What If…? takes a break from murdering the Avengers this week and instead wipes out an entire universe in the best, and bleakest, episode of the TV series yet. Opening on the fateful night that Stephen Strange was set on the path to becoming the Sorcerer Supreme, things take a cruel turn when instead of having his hands injured in that car crash Christine Palmer is killed instead.
In this branch of the multiverse, Christine’s death is the catalyst for Stephen’s journey to Kamar-Taj, and things mostly play out the same. Strange is tutored in the mystic arts by the Ancient One, she is killed by Kaecilius, and the good doctor eventually confronts Dormammu.
Unlike our version of Strange, though, who moves past the trauma of losing his hands, this variant cannot get past losing Christine. In his efforts to bring back his lost love, Strange pushes the boundaries of magic to their breaking point, becoming a chimaera of mystical beings, and a dark parody of the heroic sorcerer we know and love. The only person who can stop him? Stephen Strange.
Easily the best episode of What If…? we’ve had since T’Challa as Star Lord in episode two, this chapter was a thrilling and surprisingly emotional episode in a series that I’ve struggled to connect with in any meaningful way so far. The scenes of Strange reliving the night Christine died over and over like a warped version of Groundhog Day were tough to watch, helped in large part by Benedict Cumberbatch’s excellent voice work.
Cumberbatch is, of course, an experienced voice actor, and it shows. He’s well suited to the task and manages to give his performance real tonality. It would have been easy to make the evil (or misguided) Doctor Strange’s voice a gravelly parody of his MCU mainstay, but Cumberbatch avoids the easy out. Instead, he drops in and out of a deeper register depending on the needs of the scene. It makes the character far more realistic and less like a cartoon villain.
In fact, of all the episodes of What If…? we’ve had so far, this one probably has the best voice acting. It helps massively that all of the Doctor Strange cast, from Tilda Swinton to Benedict Wong, have returned to reprise their roles as well. In other episodes, the use of some of the MCU cast has been a blessing and a curse. It’s cool hearing Samuel L. Jackson play Nick Fury again, but it makes the absence of Scarlett Johansson all the more noticeable. Here, that’s not a problem.
The characterisation of this Doctor Strange variant is also quite impressive. He’s less a cackling megalomaniac sorcerer and more of a misguided romantic. You can easily see how the Strange introduced in the MCU proper could have taken this path, and it’s enjoyable seeing the character’s arrogance explored in a way we haven’t seen since his original movie. There’s a tragedy to his misadventure that ends in such a devastating way it felt like something ripped from the pages of a What If…? comics, which often had similarly upsetting endings.
He sees all! Who is The Watcher?
Still, the real reason this episode is so enjoyable is because of all the characters we’ve seen so far in What If…?, none are perhaps better suited than Doctor Strange. Not only are the spells, incantations, and mystical arts he utilises are perfect for the medium of animation, plus the trippy, vaguely meta nature of the character allows him to comment on the format of the series in a way other characters can’t.
What If..? has been a mixed bag so far. We’ve had some real bangers, like Star-Lord T’Challa in the second episode. Still, for the most part, the series has felt vaguely inconsequential by the nature of being an anthology separate from the MCU canon. This episode, though, hints that there’s a wider story that may have some real bearing on the future of What If..? and the MCU proper.