FULL SPOILERS AHEAD
I know I said that last week’s episode, “What If the World Lost Its Mightiest Heroes?” was my new favorite episode of What If…?, but that’s no longer the case. “What If Doctor Strange Lost His Heart Instead of His Hands?” continues the series’ fine tradition of clunky episode titles, but it delivers a compelling tale of love and loss that also actually involves the Watcher! You know, the omniscient narrator of the whole thing? He gets to actually do something! Kind of.
This episode sort of exists around the events of Doctor Strange, showing a tweaked origin of the Sorcerer Supreme and then cutting to some time after the the film. As the title figuratively suggests, in this universe Stephen Strange (Mr. Benedict Cumberbatch) has his girlfriend Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams) in the car with him when he has his serious accident. He comes out more or less fine, but she’s immediately fridged. I’ll get into that later, but know that she died. A short montage shows that Strange learns the mystic arts in an attempt to get her back, and along the way happens to save the world from Dormammu. But once things quiet down, Stephen has too much time on his hands. Literally in this case, as he realizes he can use the Eye of Agamotto (AKA the Time Stone) to go back and save Christine. The problem is that the universe wants her dead. Really, really wants her dead. They take a different route? Car accident regardless. They stay in? A gunman shoots her down or she has a heart attack. He leaves her alone thinking that maybe he’s cursed? Her building fucking explodes. The Ancient One (I was really surprised they got Tilda Swinton back)–who at this point in time isn’t dead yet–explains that Christine’s death is an Absolute Point in time. Okay, we went from Final Destination to Doctor Who. See, the dominos that end in Strange saving the world begin with Christine’s death, so to undo it would create a paradox that would destroy the entire universe. This doesn’t sit well with Stephen, who ends up getting blasted by the Ancient One after he got aggressive, but he teleports away. He finds the Lost Library of Cagliostro guarded by someone who’s definitely not actually Cagliostro pulling a Yoda where he pretends not to be the person the hero is searching for (Ike Amadi). Believing he needs more power, Strange starts summoning otherworldly entities and absorbing them into himself, something that clearly can’t be good for his insides, both physical and metaphysical. He even takes some of the tentacles of the Shuma-Gorath thing from “What If Captain Carter Were the First Avenger?”! Centuries go by in his little pocket dimension until he’s powerful and twisted enough to try and break time, but not-Cagliostro tells him he’s only half a man. Again, this time literally as we find out the Ancient One’s blast separated Stephen’s timeline in two, so that while the twisted sorcerer was gaining dark powers, a different version just decided not to tempt fate and time back at the beginning of the episode. Unfortunately, the actions of Dark Strange–that’s what I call him–is destroying reality, including Wong (Benedict Wong) who also is in the episode. The two Doctors fight, but the whole “centuries of absorbing powerful entities” gives the Dark Strange an edge and he manages to absorb his double. He manages to go back and save Christine, but now he looks like a demonic hybrid of all the entities he absorbed, terrifying his resurrected love. Oh, and reality is also destroyed. Dark Strange is powerful enough to actually see the Watcher (Jeffrey Wright) and begs for help to undo his mistake. But the Watcher is forbidden from interfering and this universe is destroyed, leaving only Stephen Strange alive in a time and/or dimensional bubble, presumably forever.
This episode is partly why I believe that What If…? has a greater narrative than just independent, non-connected episodes. Not only because the Watcher actually dipped his toe into the water of interacting with the people of Earth, but because the trailer for the series shows Dark Strange meeting Captain Carter. Now, this could’ve been made specifically for the trailer–something somewhat similar happened with Avengers: Infinity War where the trailer removed the Infinity Stones in Thanos’s Gauntlet–but maybe Dark Strange isn’t trapped forever. Without a universe to call his own, it could be possible that he travels to another. And it would make sense that this is all connected! The direct implication–and some executive probably explicitly said this somewhere–is that this series is possible because of the branching multiverse created at the end of Loki. The stories are familiar to use because they probably branched off of the MCU’s timeline, as versus a potential world where dinosaurs never died, or something not related to Earth’s heroes.
The episode was not perfect, however. The animation rubbed me the wrong way again when I started focusing on the Ancient One’s mouth when she talked. It’s not natural looking at all. And I mentioned “fridging” earlier, so I suppose I should explain that. Once upon a time over at DC Comics, Green Lantern Kyle Rayner had a girlfriend named Alex DeWitt. She was only in a couple issues before she got killed by a villain named Major Force in Green Lantern #54 (1994), who stuffed her corpse into Kyle’s fridge. This didn’t sit well with a lot of people, especially prolific comic writer Gail Simone who catalogued a list of female characters in comics who had significant stories where their role was to suffer so that their heroic boyfriends would feel sad. That’s where Women in Refrigerators and the term “fridging” came from. Christine has a relatively minor role in Doctor Strange, so it’s unfortunate that her second appearance in the entire franchise is dying over and over again to further the story of Stephen Strange losing control. I’m not comfortable calling it blatant sexism–the writer of the episode, AC Bradley, is a woman–but it does perpetuate a negative trend in comics.
So who–or what–exactly is the Watcher. Hopefully you readers haven’t grown to hate the phrase “in the comics,” but in the comics he is a member of an ancient alien race that, well, watches the universe. Their vow to never interfere comes from an incident where they gave knowledge of nuclear power to a planet, only to watch as that world destroy itself. What kind of idiots would abuse nuclear weapons, am I right? The Watcher of Earth was named Uatu and kind of sucked at his job. He would constantly appear and loom over Earth’s heroes right before some destructive event–a bit of a cheap way to say that this is a very important story–and he even helped out a time or two. Or 337 times, according to Eternals #5 (2008). He was killed by the white Nick Fury who stole his eyes, but Uatu was apparently resurrected in the current Fantastic Four run. Have I mentioned comics are dumb? Comics are dumb. However, the show seems to have a very different Watcher. Uatu was one of many Watchers, tasked with watching Earth; that tracks with the post-credits scene in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. But this show seems to imply there is one Watcher watching over the entire multiverse. Maybe things will be clarified in upcoming episodes.
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