What If Killed an Entire Universe by Breaking One Man’s Heart

What If Killed an Entire Universe by Breaking One Man’s Heart
Screenshot: Disney+/Marvel
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In both Marvel’s What If animated series and the comic books they’re based on, Uatu the Watcher is committed to a life of unceasing, removed impartiality and sworn to never become directly involved with any of the events he witnesses across the multiverse. Episode four of Disney+’s What If was a reminder of the Watcher’s rules about looking rather than touching, but it was also the series’ way of upping its multiversal stakes and bringing magic back into the spotlight.

“What If… Doctor Strange Lost His Heart Instead of His Hands?” sticks to the series’ established formula of reworking the beats of an old MCU film into a mostly new story about characters you’re already familiar with. Unlike its predecessors — which mostly focused on characters swapping thematic identities (see: Peggy becoming Captain Carter and T’Challa becoming Star-Lord) — the latest story doesn’t actually change all that much about its central hero’s station in the grand scheme of things.

In most every telling of his origins, the life of Stephen Strange (voiced here by the MCU’s Benedict Cumberbatch) is marked by a profound loss which pushes him to pursue his magical studies far away from his life as a neurosurgeon in America. In many comics and Scott Derrickson’s 2016 Doctor Strange, it was the severe injuries to his hands after a car accident that put Strange on the path to becoming the Sorcerer Supreme. That same fateful accident plays out differently in the laboriously titled “What If… Doctor Strange Lost His Heart Instead of His Hands?” and the Watcher expresses to himself early in the episode how the events of this particular universe are all unfolding… well, “wrong.”

Moments after reintroducing Dr. Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams) and her easily-forgotten romantic entanglement with Strange on what would have been the night of his hand-ruining crash, What If goes off-script in a big way simply by placing her in the car with him. Had Strange been driving solo, the crash might have simply left his hands mangled, but in this universe, the collision results in Christine’s death while Strange only suffers minor physical injuries. The man’s emotional wounds, on the other hand, leave him devastated and remorseful for not having been more direct with Christine about the depths of his feelings for her.

As short as these episodes are, there’s only so much time for any of the characters — and the actors portraying them — to really leave strong impressions, but the overwhelming majority of the cast here showed up prepared to make their time in the recording booth count. Though McAdams doesn’t get all that much to do, Christine feels much more like an actual person compared to her cinematic counterpart thanks to the handful of quiet scenes she shares with Strange that give you a sense the intimacy they shared.

In the episode’s first act, Christine’s warmth is contrasted by Strange’s cold arrogance that reads more like awkward aloofness thanks to Cumberbatch’s still-perplexing take on prototypical American jerks. Though he delivers a mostly all right performance in terms of conveying Strange’s emotions, What If’s sound design really, really draws attention to some of the more peculiar quirks borne out of Marvel’s refusal to just let the MCU’s Strange be a mellifluous Englishman.

Screenshot: Disney+/MarvelScreenshot: Disney+/Marvel

Aural wonkiness aside, the stiffness plaguing What If’s Doctor is an important part of his emotional arc this episode. Unwilling to accept the permanence of Christine’s death, he travels to Khamar-Taj where he gets his first taste of magic under the tutelage of the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) and Wong (Benedict Wong), who both sense the vastness of Strange’s potential and how it’s buttressed by his grief. When this universe’s Strange first learns about the Eye of Agamotto and its ability to manipulate time, both the Ancient One and Wong warn him that using the relic to alter events like Christine’s death would lead to cataclysmic consequences.

One thing the episode does quite well is root Strange’s impulsiveness and irresponsibility in an understandable frustration with his circumstance. To his credit, Strange heeds Wong and the Ancient One’s warnings for two years as he continues to train in hopes of finding a way to bring Christine back, and it’s only after every other avenue is exhausted that he considers pivoting to darker magicks. The story glosses over some of the highlights from Strange’s life featured in his movie (like his confrontations with Dormammu) and, interestingly, it explicitly names him as the Sorcerer Supreme in a way he hasn’t been in the MCU.

What If has often felt hamstrung by its desire to retell stories from the films, but this episode’s reimagining of Strange’s creation of a time loop is one of its more impactful moments so far. Rather than endlessly needling Dormammu with the use of the Eye of Agamotto, this Strange ends up using the disguised Infinity Stone to travel back to the night of Christine’s death in order to prevent it. No matter how many times Stephen warps himself to the past, though, he’s seemingly powerless to change the fact that Christine was fated to die.

Screenshot: Disney+/MarvelScreenshot: Disney+/Marvel

Though there’s a big action set piece that meant to stand out in this episode, Strange’s loop ends up being the most interesting bit because of how it contextualises the sorcerer’s descent into a kind of madness we last saw in WandaVision. While Wanda herself doesn’t show up this episode, you can see shades of her in Stephen’s obsessive pursuit of a loved one he can only be with via magical means.

As Strange struggles to understand why his plan won’t work, the Ancient One pops into being to explain how Christine’s death is an “absolute point” that can’t be altered without destroying their universe as a whole. This bit of lore building isn’t expanded on further, but it feels very much like What If gesturing towards Loki’s Nexus Events and laying some groundwork for Marvel’s magic users to have some difficult conversations in Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness.

Strange’s battle with the Ancient One leads to him seeking alternate mystical avenues to resurrect Christine. In Marvel’s comics, Cagliostro is an ancient sorcerer who Doctor Doom encounters during his travels through time in search of someone to teach him the magic necessary to bring his mother back from the dead. What If introduces the character as O’Bengh (Ike Amadi), the librarian of Cagliostro’s interdimensional library, where Strange travels looking for magic that his former teachers refused to train him in. With O’Bengh’s help, Strange gradually begins familiarising himself with the various kinds of demons who exist on other planes, and mastering a very Agatha Harkness-like power to absorb their essence.

As has been the case with all of What If’s episodes, “What If… Doctor Strange Lost His Heart Instead of His Hands?” is a kind of entertainment for the Watcher, but in this episode, Strange’s turn to the dark side gives with cosmic being reason to express a specific kind of concern to the audience… mostly.

Even though his power grows, the more demons Strange consumes, the farther off his intended path he becomes. As just the Sorcerer Supreme, he had no real awareness of the Watcher’s existence, but as this episode progresses, there are a handful of moments where Strange seems to sense that he’s being watched by an unforeseen presence, and it’s unclear whether the Watcher ever anticipated the void staring back at him.

Screenshot: Disney+/MarvelScreenshot: Disney+/Marvel

The final stretch of this episode gets a bit messy as it remembers that it has more than a bit of plot to succinctly wrap up. After spending decades to become a dark, demonic version of himself powerful enough to fight and consume parts of a hydra monster similar to the one from What If’s premiere, Strange finds himself stronger than ever but, unbeknownst to him, incomplete thanks to a spell the Ancient One cast on him.

By harnessing the energies of the Dark Dimension, the Ancient One split their universe’s timeline in two, creating two Doctors Strange within the same universe. On paper, this muddles up the MCU’s multiverse in ways that are worth discussing in-depth later, but for the sake of this episode it all boils down to there being two Stranges who are fated to duke it out at the end of everything.

From the dark Strange’s perspective, reuniting with his “good” half, who chose to put Christine’s death behind him, would finally make them both powerful enough to defy the laws of magic and be reunited with Christine. The other, more sensible Strange recognises his counterpart as the grieving madman that he is, and in a story with a bit more room to breath, the buildup to their battle might have been something truly memorable. Of note: as an animated show, you’d think What If might serve up some of the MCU’s more impressive magical action sequences, but both Strange’s confrontation with the Ancient One and the bigger battle toward the end of the episode feel like disappointing quick time events.

As much as there is to be said about what What If portends for the MCU’s future narratively, what’s become clearer as the season’s progressed is how safe the creative team seems insistent on playing things, visually. But while the battle itself isn’t much to write home about, what happens after the Dark Strange overcomes his good half and actually resurrects Christine is worth sitting with.

By tapping into every drop of demonic essence and wholly ignoring every warning he was given, the now-complete Strange is able to “save” Christine, but is transformed into a winged, Lovecraftian horror in the process. To make things worse, the reality the monstrous Strange and a confused Christine find themselves is in a crumbling mess where they appear to be the only beings left alive. Without Christine’s death supporting the weight of the universe as it was meant to, reality begins to collapse in on itself, to Strange’s alarm. As he tries to hold the encroaching nothingness back, the Watcher finally steps in to have a word with him.

Screenshot: Disney+/MarvelScreenshot: Disney+/Marvel

Even if the Watcher could do something, he understands that it’d be both pointless and very dangerous to the multiverse given that the death of Strange’s universe was guaranteed by his own hubris and unwillingness to listen to everyone’s warnings about messing around with demons. In his final moments, Strange does come around to the idea that he messed up big time, and that his mistakes have consequences that reach far beyond him, but he’s helpless to stop the void from consuming everything except for the small bubble of energy he wraps around himself.

This episode ends rather abruptly as if to underscore the gravity of the dark Strange’s mistake. But so much of this season has felt like the buildup to disparate storylines intersecting, so this also just feels like the setup to What If’s spin on Marvel Zombies. If that’s the case, then it also stands to reason that the series is set to get markedly darker and more serious as the final five episodes unfurl, which could certainly be a boon for the show. But even now, What If still feels like it’s finding its voice.

What If airs Wednesdays on Disney+