“What If… Doctor Strange Lost His Heart Instead of His Hands?” gets surprisingly bleak, making for a daring episode that is one of the most memorable thus far.
This recap of What If…? season 1, episode 4, “What If… Doctor Strange Lost His Heart Instead of His Hands?”, contains spoilers.
It’s increasingly difficult to know what to make of What If…?, which I suppose is the point of a speculative anthology series. But it doesn’t even seem to consistently abide by the rules that are explained at the start of every episode by The Watcher. Sometimes, as with the premiere, it’s about reworking an iconic moment; sometimes, like in the second episode, it’s about how one small change can have massive, unforeseen ripple effects across the entire continuity; sometimes, such as last week, it’s a bland, go-nowhere murder-mystery. “What If… Doctor Strange Lost His Heart Instead Of His Hands?” is different from all of the above. It’s a heartfelt story about love and the sheer hopelessness of trying to change destiny. If it wasn’t for the second episode’s emotional resonance for reasons beyond what was on the screen, this would probably be my favorite episode so far.
What If…? season 1, episode 4 recap
In part, it’s because Doctor Strange hasn’t been an ideal character to work with. In his own movie, he was aloof and surly; in the crossovers, he was there mostly to dispense ambiguous plot information and create platforms with his hands. Here, those hands don’t get smashed up in the car crash following the awards ceremony, but Christine, the love of Strange’s life, does. He ends up following a similar path to the mystic arts, but this time motivated by grief. With fully functional hands, he becomes the Sorcerer Supreme in record time and immediately sets about finding an ill-advised way to reunite with his lost love, with daringly tragic results.
There’s an early sequence that finds Strange trying every possible permutation of events to avoid Christine’s death, failing every time, and it’s honestly wrenching. The Ancient One trying to talk him out of the endeavor by outlining how some points in time are Absolute and cannot be altered feels like the kind of expositional spiel that prompts an against-all-odds hero’s journey, but that doesn’t happen. Strange’s selfish quest just results in one personal and temporal calamity after another. The laws of the universe, it turns out, are immutable, even for the main character in a Marvel story.
Doctor Strange was always underrated; it had the formula of an introductory Phase 1 movie but the visuals of an ayahuasca binge. Fittingly, this episode, through the new location of the Lost Library of Cagliostro and the menagerie of mystical multiversal beings that Strange ends up summoning and absorbing, is the best-looking of the bunch so far. An inevitable split in time that brings Strange face to face with a darker version of himself is good stuff; the subtle changes in the visual design and Benedict Cumberbatch’s voice work creates a stark difference between the two, despite all the obvious similarities.
If there’s a knock against the MCU in general, it’s that it plays things safe. Evil tends to be vanquished. The good guys tend to win. There are exceptions, obviously – Infinity War, in retrospect, seems like perhaps the boldest thing the franchise has ever done – but by and large the formula remains the same. Not so here, though. Strange loses to his evil counterpart. He becomes a monstrous, corrupted version of himself. Christine is “saved” only to witness the aberration he has become. Eventually, everything fades away into nothingness, contorted and destroyed.
That’s refreshingly bleak! And it also gives The Watcher a bit more to do, since Strange is able to converse with him. He reiterates his inability to intervene as Strange begs for salvation. It’s an effective cautionary tale about learning to accept reality, even its most devastating turns, lest everything be condemned to the black hole of one’s own selfishness. The tone, visuals, and even genre of the episode are fluid enough to teach this lesson in interesting, memorable ways, ones that prove Doctor Strange one of the richest storytelling veins in the current MCU. Whatever the Multiverse of Madness holds for him, I hope it’s half as daring as this.