After weeks of increasing sophistication, What If…? steps back to a simpler question as it asks “What if Doctor Strange actually cared about Dr. Christine Palmer?”
(Beware of spoilers from this point on)
The answer does not lead to the spectacular possibilities of the previous two weeks — or the wonderful mystery of last week’s episode — but it still gives the program’s animation department a chance to shine. Doctor Strange visuals are always a feast for the eyes and the increasingly demonic imagery in the episode is one of its delights. Also, the eventual showdown between Strange and “Dark Strange” is full of the mystical pyrotechnics live action productions shy away from. That’s the good.
The bad, unfortunately, is the week’s fundamental question. A more generous reading of the plot may reveal that Strange’s (Benedict Cumberbatch) obsession is, as it has always been, his need to fix things. But The Watcher’s (Jeffrey Wright) narration, comments from Wong (Benedict Wong), the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) and even O’Bengh (Ike Amadi) suggest this version of Strange genuinely loved Christine (Rachel McAdams) — a notion that seems downright silly considering how little she mattered to the actual Doctor Strange film. Also, presenting her as Strange’s “heart” also feels oddly reductive.
All that said, this may be the first episode of What If…? to lean into possibilities for the mainline Marvel Cinematic Universe. For one: Dark Strange actually talks to The Watcher. And, once again, he invokes his prohibition against interfering. We know that won’t always be the case once he starts looking at the main MCU, but it is interesting to see his compassion leak through here. Also, for all the Internet theories about Mephisto, Dark Strange’s absorption of demonic entities — including Shuma-Gorath — and his appropriate of Beelzebub’s cloak puts him in the odd position of actually becoming Mephisto. If he is the last entity in his universe, he suddenly has a motivation to steal energy from other realities and always couching it in undoing some other person’s mistake sure gives it a whole devil’s bargain air to things. Granted, we could just be reading too much into the episode.
Indeed, we can’t help but wonder if Cagliostro, the only sorcerer to undo an Absolute Point in time, is another manifestation of He Who Remains (Jonathan Majors).
But none of these ideas make up for the episode’s odd thinness. Strange’s ego is his ultimate enemy and it could doom all of creation … and yet, it just doesn’t seem as compelling as T’Challa bringing compassion to the wider universe or the murder of the Avengers. We will give the episode credit for actualizing the doom Strange can cause even if the story is, overall, underwhelming.
What If…? streams Wednesdays on Disney+