Marvel’s What If…? episode 4 spoilers follow.
What if Marvel’s What If…? is more than just a thought experiment? What if the alternate worlds explored here in Marvel’s latest Disney+ show actually impact the MCU? Since the Sacred Timeline went all wibbly-wobbly at the end of Loki, whole new realities have erupted in every possible direction, and although they’re supposed to be separate from the reality we know, that’s going to change sooner than you might think.
Marvel’s What If…? boss Brad Winderbaum has already said this show is just as important to the MCU as Loki was, suggesting “It’s no coincidence that [it] picks up right after.” But three episodes in, the show hadn’t lived up to that promise.
For all intents and purposes, Marvel’s What If…? continued to feel like a fun but inconsequential side project that’s completely separate to our Marvel universe. However, that’s starting to change now thanks to some huge developments in what’s easily the best and most affecting episode of What If? yet.
Episode four asks us “What If… Doctor Strange Lost His Heart Instead of His Hands?” but the real question is “What can we do to stop our own hearts hurting after that gut-wrencher of an ending?”
But first, to recap. In this world, Dr Christine Palmer died in the car crash that injured our Doctor Strange. Two years on, her loss haunts Stephen, and so, despite everyone telling him not to, the Sorcerer Supreme uses his time stone to go back and save Christine. But that’s easier said than done, because she still ends up dying every time, no matter what he does.
It turns out that Christine’s death is “an absolute point in time.” Without this happening, Doctor Strange would have never defeated Dormammu, which makes her painful demise “unchangeable, unmoveable.”
But Stephen’s gonna Stephen, so he sets out on a journey to gain more power and fix the unfixable, even though the Ancient One warns him that “this path only leads to darkness and the end of this reality.” This reality is an interesting choice of words…
Doctor Strange’s quest soon takes him to the Lost Library of Cagliostro where he discovers the power to absorb other beings, which could finally give him the strength to reverse Christine’s Absolute Point. Cue a bunch of mystical critters who end up getting sucked into Stephen’s face, including what looks like the tentacled monster that fought Captain Carter in episode one. Shuma-Gorath, anyone?
At this point, The Watcher pipes in with a quick side note for us. “[Stephen’s] on the wrong path,” he says. “But intervening to save his universe isn’t worth risking all universes.” All universes, eh? Another interesting choice of words…
Our good Doctor still isn’t powerful enough to bring Christine back, and it turns out that’s because The Ancient One split him into two, allowing the Stephen who didn’t follow this path to co-exist in the same timeline. The plan here was to weaken them both and help crazy Strange see reason.
With a heavy-duty protection spell on his side, the Doctor Strange who didn’t choose that path confronts the misguided one in an epic battle. Unfortunately for this reality (and that adorable cape), “evil” Strange wins. With his power restored, this Stephen does the impossible and brings Christine back to life. But just as The Ancient One warned, doing so comes at a price.
Reversing the Absolute Point ends up destroying this entire reality, including Christine along with it. After realizing what his arrogance has cost him, Doctor Strange begs The Watcher to undo what he’s done. “I’m not a god,” he replies. “And neither are you.” With that, Stephen breaks down as Christine dies again before his very eyes.
“One life, one choice, one moment can destroy the entire universe,” warns The Watcher, leaving us with the most depressing Marvel ending since Spidey snuffed it in the Snap. Through all the tears, it’s hard to see beyond Stephen’s fall from grace, but like The Watcher, taking a step back reveals the wider picture around this moment and what it means for the MCU at large.
When Sylvie and Kang allowed the timeline to explode with an infinite number of new realities, Loki warned us that this will create a multiversal war. The Timekeepers weren’t real, but their idea that the multiverse itself could destroy everything does seem to track still, especially if the new Spider-Man trailer is anything to go by.
There, Doctor Strange, or someone who looks like him, collides different realities together, setting up what we presume to be the “Multiverse of Madness” in Stephen’s own film sequel. The Scarlet Witch will also show up here, which makes sense given that she’s a “Nexus Being” who can alter reality itself. But will she help fix the multiverse or break it further?
That’s a lot to take in for anyone not obsessively following every Marvel project, but the gist here is that the live-action Doctor Strange could easily fall down a similar path. Just like his world collapsed in on itself, the same could happen to our Marvel reality as well thanks to the spell he cast for Spidey.
And what if the events of this episode are partly responsible for the multiverse’s eruption in the first place? As What If’s Brad Winderbaum hinted earlier, it’s no coincidence that Loki, WandaVision, and Spider-Man: No Way Home are all setting up the multiversal war around the same time in their own separate projects before Doctor Strange’s sequel arrives.
It’s also worth noting that we never see the death of this new What If…? Stephen either. As reality disintegrates around him, Doctor Strange remains perfectly intact throughout. So if he can hold off the reality that collapses around him, this misguided version of our hero may even show up again in the Doctor Strange sequel. And that’s also true of anyone else we meet in this show, including Captain Carter and even (queer) Agent Coulson.
As this episode proves, (any version of) Stephen can destroy entire realities, which means that he might be the only one who can end up fixing the multiverse’s collapse too. Or this particular version could instead serve as a warning to us, a glimpse of what the future might hold for our own Doctor Strange if love “shatters his mind”.
Despite its seemingly random premise, Marvel’s What If…? is actually canon according to head writer AC Bradley (via IGN). And while it’s been said that this show is just as important as Loki, episodes like this suggest that this fun little animated series could end up being even more important, and could perhaps even hold the key to Marvel’s entire future.
Marvel’s What If…? is out now on Disney+ with new episodes releasing weekly on Wednesdays.
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