths of Wanda’s devotion to Vision, and the trials they had already faced together while in a relationship.

Will The Watcher Ever Intervene?

Marvel's What If Series Utau the watcher in space image via Marvel Studios

This episode of What If? also brought in an interesting development with The Watcher. The omniscient narrator of the series always opens the series by stating that he observes all of the events happening in the Multiverse. But he claims that he cannot interfere. However, in this episode he specifically mentions how he could warn Strange of the dangers of his hubris, but does not.

In a powerful moment of magic, Strange himself beseeches The Watcher to intervene. It is at this moment that The Watcher fully phases into the universe, and we see him as a physical being. Apparently The Watcher does have the power to change events, but he knows better than to meddle with time. It is a lesson that Strange himself should know by now. “I am not a god,” says The Watcher. “And neither are you.”

The Watcher may not be a god, but he is certainly close to one. He comes from an ancient race of beings who decided it was best to watch over humanity and guide them. But they swore not to interfere. If this line sounds familiar, it’s because this is the basic premise of the upcoming Eternals movie. Odds are high that we will learn more about The Watchers in that film. Perhaps we will see Jeffrey Wright play Uatu in live-action? Despite the fact that What If? is allegedly telling non-canonical stories of the Multiverse, it is still setting up for future MCU films in these subtle ways.

The first four episodes of What If? are streaming now on Disney+ and there is sure to be more Multiversal madness to come. For more news on the MCU and all  of our reviews of the Disney+ shows, be sure to follow Comic Years on Facebook and Twitter today!

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Emily O'Donnell is a writer and photographer with roots in some of the earliest online fandoms. She cut her genre teeth on the Wizard of Oz books at the tender age of 6 years old, and was reading epic adult fantasy novels by the age of 10. Decades later, she still consumes genre fiction like there is no tomorrow. She is delighted to be living through the golden age of sci-fi and fantasy popularity. She is unashamed of the amount of fanfiction that still lingers online under her name.

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