Let’s Talk about What If…? Episode 1-4
Well, it had to happen sometime. After three full seasons of Marvel programs on Disney+, I finally watched one I didn’t like.
Let’s talk about What If…? episode 1-4, subtitled What If… Doctor Strange Lost His Heart Instead of His Hands?
The Woman in the Refrigerator
You may not know her name, as she’s primarily earned fame as a writer for DC Comics.
However, Gail Simone is among the most significant comic book creators of our era. In truth, I think she’s the best in the industry today…by a solid margin.
Before Simone gained acclaim, she ran a website called Women in Refrigerators. The central premise circles back to a Green Lantern storyline from 1994.
In that comic, Green Lantern’s enemy killed his girlfriend and stuck her in a refrigerator to torture him.
This sort of sexist storytelling uses women as nothing more than tools to advance the plot for male protagonists.
Unfortunately, this episode of What If…? doubles as Women in Refrigerators: The Series.
The story centers on Dr. Stephen Strange, who once again suffers a car accident. This time, Dr. Christine Palmer joins him on the ride.
Instead of Strange’s hands suffering permanent damage, the doctor loses his girlfriend.
I already struggle with the concept, as Dr. Strange the movie goes out of its way to demonstrate that Strange is an absentee boyfriend.
The doctor cares more about his craft than human relationships. It’s integral to the plot. Here, Palmer is the most important thing in his life.
In fact, the loss of this character drives Strange to the brink of madness…and several steps beyond.
A Different Path to the Same Destination
The symmetry of Strange’s life is that he still winds up at Kamar-Taj, learning from The Ancient One and Wong.
The latter individual even senses that Strange sometimes contemplates time travel and resetting Palmer’s fate.
Wong sternly warns his friend not to take this path, knowing that this trajectory will end in tears.
Still, some of Strange’s heroics overcome the loss, at least for a time. An animated eyeball is proof enough that Dormammu accepts Strange’s bargain.
By all accounts, this version of Strange earns the title of Sorcerer Supreme as well.
Alas, the temptation of the Eye of Agamotto proves too enticing. Strange spends the second anniversary of Palmer’s death thinking about how to fix things.
This part of the story totally tracks. Strange is a fixer by nature, a defiant and arrogant man who refuses to accept that anything is beyond his power.
That very overconfidence proves his undoing, although not before Christine Palmer dies several more times.
The premise here is that her death functions as an Absolute Point in this universe, akin to the Nexus Event we discussed during WandaVision.
Nexus Events possess multiple branches depending on someone’s decision. However, absolute Points share the same outcome no matter what.
A fixed point supersedes the Eye of Agamotto’s ability to roll back time.
As such, the conceit of several minutes of this episode is Dr. Palmer dying in car wrecks.
After a while, the Ancient One visits Strange and offers her help. She indicates that “This is where it starts for you.”
That statement takes on a deeper meaning later in the episode. But, for now, she references that the car points him in the direction of magic use.
A Different Kind of Research
The Ancient One refuses to assist her protégé in his quest to reset the timeline. Instead, she flatly tells him it’s impossible.
So, the good (?) doctor heads out to find the author of some lost tomes.
Collectively, they’re the work of Sorcerer Cagliostro, who discovered a way to break Absolute Points.
Strange meets O’Bengh, the keeper of this collection.
It’s…a big library. Of course, Strange is a sorcerer. So, he can consume knowledge quickly. It looks sorta like this:
One document suggests that Strange needs to gain the power unusually – through “the absorption of other beings.”
Yeah, this is when the episode takes a turn. It goes all-in on dark mysticism, leading to an awkward few minutes of television.
Strange starts with an uninterested Lovecraftian squid, similar to Captain Carter’s foe in an earlier What If…? episode.
This creature casually dismisses Strange’s sincere request. So, the Sorcerer Supreme goes dark. He starts consuming smaller beings.
Now, they’re presumably all quite evil. Still, this feels like a sequence from a Necronomicon cartoon, not Marvel.
Eventually, Strange absorbs enough beings that he can actually defeat the earlier squid.
In between, The Watcher speaks for the first time. He notes that he could intercede. In doing so, he’d risk the fate of all other universes, though.
The Watcher also correctly deduces that Strange is beyond listening to advice from wise people. He’s lost his way.
Twenty minutes into the episode, we know that Dr. Stephen Strange has lost his soul due to his thirst for power.
Obviously, a “twist” is in the offing. In this instance, The Ancient One has split him in twain, creating Strange Twins.
We’ve watched the evil version this whole time. Meanwhile, the “hero” version decided not to mess with time travel.
When he wakes up the morning after the second anniversary of Dr. Palmer’s death, he notices that corruption has bled into this world.
At this point, The Ancient One, who is currently dead, appears as a “splinter” or an “echo” of her former self.
Somehow, this dead thing can project herself into the story enough to inform Hero Strange of what Living Ancient One did. It’s…patently absurd.
Anyway, The Ancient One explains that she split the timeline, creating two different Stranges to line in one universe. Seems bad. How is that any better than what Strange did?
Anyway again, this entire bit of exposition exists to build to a fight between Strange Twins.
Hero Strange must battle his dark half because the fabric of reality is tearing.
Here’s where the twist comes into play. Evil Strange defeats and then consumes Hero Strange.
You may think that Hero Strange will then overcome Evil Strange from inside. Oh no, it’s not that type of story.
My wife briefly speculated that we could be seeing an evil Dr. Strange who later appears in Spider-Man: No Way Home. That…would have been better.
Let’s Talk about What If: The Ironic Twist
One of the running themes in What If…? comic books is that the ending features some sort of surprise.
This episode follows the same playbook. When Strange the Absorber wins, he turns back time to save Christine Palmer.
However, she cannot recognize him, as his appearance takes on the form of the various monsters he’s swallowed.
So, Christine has a near-death experience wherein she worries that she has gone to Hell.
Evil Strange tries to reassure her, but she understandably pulls away in fear.
Everything starts to implode…and I mean EVERYTHING. This entire universe begins to implode.
One fascinating sequence takes place as Evil Strange holds the collapsing universe together.
Suddenly, Strange stares up into the sky and asks The Watcher to stop this tragedy from unfolding.
The rather judgmental Watcher blames Strange for everything. The animation is perfect for this sequence.
Eventually, the seemingly omnipotent being states that he would happily punish Strange while saving the universe.
For whatever reason, that’s not possible, though. The Watcher indicates that meddling with events only leads to more destruction.
That statement is probably the mission statement of Phases Four and Five of the MCU. So, please remember that he said it during this otherwise disappointing episode.
The story ends with the collapse of the universe. So, that’s two straight weeks where happy endings weren’t on the menu…and three out of four episodes so far.
Overall, I’d give this episode a D. It actually got worse on the second viewing. If you liked it, I’m glad, though. Love what you love, my friends!