We’re approaching the halfway point of What If…?, and so far the glimpses of an alternative Marvel Cinematic Universe have been positive. Peggy Carter heroically took up the mantle meant for Steve Rogers, T’Challa proved he would be a hero whatever galaxy he is in, and even if the original Avengers were wiped out, Nick Fury had a plan.
This week, things are a little different. Many people have wondered what it would be like if the screen versions of superheroes went to the dark places shown in the comic books. It took seventeen years for Logan to realise the genuine violence and fury of Wolverine’s source material; while some may argue Marvel never had the guts to take on the alcoholism-themed Demon In A Bottle storyline from the Iron Man comics (Iron Man 2 alluded to it). What If doesn’t have the same concerns as a movie, and so can take these ideas a bit further.
“What if the best of intentions have very…Strange consequences?” asks The Watcher (voiced by Jeffrey Wright), overlooking Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) as he takes Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams) out for the evening. In this universe, a car crash doesn’t cost Strange his hands, but his heart, as Christine is killed in the accident.
Stricken with grief, Strange becomes The Sorcerer Supreme via another path, but cannot get over the loss of Christine. Using the Time Stone frivolously, he goes back to try and save her, but a series of multiple attempts only result in Christine dying via different means. The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), who is alive in this Strange’s timeline, informs him that her death is an Absolute Point that cannot be changed, as doing so would destroy the universe.
Someone clearly didn’t tell this to Kevin Feige! The MCU infamously likes to bring dead characters back again and again, so it’s refreshing to see death treated as an end point. It might be too optimistic to suggest this is the studio learning its lesson about death being final (they’ve just released a trailer that brings back Spider-man 2’s Doctor Octopus), but rather a platform for a more poignant story. The time travelling montage is a heart-breaking sequence, that puts across the gravity of his grief, even if what comes next can’t be condoned.
Unwilling to accept this fixed point, Strange travels to the Lost Library of Cagliostro and absorbs the powers of many mystical beings in an effort to gain the knowledge necessary to undo what has been done. The Watcher looks upon him and comments that he wishes to intervene, but cannot, a monologue overheard by Strange himself. He’s also going a bit grey and ominous, signalling the change to Evil Doctor Strange – or rather “misguided”, as The Ancient One puts it.
That nickname will come in handy for the rest of this review, because it’s revealed there is more than one Stephen in this reality – one who decides to stop living in the past. This new Doctor Strange is contacted by The Ancient One, when his world begins to be melting away. He agrees to stop, er, himself, travelling to a melting reality where a warped and powerful Misguided Strange is still trying to make things right.
The pair have an epic battle, where the good version of Strange tries to reason with his twisted counterpart (“this isn’t love, this is arrogance” he bellows). Then, something unusual happens – the good guy loses. The version of Strange that has come to save the day is overpowered and absorbed by Misguided Strange, in a brief and unsettling moment that doesn’t happen enough in mainstream storytelling. It’s the personification of Thanos’ quote: “In time, you will know what it’s like to lose. To feel so desperately that you’re right. Yet to fail all the same”.
The remaining, Misguided Doctor Strange is no winner either. He finds that undoing The Absolute Point destroys all reality, and while Christine is brought back to life in the arms of a hideous version of Doctor Strange, she melts away just as quickly, along with the rest of time. In one last haunting scene, Strange is the lone survivor in a pocket of nothingness, with his cries of “I am so, so sorry” echoing into the darkness.
This week’s What If isn’t the cheeriest. However, it gave us a different kind of ‘What If’ than has been seen so far. Instead of playing with casting, it takes Doctor Strange to a completely different extreme and lets a tragedy unfold that would be too downbeat for cinemas. Taking chances is exactly what made the MCU so enduring, and it’s great to see this new platform continuing that tradition.
It also may give us a peak at what happens in the MCU’s big screen future: during the film’s closing moments, Strange talks to The Watcher, who appears clearer than ever before. The sorcerer begs him to save his reality and punish him instead, only for The Watcher to say he will not interfere as it would put the safety of The Multiverse at risk. As you may recall, Loki, Scarlet Witch, and (if the trailer is anything to go by) Peter Parker will be messing with the timelines very soon. With that in mind, maybe The Watcher will make an appearance in the live action adventures to come.
New episodes of Marvel’s What If…? are available every Wednesday on Disney +.