Marvel’s What If…?: What If…Doctor Strange Lost His Heart Instead of His Hands (Episode 4) Review
*This Review Contains Full Spoilers*
With its latest episode, What If…Doctor Strange Lost His Heart Instead of His Hands, Marvel’s What If…? finally delivers a thematic and compelling story worthy of the iconic comic series.
Man, the unevenness we’ve seen in the last few episodes in both the stories and performances has really put a damper on this series. Thankfully though, this episode focusing on Doctor Strange (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch) having an altered origin after he loses the love of his life Christine (voiced by Rachel McAdams) is a breath of fresh air. First of all, it’s great that most of the live-action cast makes a return to voice their respective characters as the delightful chemistry between Strange and Wong (voiced by Benedict Wong) is retained and the romantic connection between Strange and Christine is much stronger and more fleshed out. Also, the new addition of O’Bengh (voiced by Ike Amadi), a mystical librarian Strange meets as he travels back in time to stop Christine’s death, is great as he embodies a view of life that Strange loses after losing Christine.
Although Christine wasn’t anything more than a simple love interest in the 2016 film, her impact here is immense. Her death is what drives Strange become involved in the mystic arts and eventually sorcerer supreme, but it’s also something that haunts him. Even with all the power he has, he feels powerless without her, and that powerlessness is only made bigger as he tries to prevent her death. The montage of Strange going back to that fateful day to stop Christine from dying hits you in the gut with the tragic state it leaves Strange in. The sense of failure and despair he feels every time the result remains the same is painful to watch and shows his sheer devotion for Christine. Also, there’s something darkly hilarious about how convoluted and determined fate is in keeping Christine dead. Even when Strange doesn’t pick her up for the event their going to or tries to just go for a pizza date instead, death finds a way to keep things the same.
Completely consumed by grief, Strange decides to ignore the Ancient One’s (voiced by Tilda Swinton) warning of messing with an Astral Point, a point in time too pivotal to change without consequence, and travels back in time to bring Christine back to life. Normally, we’re used to seeing Strange be calm, cool, and collected and he’s generally someone we can feel safe with because he’s always in control of things. That’s far from the case here as Strange’s grief makes him power-hungry and this episode perfectly shows the dark places grief can lead someone to and the horrific things it makes people do.
The strong horror visuals of Strange consuming different forces he summons in order to absorb their power is incredibly striking and chill-inducing. With each entity that he absorbs, his outer appearance changes to reflect the monster he’s becoming and there’s some really awesome animated body horror that’s shown. From the tentacles that grow on Strange’s back to the way his face becomes monstrous and unrecognizable, it’s really gut-wrenching to see Strange go down such a dark path. The animation of his face shooting out those beams of light is legitimately scary and its cool how different creatures Strange summons look like they have different art styles showing that he’s really pulling power from across the universe. The visuals and animation are truly ambitious in showing a darker side of Strange and it’s what makes the impact of his grief come through so strongly.
The final act of this episode is its real emotional peak as the Ancient One’s final act creates a split timeline within this universe in order for a good version of Strange to fight his misguided doppelganger. Strange versus Strange is every bit as visually stunning and mind-bending as expected and has a truly shocking conclusion. The end of this episode is absolutely devastating and it’s not just because the darker Strange ends up absorbing the good Strange. The Ancient One’s warning about Strange’s grief leading to devastation ends up coming true in him legitimately destroying the universe and only being able to see Christine for a faint moment before she’s wiped away as well. It’s a dark ending that expertly shows the horrors of being consumed by grief and that last visual of him sulking all alone really sticks with you. Also, the way this episode uses The Watcher (voiced by Jeffrey Wright) is much more impactful. Most of the time, we just get some cool visuals of him peering into the scenery, but with Strange’s connection to the Astral Plane, he can hear everything he says and sees him. The exchange they have in the episode’s final moments are really great as they reflect The Watcher being a passive observer and Strange knowing that things have gone too far. Finally, there’s something to the Watcher that makes him more than just a cool-sounding narrator.
Marvel’s What If…? fulfills its potential with an episode focusing on grief sending Doctor Strange on a dark path full of thematic storytelling and ambitious animation that show why the titular comics series is so special.