Marvel’s What If…? has shined this season because of its ability to put characters of the MCU in new stories while still understanding the fundamental essence of those characters. Unfortunately Episode 4, “What If… Doctor Strange Lost His Heart Instead of His Hands?” misses the mark in that regard.
The title is not literal, instead referring to a scenario where Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams) dies in Stephen Strange’s (Benedict Cumberbatch) car accident instead of him severely injuring his hands. It’s his grief over Christine, not his career, that leads him to seek out the mystical arts.
On the surface, it’s not a terrible story although a little derivative. Doctor Strange messes with time over and over again, but each result is the same: Christine always dies.
The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) refers to Christine’s death as an absolute point, something that can’t be changed or it puts the whole multiverse at risk. Again, this is another common storytelling idea in science fiction.
The problem is that nothing about the character’s history in the MCU makes us think he would actually do this. What If…? invites us to rely on our understanding of these characters from their live-action appearances but seems to have forgotten that on this episode.
Christine Palmer is best known to MCU fans as the role that wasted Rachel McAdams’ talent, not as the love of Doctor Strange’s life.
Doctor Strange is certainly egotistical enough to think he can change time despite many warnings, but it just doesn’t seem likely that the Doctor Strange we know would be driven that mad by grief. This episode puts more effort into showing their relationship as something worth rooting for than the entire feature-length film did.
Wanda created a whole fictional world so she could stay with Vision. Tony sacrificed himself knowing it protected Pepper and Morgan’s future. Steve stayed in the past so he had a chance with Peggy.
Marvel Studios may not be the best at romances, but we do have plenty of far superior examples of Marvel couples where this kind of extreme behavior would make sense. Christine and Doctor Strange don’t even crack a top ten list.
In the episode’s defense, there are some great action sequences. When Evil Doctor Strange absorbs monster after monster it’s downright creepy. His faceoff with his past counterpart rivals anything we’ve seen on the show (the mystic arts really pop in an animated form).
The most shocking part of the episode comes at the end, after all hope is lost and Evil Doctor Strange has destroyed his universe. He turns to The Watcher and begs for his help.
This is the first time The Watcher has communicated with anyone aside from the audience, so it’s fascinating to see that interaction even if it just ends with The Watcher repeating that he can’t interfere. Even though he’s angry at this Doctor Strange, there’s nothing he can do.
This episode focuses heavily on the multiverse and the impact of magic on it. If Doctor Strange can see The Watcher, then maybe there’s a chance the character also shows up in Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness.
Or not. Marvel will always leave us asking “What if…?” any time the multiverse is involved.
What did you think of this episode? Let us know in the comments.
New episodes of What If…? premiere on Wednesdays on Disney Plus.