We are nearing the halfway mark to the episode run of “What If…?” Marvel Studios’ animated spinoff anthology on Disney+. Over the past weeks we have seen Jeffrey Wright’s cosmic character The Watcher present stories on universes parallel to the MCU film series, where events happen differently due to even the smallest divergences. The episodes have gone from minimal alterations (“Captain Carter”) to big changes (early death of most of the would-be Avengers). The conclusions have varied in tone, with positive yet foreboding, to bittersweet yet hopeful. And that was only in the first three episodes. Episode 4 however, comes as an epic gut punch.
Let us peek into “What If…Doctor Strange Lost His Heart Instead of His Hands?” featuring the return of Benedict Cumberbatch as Doctor Stephen Strange, before his big-screen live-action sequel next year. And Cumberbatch has quite the challenge with the alternative character of Strange, who does not get crippled as in canon but suffers an arguably worse loss. The divergence in this timeline is that Strange and his fellow surgeon/love interest Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams) were in the car together in that fateful accident, leading to Stephen’s survival and her death.
Much affected by his loss, Strange follows the Sacred Timeline a bit by seeking answers in the mystical complex of Kamar-Taj. He studies the mystic arts under the Ancient One (Tilda Swanton) and Wong (Benedict Wong), and all seems fairly uneventful until Stephen encounters the Eye of Agamotto. Upon discovering that the mystic artifact can control time (aside glance to “Avengers: Infinity War”), Strange decides to use its power to undo Palmer’s death despite the Ancient One and Wong’s warnings. Attaining his goal seems easy enough, but for some reason Palmer never stays alive for very long, dying many different deaths but always, assuredly, dying.
Herein pops up the concept of the “Nexus Point” or “Universal Constant,” aka an event in a universe’s history that will consistently happen even if other events in the timeline are altered. In that “What-If” universe, Christine Palmer’s death was set in stone. But poor stubborn Doctor Strange will never admit defeat. Out of foreboding, the Ancient One uses her powers to split the timeline. As she fears, while one branch’s Stephen learns to accept the inevitable and move on the other version finds greater power by absorbing magical beings into himself to become Strange Supreme. Now the Ancient One must guide “good” Strange to battle Strange Supreme with the universe’s very existence at stake. Even the Watcher gets involved. How? Why? No more; that would be telling too much.
Benedict Cumberbatch is in good form returning to the mantle of Doctor Strange even in a what-if, and even gets some nuance in differentiating the two versions of his alternate self when the timeline is diverged. Quite a lot of the original “Doctor Strange” film cast from 2016 return to reprise their roles, even Rachel McAdams despite the necessity of her minimal screen-time here. How the fantastic psychedelic mystic art effects transition from live-action to animation depends upon the eye of the viewers. Good enough or terribly watered-down? You decide.
This grim alternate timeline is easily one of the high points of “What If…?” yet presented, and will be the latest standard to hold the remaining episodes against. It also seems to serve as a teaser for that “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” due to come to theaters in March 22. One can only hope it is possible to watch the thing in a cinema by that time. Meanwhile, five more episodes are left to catch on Marvel’s “What If..?” with new episodes arriving Wednesdays on Disney+ streaming.
Image from Comic Book Resources