By Janie Walenda
If there’s anything we’ve learned from Marvel, it’s that superheroes do not cope well with grief. After “Endgame” saw the Avengers time-traveling to save their lost loved ones and “WandaVision” explored Wanda’s mourning process, “What If” episode 4 takes Dr. Strange down a similar path, with decidedly darker results.
In case you’re unfamiliar with this series, let me catch you up. “What If” is an animated series exploring alternate realities of our favorite Marvel stories. The first two episodes were lighthearted stories, focusing on Captain Carter (Peggy Carter if she took the super-soldier serum instead of Steve) and T’Challa as Starlord. These episodes set a precedent with their stunning animations, innovative fight scenes, and clever storytelling. Last week’s episode, which explored what would happen if the Avengers had been assassinated, was a bit lackluster in my opinion, but it did establish how dark this show is willing to go.
“What If” episode 4, titled “What If…Doctor Strange Lost His Heart Instead of His Hands,” follows a grief-stricken Doctor Strange risking everything to bring back the woman he loves. If you don’t remember who that is, don’t worry, cause I didn’t either! Dr. Christine Palmer hasn’t appeared in the MCU since 2016’s “Dr. Strange.” In the movie, she declines Strange’s request to join him at a speaking engagement. In the “What If” version of events, Christine accepts his offer and dies in the car crash that originally crippled Strange and sent him on his journey to becoming Sorcerer Supreme. Like in the movie, Strange still seeks out the mystic arts, defeats Dormammu, and becomes the Sorcerer Supreme. It’s not until the second anniversary of Christine’s death that he makes a choice that changes the main storyline. He has the time stone; surely, he reasons, he can find a way to bring her back.
Like every “What If” episode, the visuals are stunning. My personal favorite shot was the broken glass framing Strange and Christine, which looks just enough like a heart. While in some of the previous episodes I felt a disconnect from the animated character compared to their live-action counterparts, the character designs here truly capture the look of each character while still being in line with the comic-book art style of the series.
In my opinion, there are three standout sequences in this episode. The first was the sequence detailing Strange’s attempts to save Christine. In a tragic, twisted “Groundhog Day”-like scenario, we see that no matter what he does, the outcome remains the same. The montage of Strange growing his power was not only unnerving but was bookended by two revelations that genuinely shocked me. Yet it was the final fight sequence that truly blew me away. Of course, the fight itself was excellent, but it’s the last two minutes that have stuck with me. The scene deftly shifts from horror to shock to tragedy and makes your jaw drop right before the credits roll. While the last reveal has a satisfying payoff, the episode ends on a deeply unsatisfying note, similar to “Infinity War.”
With “Doctor Strange: Multiverse of Madness” coming out next year, is this episode setting up anything for the movie? We know from the “What If” trailers that Strange Supreme (or evil Dr. Strange if you don’t watch with subtitles) and Captain Carter, another prime candidate to show up in live-action, will interact. The weird tentacle monster Shuma-Gorath has shown up twice now and is strongly rumored to be in “Multiverse of Madness.” It’s very possible that “What If” will end with a strong tease for the next phase of Marvel movies.
Ultimately, this episode’s biggest strength is its unexpectedness. Even as Marvel has gotten darker and taken more risks, we still expect our heroes to remain heroes and for our stories to have happy endings. “WandaVision” came close to crossing that line but settled on a melancholically hopeful ending. “What If” episode 4 doesn’t do that. It packs more character development, storytelling, surprises, stunning imagery, and tragedy in 36 minutes than even the best Marvel movies do. It is well worth the watch, as is the rest of the series. In the meantime, brace yourself for this week. We’re getting zombie Avengers.
Janie Walenda is a freshman Global Business major and an A&E writer for Cedars. She enjoys musicals, movies, and rereading the same books ten times.