Marvel Mondays – What If…?: Episode 4

Plot summary: Doctor Strange goes to increasingly dark ends to prevent the recurring death of Christine Palmer.

Notes

Episode Title: ‘What If… Doctor Strange Lost His Heart Instead of His Hands?’

Air Date: September 1st, 2021

Directed: Bryan Andrews (4)

Written: A.C. Bradley (3)

The dragon Strange absorbs is styled after Smaug from the 1967 version of The Hobbit, in a nod to Cumberbatch voicing him in 2013.

Intentionally or not, another of the creatures is similar to DC’s Raven in her mystical form. It even has many sets of eyes like when she transforms into a demon.

Leslie Bibb makes her first (brief) appearance since Iron Man 2 as Christine Everhart (the reporter who sleeps with Tony), announcing Chrstine Palmer’s death on the news.

O’Bengh, the librarian character who tells Strange he is not Cagliostro… in fact is the legendary sorcerer in disguise in the comics.

Recap

Stephen Strange picks up his girlfriend Christine Palmer to take her to a dinner celebration where he’s to make a speech. He gets into a car accident on the way and she is killed.

Devastated, Strange trained in the mystic arts not to fix his hands, but to try and bring her back to life. He becomes the Sorcerer Supreme as before, but still overcome by grief, he uses the Eye of Aggamotto to rewind time to the night of the crash.

However, no matter what Strange tries, Christine keeps dying, even when he takes a different route, lets her drive instead or avoids the night out altogether.

Eventually The Ancient One appears to him from beyond the grave to tell him that Christine’s death is an “Absolute Point in time” and absolutely nobody can change it. She warns that his current path will only end in destruction, but he flees before she can take action against him.

Locating the lost Library of Cagliostro, Strange learns from its forbidden books that absorbing the magic of other beings will give him the strength required to defy fate.

We’re treated to a montage of him consuming increasingly larger mystical creatures over the course of centuries, corrupting his physical form in the process, culminating in the many tentacles of a familiar creature that Captain Carter battled.

Still short on power, ‘Strange Supreme’ realises that The Ancient One split him into two beings at the moment of his escape, so he confronts his ‘good’ self.

The two Strange’s (and their enchanted capes) fight and are initially evenly matched, but Strange Supreme eventually overwhelms his counterpart and absorbs him.

The monstrous Strange summons Christine back to life but she is horrified by what he has become, and he throws a magical temper tantrum as reality itself begins to crumble around them.

Strange appeals directly to The Watcher, who chastises him for failing to heed the various warnings and refuses to interfere. The entire universe (and Christine) dissolves, with only Strange Supreme left in an endless void.

Review

To be honest, I’m shocked to hear this was a lot of people’s favourite episode to date. I understand that stories about grief are appealing, and the notion of a man going to the ends of the universe to defy fate is romantic, but to buy into either idea would be to overlook some massive failings past and present. Chiefly the romance aspect.

I chose my words carefully in the paragraph above, because you would need to ignore the events as presented in the MCU to make the Stephen/Christine story work… yet the entire episode hinges on it. They have a past, he cold-shoulders her after his accident, they rekindle some sense of spark when he grows up a bit, but are not together at the end of the movie and she has not even been mentioned since. Would it shock you if she did not return for the sequel? (She is slated to, but you get my point.) So to pretend this is one the MCU’s grandest love stories and to depict how compeltely broken he is over the loss could not ring more false to me. Couple that with the fact a character that was already under-served (at best and disrespected at worst) gets repeatedly ‘fridged’, stuck in a constant death-loop and serving no purpose but to cause pain that justifies evil actions by a man, and I might go as far as to say this episode is offensive.

My assumption is that some of the praise is also due to Strange’s popularity in general. People like magic and trippy visuals. Heck, I like magic and trippy visuals. I like what the character can bring to the table for team-ups and the different corner of the multiverse he plays in, but his solo film was middling and he barely contributes to Endgame. That being said, the cautionary look into the darker side of magic was far and away the best aspect for me, with Strange going farther and farther off the reservation as he subsumes increasingly larger demonic entities. The art team clearly had a lot of fun with the gothic body horror, which is a hell of a lot of fun to freeze-frame, but tricky to capture the essence of in still images. It reminded me of some of my favourite Strange stories, trying to control malevolent forces for benevolent reasons. In fairness, the music was fantastic as well, the best in the series so far.

I also would like to give them props for again breaking the assumed format by having the entire endeavour end in failure. Strange amasses all that power, defeats his ‘good’ self, but the paradox destroys his entire universe and he’s left to drift into oblivion. He even becomes the first character in the show to interact with The Watcher, first hearing a faint whisper of the narration and dismissing it, but later engaging him in a full dialogue.

I want to be really into all these positives, but I simply can’t get past the episode’s fundamentally disingenuous premise. They simply did not earn any of this, and I’m left wondering ‘What If Doctor Strange Were a Better Film?’

Most Marvellous Player

Given this is the smallest voice cast to date, our options are severely limited. That isn’t helped by how aggressively fine they all were. With a magic wand to my head, I’d pick Benedict Cumberbatch, but it falls short of even his live action Doctor Strange work, to say nothing of his non-Marvel roles. Some of the lines sound phoned-in, flat or forced, while other moments are genuinely emotionally affecting. I think it’s a good performance overall, I just wish it were a more consistent and emphatic one.

Rachel McAdams probably gets in as many lines here as she does in a two-hour movie, and is good at her job, but every charming, breathy word out of her mouth makes me angry with them for this entire mess all over again. Benedict Wong has become one of the MCU’s better supporting characters, good both for a laugh and a stern warning/piece of sage wisdom. I enjoyed the scene where he helps ‘Good’ Strange prepare even if it was short. All I’ll say about Tilda Swinton is she can act in her sleep.

It is arguably Jeffrey Wright’s best work to date, giving him both sombre narration and some actual conversation with another character. I hope his role continues to expand, as he’s been a bit of a waste so far.

Villain Watch

Oh hey, the hero is the villain! What a concept! Obviously, Stephen is a little bit of a prick in the movies, even after his hero’s journey; an arrogant, selfish man who offends almost everybody he meets. So the logic is perfectly sound that it would only take a slight push to send him down a dark path to becoming ‘Strange Supreme’, becoming a literal monster that ends up destroying an entire reality because he thinks he knows best. The art design is incredible, with his many appendages appearing and vanishing at choice moments, but still noticeably different to ‘Good’ Strange when in ‘human’ form. Given he survives the events of this episode but his reality does not, it seems a safe bet that he’ll return and attempt to redeem himself with the ‘What If Avengers’ at the end of the series. Also, let the Mephisto speculation continue on forever, apparently.

The tentacle monster from the first episode, Shuma-Gorath (or another of its species), makes a return appearance, which adds further fuel to the fires of it appearing in some form in Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness. It’s still a giant cephalopod and those are either your bag or you’re well-adjusted.

Plugs

Check out The Matt Signal, in which I recap episodes of Batman the Animated Series every Saturday and Sunday. This weekend it’s finally time to get started… on Batman Beyond.

There Will Be Movies continues each Wednesday, as Ben Phillips and I talk about 25 of our favourite movies from the 90s. This week we discuss Chungking Express.

Published by

Matt Waters

Brit dude who likes both things AND stuff and has delusions of being some kind of writer or something. Basketball, video games, comic books, films, music, other random stuff.

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