Following last week's Avengers murder mystery, the fourth episode of Marvel Cinematic Universe animated series What If... ? dropped onto Disney Plus Wednesday. This installment of the reality-hopping show brought us into a timeline where a grieving Doctor Stephen Strange gathered immense magical power in a selfish quest.
The omniscient Watcher (Jeffrey Wright) reveals the answer to the question: What If... Doctor Strange Lost His Heart Instead of His Hands?
Sorcerer Supreme SPOILERS incoming.
A different wound
This episode diverges from the mainline MCU early in Strange's 2016 solo movie. Instead of traveling to his speaking conference alone and having his hands horribly injured in a car crash, fellow surgeon and lover Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams) is with him. She's killed in the crash, which pushes Strange to learn the mystic arts.
He initially follows the same path as his mainline counterpart, defeating interdimensional being Dormammu and setting up as Sorcerer Supreme in the New York City Sanctum Sanctorum. Reality shifts further when he uses the power of the Time Stone to travel back to the night Christine died and tries to change that event.
The many deaths of Christine Palmer
No matter what Strange does or how many times he repeats that night, Christine dies. Here are a few ways we see it go down:
- A car thunders up behind Strange's Lamborghini, slamming into it and sending them tumbling down a cliff and into the river.
- A truck crashes into them at a Manhattan intersection.
- Christine suffers some kind of fatal medical emergency while dancing with Strange at the event.
- A robber shoots her after she and Strange skip the event to get pizza.
- A tire blows out while they're driving.
- Strange stands her up and goes to a bar, and she's killed when fire breaks out in her building.
- Christine drives instead of Strange, but a speeding car hits them.
Seeing the woman he loves die over and over clearly traumatizes Strange, since he screams "Noooooo!" at the sky -- classic fiction shorthand for "something terrible has happened."
The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) is still alive at this stage in the timeline, and reveals that Christine's death is an Absolute Point in time -- a defining moment that drives events going forward. If he erases that event, he risks wiping out the universe.
Doctor Strange Supreme
During Strange's quest to resurrect Christine, he amasses incredible power by absorbing other mystical beings -- essentially mirroring what Karl Mordo started to do in the Doctor Strange movie's post-credit scene (a plotline that remains unresolved) -- over centuries.
Many of the beings Doctor Strange Supreme absorbs are pretty demonic and cool looking. You know he's gone bad because his goatee and collar are pointier than normal, his skin is paler and he has dark circles around his eyes. Super stylish.
It's also revealed that this empowered Strange isn't the only version of the character in this reality, as the Ancient One appears to an alternate version of Strange who decided against meddling with time.
"I drew upon the power of the Dark Dimension to split the timeline... to split you," she tells the uncorrupted Strange. "Allowing for two of your possible timelines to occur in one universe."
Battle of the Stranges
The good Strange faces off against Strange Supreme, but is defeated after an epic magical battle and absorbed. Now whole, the corrupted, demonic Strange brings Christine back.
Their reunion is brief though; undoing the Absolute Point destroys his reality -- apparently leaving Strange Supreme the only survivor. If he was bitter about Christine's death, he'll no doubt be furious about losing everyone and everything he ever knew.
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His power also gives him sufficient awareness to perceive and communicate with the Watcher, who refuses to interfere lest it put the safety of the multiverse at risk. This suggests that he'll interfere once a multiversal threat emerges.
It's unclear why Strange alone survived, but we last see him trapped in a tiny crystal surrounded by the darkness that was his universe.
"I'm sorry," he says in his despair. "I'm so, so sorry."
This episode could tie into upcoming MCU movies Spider-Man: No Way Home and Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (which are due out this December and March 2022 respectively), and seeing Strange Supreme in live action would be incredible. He'll almost certainly show up again in What If... ? in any case.
Observations, WTF questions and Easter eggs
- This is the first What If... ? reality we've seen being destroyed, though it was hinted that Ego was going to ruin T'Challa Star-Lord's universe in episode 2.
- In the mainline MCU, Christine and Strange had broken up by the time of his accident. He loses the use of his hands in that reality, implying that his talent was the thing he loved most.
- Strange furthers his power by jumping back in time to find the Lost Library of Cagliostro -- in the Doctor Strange movie, it's revealed that the Ancient One used dark magic from the Book of Cagliostro to prolong her own life. She presumably used similar magic to split the timeline in this episode.
- Leslie Bibb returns as journalist Christine Everhart, in the news segment about Christine Palmer's death in a fire. The character showed up in the first two Iron Man movies, and was last seen in the WHIH Newsfront web series, which ran in 2015-16.
- "Sorcerer Armani" is a cool name. It'd probably get Strange sued, though.
- The tentacled beast Strange summons resembles Hydra's champion from episode 1, which was inspired by Abilisk from Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2's opening. It also looks like Shuma-Gorath, an interdimensional villain from Marvel Comics (and the Marvel vs. Capcom games).
- When good Strange protests after being defeated, Strange Supreme says "But we must." This confirms that the beings he absorbed are still in his head, warping his mind further.
Join us for more Easter eggs and observations next Wednesday, Sept. 8, when episode 5 of What If... ? hits Disney Plus.