Marvel's WHAT IF…? S1E4 "WHAT IF…Doctor Strange lost his heart instead of his hands?”
MILD SPOILERS AHEAD. Episode 4 of the 9-episode first season of Marvel’s WHAT IF…? is the darkest story yet, and it’s difficult to imagine how a story could get much darker. So far, each episode has ended with a glimmer of hope, despite how bleak the events might seem when the end credits roll.
Until this week.
In previous episodes, the fate of the world was at stake because of a single change of events…this week, the fate of an entire universe hangs in the balance.
A different twist of a car’s steering wheel is the literal twist in the path of this alternate tale of Dr. Stephen Strange, diverging from the events of the first Doctor Strange movie. This time, instead of losing the use of his hands in the car accident, Strange loses his love, Christine Palmer. This time, the crush of grief is the reason he seeks out mystical answers and becomes the Sorcerer Supreme. Now possessing the Eye of Agamotto (the Time Stone), he has the ability to go back and alter events…but should he? Can he?
While the dilemma of whether or not to go back in time and change the past is not a new story, what Strange must go through is a fresh, horrific tale of obsession and desperation. It seems Christine’s death is one of those “fixed points in time” we hear so much about in sci-fi, which the Ancient One warns is an “Absolute Point.” This point cannot be altered, no matter how hard you try. It’s the universe’s way of preventing really, really, bad things from happening. The Ancient One also introduces an overused comic book and movie trope that doesn't help resolve the story, but adds an excuse for some more action.
This episode is a study on what happens when you find a way to change one of those Absolute Points. What follows for Strange is a long, painful, and immoral process to gather the mystical power to do what should be undoable. It is an impressive extended sequence that actually occurs over many years... beautifully, breathtakingly conceived and animated. Strange's physique suffers, consumed by dark forces (much like the emperor's and Darth Vader's bodies are in the Star Wars saga). The soundtrack is cinematic in its scope and complexity, using soaring chorale voices to evoke cosmic grandeur and danger.
My teenager is fond of saying “It’s punishment for my hubris,” when karma comes to bite them for a mistake in judgment. Karma is the Ultimate Bitch here, coming to bite Strange for his Ultimate Hubris.
The entire voice cast from the Doctor Strange movie returns, and Benedict Cumberbatch is particularly powerful with the range of emotions he has to portray, especially his increasing grief over his inability to prevent Christine’s death.
The animation continues to improve in quality, with Cumberbatch’s likeness and facial expressions being a highlight. And, we finally get to see The Watcher “in the flesh” instead of a ghostly shadow or transparent cosmic cloud, actually interacting with someone he should merely be watching, and not warning.
What If…? became more than an entertaining lark this week…it became full of dark gravitas. It also became Must See TV.
The 9-episode first season of What If…? airs Wednesdays on Disney Plus.