It was only a matter of time before the Sorcerer Supreme got involved in the multi-dimensional hijinks on Marvel's What If...? Dr. Stephen Strange is the focus of Episode 4, and guess what? He makes everything worse.
The Strange depicted here has a different origin than the one we know from the main Marvel Cinematic Universe. Doctor Strange shows him learning the mystic arts to try and heal his broken hands. The car accident that befell him in that movie happens in this episode, but the key difference here is that he's not alone in the car.
As the Watcher himself says, "We have watched how one moment, one choice can ripple across space and time, giving birth to new stories, heroes, whole universes. But what if it’s the wrong choice? What if the best of intentions has very strange consequences?” Strange consequences indeed, to the point where the Watcher himself is asked to intervene.
***WARNING: From this point on, there will be spoilers for Episode 4 of Marvel's What If...? If you haven't watched yet, what if you stopped reading this right now.***
The title of this episode is, “What if… Doctor Strange Lost His Heart Instead of His Hands?” and metaphorically that’s exactly what happens at the beginning. Dr. Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams) is in the car with Stephen (Benedict Cumberbatch), and they’re not estranged at all. They are very much in love, but too bad, here comes that car accident. Strange’s hands are fine! Christine is dead.
In case we didn’t get what was different here, the Watcher (Jeffrey Wright) lets us know: “In this universe, Stephen Strange didn’t lose his hands, but his heart.” It’s Christine’s death that leads Strange to Kamar-Taj, where he comes across the Eye of Agamotto, discovered by Cagliostro. Can he use it for time travel and save Christine? Both Wong (Benedict Wong) and The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) chide him for the thought.
He goes on to become the Sorcerer Supreme and defeats Dormammu (he comes to bargain), but two years later he’s not over Christine. It’s Rachel McAdams, we wouldn’t be either. Up late one night, Wong tells him not to do anything reckless.
What if… Strange ignored that advice and did many reckless things? He uses the Eye to return to the night of the accident, but no matter how he drives it still happens. If they get pizza instead, Christine dies at gunpoint. If he doesn’t show up at all, a news broadcast given by Christine Everhart (Leslie Bibb from Iron Man and Iron Man 2) lets him know that she still dies.
“Why does this keep happening? Aren’t we allowed to be happy?” he asks as she drives the car in another attempt. “I only want you, you’re the only thing that matters.” No dice, she still ends up dead. The Ancient One eventually appears and tells Strange that she can’t bring her back, no one can. “Her death is an Absolute Point in time.”
It is unchangeable and unmovable. “Without her death, you would never have defeated Dormammu…” she continues, “…and become the Sorcerer Supreme, and the guardian of the Eye of Agamotto. If you erase her death, you never start your journey.” He isn’t listening. “I only require more power,” he says.
“Stephen, this path only leads to darkness and the end of this reality,” she answers, before attacking him. He transports out however and ends up in the jungle, looking for the Lost Library of Cagliostro. Nothing bad ever happened from reading a book!
He meets a figure named O’Bengh (Ike Amadi), and in Marvel Comics this is possibly the name of Cagliostro himself. Big Cag supposedly knew how to break an Absolute point in time, so that’s the ticket for Strange. Within an inner sanctum, Strange reads that the power needed is immense, but that he can “gain the power through the absorption of other beings.”
What if… things got really really bad? Strange conjures a portal and out comes a tentacle monster, one that looks very similar to the HYDRA beast from the first episode of this series. It tosses Strange around, and O’Bengh tries to get through to him: “Mystic beings do not bargain. Their powers are not meant for man.”
O’Bengh continues his parade of wisdom. “Is she worth the pain? A man does not suffer like this for his own glory,” he says, adding, “There is a fine line between devotion and delusion. Love can break more than your heart. It can shatter your mind.” He didn’t learn that from any book, he learned that from living life bro.
What if… Strange wasn’t really listening? His only real response is that if the beings he conjures don’t willingly give up their power, he’ll take it.
“Let’s start small,” he says, conjuring a living garden gnome. He absorbs it, steals a purple cape from a bug, and then goes on a bender. A multi-eyed bird, a dragon, a giant two-headed ram, everything gets absorbed! No waiting! Even the Watcher is put off by this, and we see him physically watching it.
“He’s on the wrong path,” he says, and yeah, no s*** Watcher. “I could warn him, intervene, but the fate of his universe is not worth risking the safety of all others. Besides, I doubt he’ll listen.” He’s right on that one, because days and nights go by, the absorption spree goes on, and even the tentacle monster gets it in the end. When Strange finally leaves the room, O’Bengh is an old man. Strange had been using magic to live for centuries, but O’Bengh chose to live.
“Even in our world, death is part of the plan,” he tells Strange, who responds, “I can’t accept that.” That right there is the heart of this episode which is all about losing your heart. Strange’s inability to accept is the biggest problem here. Even a being with immense powers is still, in many ways, powerless. Failure to accept that will result in, well, all of this.
O’Bengh knows that this Strange is unable to accept things, but he says that maybe another Strange will. Whaaaa? Turns out that when the Ancient One attacked earlier, she split Strange in two. Half of him followed Wong’s advice, and did not go down a reckless path. He leaves the Sanctorum in his red cloak, and sees all of New York vanishing like black ink in an updraft.
The Ancient One comes to clue him in, taking the form of “a psychic impression sent through a splinter in reality.” Who is causing this? “Well, you are,” she says. “And now I have an evil twin?” he responds.
Double the Strange, double sadness, double the fun? If the other Strange succeeds in reversing the Absolute Point (the death of Christine), then there will be a temporal paradox and this universe will be destroyed.
“I fear the only sorcerer powerful enough to stop Dr. Strange is you, Dr. Strange,” she says.
Wong is vanishing, but he gives Strange “the guardian Vishanti heavy-duty protection spell.” In Marvel Comics, the Vishanti were a mystical trio of supreme beings, and Agamotto was one of them.
Now it’s almost time for Strange v. Strange: Dawn of Madness. The corrupted Strange needs the other Strange to finish the job, and takes him to the scene of the car accident. He says that the Ancient One doesn’t get it, and adds, “We love Christine.”
Non-crazy Strange gives a perfect reply: “This isn’t love. Look at this. This is arrogance. This is our need to fix everything.” Though the corrupt one pleads that this will make him whole again, the Strange that can accept things knows otherwise: “Your marbles are long gone. The world however still stands a chance.”Let the magic battle commence! Purple Cape Strange is very powerful, but Red Cape Strange has the spell from Wong. It’s a stunning sequence, with the capes themselves going at it at one point. Corrupt Strange then conjures a vision of Christine who tries to sway the other Strange, but it doesn’t work so he punches him over and over while they fall through the rain. Corrupt Strange wipes the spell of protection away, and absorbs the sane Strange.
He explodes with power, and he resurrects Christine. He also looks like a monstrous beast now, and Christine is scared out of her mind. Back in human form, he rants and raves that he can fix this as the universe breaks down around him. He sees the Watcher, and appeals directly to him.
“You! You can fix this! Please fix this!” he shouts. The Watcher says he was warned, but Strange has read about the Watcher and sensed him. You’re a god. You can undo this,” he pleads.
“I’m not a god. And neither are you,” the Watcher says. Strange asks him to punish him them, not the world, and not Christine. The Watcher responds, “Honestly, if I could fix this, if I could punish you instead, I would. But I can’t interfere. You, more than anyone else, should understand that meddling with time and events only leads to more destruction.”
The universe implodes, and Strange is left with Christine in a small gem, which is the only thing left. Christine herself vanishes, and Strange is left crying and apologizing. “One life, one choice, one moment, can destroy the entire universe,” the Watcher says. Cut to credits.
We thought that this show would get dark at one point, but this is only Episode 4. Despite having to watch Rachel McAdams die about a million times (and see the universe end), it all comes down to acceptance, as we stated earlier. One Strange accepts, and one does not. The one who does seems happier, and as a bonus, he doesn’t go down a path to destroying his reality.
If this was only about broken hands, it would be different. Instead of broken hands, we have a broken heart, and good luck even trying to understand that. The non-accepting Strange thinks that he’s doing it all in the name of love, but his actions are selfish. It’s not love, it is obsession. Even for the Sorcerer Supreme, those two things are easily confused.
New episodes of Marvel’s What If…? stream on Disney+ every Wednesday.