Sunday, May 26, 2024

What If…? Episode 4 Expands The Multiverse More with Strange Supreme

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Where last week’s episode of What If…? showed that there were flaws in the series, this week’s entry exposes some of the larger failings in the larger Marvel Cinematic Universe. On its own, the episode is the most creative yet in the series and is the first to truly expand upon the idea of the multiverse and how it works. Within the context of the MCU, however, the episode exposes a couple of points of weakness in the franchise that need to be left in the past.

What If Doctor Strange had Some Real Character Development?

 What If…Doctor Strange Lost His Heart Instead of His Hands? takes place in a world where Dr. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is not motivated by the loss of his hand functionality to pursue magic, but by the loss of Dr. Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams). In this universe, their relationship is less strained than it is in Doctor Strange, and she tragically dies in the car crash that famously injured his hand in the main timeline of the MCU. 

Uatu watches as Doctor Strange attempts to save Christine's life
Uatu watches as Doctor Strange attempts to save Christine’s life

Despite his initial jaunt into sorcery holding the express purpose of bringing Christine back somehow, both Wong (Benedict Wong) and The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) warn him against using the Eye of Agamotto — also known as the Time Stone — to try and save her as it will weaken the fabric of reality. Much like in Doctor Strange, The Ancient One’s death is what finally motivates Strange to get it together and start to move on from his personal tragedies for the sake of the greater good.

On the two-year anniversary of Christine’s death, Strange decides to disregard this guidance and tries to save Christine from her fate with no success. No change of events, major or minor, can change that she will die, and The Ancient One reveals to Strange that Christine’s death is an Absolute Point in their universe. Christine must die in order for Strange to become Sorcerer Supreme, and to ensure the stability of the universe.

Instead of accepting that Christine cannot be saved, Strange instead insists that he only needs more power to save her. He transports himself to the Library of Cagliostro, a protected sanctuary full of magical research done by the man who discovered the Eye of Agamotto. Upon learning that he must absorb the powers of other beings in order to even attempt changing an Absolute Point, Strange spends centuries summoning powerful magical entities and consuming them for their power. He even summons Shuma-Gorath, the monster from the first episode of What If…?, and absorbs a number of his tentacles as the final step to becoming Doctor Strange Supreme.

Doctor Strange comes face to face with Strange Supreme in What If...? S01E04
Doctor Strange comes face to face with Strange Supreme in What If…? S01E04

A Tale of Two Sorcerers

In an attempt to save the universe, The Ancient One managed to split the timeline when Strange traveled to the Library of Cagliostro, and there is another version of Strange who made the rational decision to not try and save Christine. The Ancient One tasks this version of Strange with stopping Strange Supreme, but despite his best efforts, Strange Supreme is able to reabsorb him and come to full power. With his powers intact and enhanced by all of the beings he consumed, Strange Supreme brings Christine back to life, solidifying the death of his universe and turning him into a monster resembling a Frankenstienish amalgamation of everything he absorbed to supplement his power.

Upon seeing Strange Supreme in his monstrous form, a newly revived Christine is disgusted and fearful. As Strange tries to convince Christine that he’s really the man she loves, she begins to disintegrate in the same way that the rest of the universe had when it had been destabilized. Realizing that he cannot have Christine and save the universe, Strange Supreme reverts back to his human form and makes a last-ditch effort to try and save his universe to no avail. 

As his universe closes in on them, Strange Supreme sees Uatu the Watcher (Jeffery Wright) watching him, and begs him to save him and everyone else he has doomed. Uatu tells Strange that neither of them are gods, and that if he could save everyone and punish Strange, he would. Uatu leaves, and the universe finishes collapsing in on itself, leaving Strange Supreme and Christine in a small crystalline sphere that is the only remaining part of their universe. As Christine fades away, her final words to Strange are “What did you do?”, and he is left alone in a multiversal prison of his own making.

Strange Supreme's monster form collects a revived Christine Palmer from the air
Strange Supreme’s monster form collects a revived Christine Palmer from the air

A Visual Marvel and an Emotional Shortcoming

Independent of the movie it takes its lead from, this episode of What If…? will absolutely go down as one of the best in the season alongside the episode about T’Challa being Star-Lord. The flaws in the episode are not rooted in the episode itself like they are in episodes one and three of the series but instead rooted in the fact that Doctor Strange is not a strong film in the sense of character development. TikTok creator jstoobs states it very plainly: “[Strange] doesn’t have any meaningful relationships with other people.” 

Strange’s extreme emotional pain over Christine’s death doesn’t make sense because the relationship between them that we are familiar with is much less affectionate. She wasn’t with him in the car during Doctor Strange because he was so consumed by his own arrogance, specifically in the sense that he was incredibly self-centered. When Strange asks her to come with him to the speaking engagement that leads to the loss of his hands, she refuses because “They weren’t about [them], they were about [him],” and “Everything is about [him].”

If Strange is still arrogant enough to seek out The Ancient One, it would be safe to assume that he would still be the same level of arrogance that led Christine to refuse to go with him to his speaking engagement. Regardless of whether or not Strange’s majorly flawed personality is a turn-off for Christine, the relationship we see between them in Doctor Strange is far from enough to justify the man literally destroying the universe for her. 

People fading away as the universe crumbles
People fading away as the universe crumbles

Something like this would be believable from Tony Stark if Pepper Potts had died, and Peter Quill’s unintentional sabotage of the plan to defeat Thanos proves that if he could have done this to save Gamora, he would have. Even Scott Lang would be capable if he lost Hope or Cassie, and that’s because all of those relationships are relatively well developed in their respective movies.

The implication in this episode of What If…? seems to be that Strange’s relationship with her is better, but because there isn’t even so much as an explanation of “Christine was actually treated well in this universe” or any visual storytelling to show us this. In conjunction with this, Christine is — much like Janet and Hope Van Dyne in episode three — fridged in what is essentially a buy one get one free deal at the plot device store. She dies to lead Stephen Strange into the world of magic, and he watches her die at least 10 more times in a time loop two years later which motivates him to try and undo her death.

Outside of these flaws, this episode is not only able to hold its own as a standalone story but is a wonderful example of the continued technical improvement of What If…?. The animation gets better and better as the series goes on, and this episode is as much of a visual achievement to Marvel Animation as Doctor Strange was for Marvel’s live-action franchise. The montage of Strange absorbing creatures and becoming Strange Supreme is arguably the best visual sequence that the show has had so far, and the only contenders to dethrone that title are other sequences in this episode.

Much of the animation is supplemented by single frames that flash by but manage to add a layer of depth to what the audience sees. When Christine is being revived, for example, there is a single white frame that cracks by as she is struck by lighting, with both it and her being silhouetted in black. Many of the shots of explosions use this trick as well, and it is a bit reminiscent of the way Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse, and it’s nice to see that as a potential influence on the MCU.

Christine is revived by Strange Supreme in What If...? S01E04
Christine is revived by Strange Supreme in What If…? S01E04

What If It Was All Connected?

The extra advantage to the visuals being so refined in this episode is that it is very likely that these ideas will return in Spider-Man: No Way Home and Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness. Both films will delve into the multiverse, and it would be safe to assume that the visualizations of the multiverse we see in What If…? will carry over into the live-action movies.

There is also the matter of Uatu actually speaking to Strange before his universe collapses, which could signify a more active presence of Uatu as the series goes on, and potentially even in the live-action movies themselves.

As for what this episode of What If…? means for the series, there is a bit that one can predict based on promotional material for the show. The official trailer shows a few frames of Strange Supreme and Captain Carter speaking, so it is clear that the two are not only connected via their dealings with Shorma-Gorath. Strange Supreme is the only survivor of his universe’s collapse, and it seems clear that he is somehow able to escape his lonely prison. It is safe to assume that nothing groundbreaking in What If..? will happen without a reason, but when that information will finally be of use in the larger concept of the MCU is the real mystery of the show.

Images Courtesy of Marvel Studios

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