Spoilers follow for Episode 4 of Marvel’s What If…? For more, see our review of the previous episode of What If.
Doctor Strange, with his limitless magical potential, has always felt like one the MCU’s most dangerous wild cards, and What If’s fourth episode makes clear why. As the guardian of our reality, Strange’s cosmic perspective and access to the Time Stone has mostly been a blessing up to this point – the upcoming events of Spider-Man: No Way Home notwithstanding – but here, the consequences of Strange obsessing over his great power with no thought to the great responsibility that follows it are dire. The Sorcerer Supreme’s descent into grief-stricken madness is an effective cautionary tale about what loss can do to a person and furthers the argument that these more mature stories are What If’s bread and butter. And that ending!
Episode 4 takes the foundation of Strange’s (Benedict Cumberbatch) mystical journey – the car accident that took his hands – and twists fate by putting Dr. Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams) in the passenger seat. Strange losing the use of his hands was already an understandable motivator for his journey to Kamar-Taj in his solo film, but Christine’s death puts him in an even more desperate state of mind by the time he gets there. He’s still able to defeat Dormammu and become Sorcerer Supreme, but the Time Stone around his neck hangs heavier and heavier as Strange’s power grows.
While Strange is able to time travel back to the night of the accident, nothing he does saves Christine from dying: it’s a nexus event, or an “absolute point in time” as this episode refers to it. While our understanding of a nexus event’s importance to the MCU’s plot going forward is still growing, the concept is used wonderfully in this episode to represent the effects of tragedy, of loss so painful we’d unmake the world to reverse it. Strange’s centuries-spanning marathon of summoning monsters to absorb their power is a great illustration of this, evoking his intense focus on bargaining with Dormammu at any personal cost. With each creature (or evil garden gnome) absorbed, Strange literally becomes more of a monster. There’s an element of Gothic horror to the whole episode, with Strange positioned as both Doctors Jekyll and Frankenstein as he learns the cost of his meddlesome hubris. What If is a great vehicle for these morality plays when it can avoid dipping too much into the fan service well for easy thrills.
Cumberbatch turns in a good vocal performance, especially when Strange’s inability to save Christine is turning the screws in his mind. Rachel McAdams has a thankless role as little more than the source of Strange’s grief, but she does get time to bring some intensity to her performance in her final scene.
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The episode does occasionally strain itself explaining the temporal shenanigans going on, overcomplicating the story by revealing that the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) used the power of the Dark Dimension to create two versions of Doctor Strange in the same reality. Strange being “half a man, living half a life” is distracting, an unnecessary development that feels engineered just to give us a Strange vs. Strange magic fight scene at the end. The MCU is getting a little too obsessed with these mirror grudge matches, and all the glowy ropes and portals in the multiverse fail to make the whole “you’re literally your own worst enemy” bit feel fresh. In fact, most of this episode’s strongest visual moments are the more emotionally evocative ones, like the shadows of Strange’s new horde of inner demons giving way to his new gaunt appearance. Despite the Ancient One’s distracting involvement, the story sticks its landing, taking one of the darkest turns in MCU history going into the final moments.
The totality of Evil Strange’s failure comes crashing down on him when The Watcher (Jeffrey Wright) finally reveals himself, which we get a tease of earlier on when Strange hears him through whatever cosmic noise cancelling The Watcher uses to narrate to the viewer. He’s been promising he won’t interfere and, even with reality collapsing around Evil Strange, he holds true to his word. Seeing What If commit to creating a pocket universe for a single episode and then letting the hero’s choices be so devastating that they destroy that universe was incredibly gratifying, and it also gave us some important insight into The Watcher. This is the first time we’ve seen him actively ignore a character in need, instead chiding Strange for his failings. It’s an interesting development for such a dispassionate character, one who extols the importance of choice while being defined by his own apathy.
What If has the freedom to tell any kind of story that it wants, stories the live-action MCU movies may not have the courage to tackle, so ending on such a down note was an excellent reminder of the fresh possibilities that freedom allows for. Of course, there’s a Sword of Damocles hanging over every choice What If “commits” to: it’s impossible to know if any consequences are final. Sure, abandoning a corrupted Stephen Strange screaming in a collapsing reality is a bold and dark choice, but it’s also easy to picture The Watcher or some villain undoing that drama by plucking him out just to give the “Altvengers” What If is setting up someone to fight in the finale. Or to give Sacred Timeline Strange some extra madness in the multiverse to deal with once his solo sequel hits screens next year…