Please note the following article contains significant spoilers and plot points from episode four of What If…?
Marvel’s multiversal series What If…? began by taking viewers on a journey to universes with uplifting and inspiring differences in the form of Peggy Carter receiving the Super Soldier Serum and T’Challa becoming Star-Lord. If last week’s episode featuring the deaths of five of the founding six Avengers was bleak, then this week’s episode, entitled “What If…Doctor Strange Lost His Heart Instead of His Hands?” was equal parts tragic and horrific.
Truly exemplifying the notion “just because you can, doesn’t mean you should,” the Watcher guides the audience through Doctor Stephen Strange’s response to losing the love of his life, Christine, instead of losing the use of his hands.
Doctor Strange’s Path Begins
Minutes into this episode of What If…?, the Doctor Strange of this universe finds himself driving down the same winding, cliffside road as his live-action, Sacred Timeline counterpart. This time, however, he is not alone; Dr. Christine Palmer is with him. Although the circumstances are different, it seems that in this universe, as in Doctor Strange’s solo movie, the disastrous accident leading to life-altering loss was destined to happen.
In the movie, Doctor Strange is distracted by his cell phone and careens off of the cliffside into the water, while in the episode, an attempt to pass a truck followed by being struck from behind by another vehicle sends Doctor Strange and Christine hurtling from the cliff’s edge. As the title suggests, in this universe, the devastating crash claims Christine’s life instead of Doctor Strange’s hands.
Doctor Strange is ever the same in this universe, and refuses to accept or work through this loss in a traditional way. He instead tries to find an answer to right what he views as a terrible wrong, and finds himself studying the mystic arts with the Ancient One and Wong. With his brilliant mind and patient teachers, he is able to defeat Dormammu and become the Sorcerer Supreme.
The Path Diverges
In spite of all that he has learned and warnings from the Ancient One and Wong about the consequences of tinkering with time, Doctor Strange’s thoughts linger on Christine even two years later. Wong senses this restlessness in his dear friend, and encourages him to come have tea with him before he does anything reckless in his persevering grief. Instead of listening to the warning in Wong’s invitation, Doctor Strange goes back to the night that Christine dies. During his first visit back to that night, he does not attempt to pass the truck; yet he and Christine are still rear-ended, and she still dies. He continues to go back in time, trying to change the outcome — whether it’s taking a different route, not passing the truck, going to get pizza instead, not picking her up at all, or having Christine drive, every single variable ends in her death.
As he despairs after pulling himself from the wreckage, the Ancient One appears through a portal, knowing what Doctor Strange is trying to do. She explains that Christine’s death is an Absolute Point in time that nothing and no one can change, telling him, “This is where it starts for you. With the death of Dr. Christine Palmer. So overwhelmed by loss, you will seek answers in the mystic arts. In me.” She tells him the loss is necessary to save the universe from Dormammu.
Even with the Ancient One’s continued warnings and explanations, Doctor Strange refuses to let go of the notion that he can bring Christine back. The Ancient One seemingly attempts to stop the Sorcerer Supreme, and in a flash of light, he disappears. He reappears in a thick jungle, telling the man he comes across that he is seeking out the Lost Library of Cagliostro. Upon entering the enormous building, he re-encounters the man from the jungle and learns that his name is O’Bengh, and that he’s the librarian for the trove of books that Doctor Strange seeks.
Doctor Strange begins his research, learning that he requires a massive amount of energy to be able to break an Absolute Point in time. He aims high during his first attempt at summoning a powerful creature, calling upon a tentacled beast that looks very similar to the one that Captain Carter fought off in the first episode of What If…?, asking the beast if he could borrow some of his power. Doctor Strange is bested, and as he recovers, O’Bengh provides him with yet more foreboding wisdom, telling him, “There is a fine line between devotion and delusion. Love can break more than your heart. It can shatter your mind.” Even in the wake of further words of caution, Doctor Strange does not turn from his path; he instead decides that if the mystical creatures he summons will not yield their power to him, he will instead take it by force and harness it as his own.
“The Wrong Path”
What follows is a montage of Doctor Strange summoning increasingly imposing and powerful beings, absorbing them one by one and thus taking on their powers. He is for a time visibly transformed afterwards, taking on properties of each individual beast. This Doctor Strange becomes vastly different from the one that the audience knows from the Sacred Timeline. Where the Doctor Strange viewers are familiar with is humbled by and gains wisdom from his loss, this Doctor Strange instead steers into his tendency toward arrogance and callous disregard for anything other than his goals. This tendency in and of itself is a force to be reckoned with, but with his unfathomable brilliance, supreme mystical abilities, and unyielding stubbornness to back it up, the consequences of his choices are frightening to consider. The Watcher notes this as well, saying that his intervention would not only put other universes at risk, but would probably go ignored much like every other warning Doctor Strange had been given.
The Other Doctor Strange
Doctor Strange emerges from his centuries-long endeavor to find O’Bengh dying of old age, and the librarian tells Doctor Strange that he’s half a man living half of a life. This cryptic statement is clarified when viewers see what turns out to be a different Doctor Strange (in the same universe) make a different choice after Wong encourages him to come get tea instead of doing something reckless. This other Doctor Strange sets the Eye of Agamotto down and says that he had done “enough living in the past for one night.”
The next morning when he goes outside, he sees the world around him melting away. Adding to his confusion, an echo of the Ancient One appears to him, explaining that she had drawn on power from the Dark Dimension and split the Sorcerer Supreme into two – an admittedly dangerous gambit, but a necessary one. She tells him that only he can stop himself, and that if he is unsuccessful, their entire universe will be destroyed. Protective spells are put in place with the help of Wong and then the good Doctor Strange is summoned by the evil – or as the Ancient One aptly put it, “misguided” – Doctor Strange. The wickedly empowered Doctor Strange tells his counterpart that they must become one to save Christine, while the one on the right path provides a further warning, saying, “This is arrogance. This is our need to fix everything.” The misguided Doctor Strange, so fixed on his path, has now been warned by the Ancient One, Wong, O’Bengh, and even himself; so hyper-fixated on his centuries-long path, even a warning from the other half of himself remains ignored.
The two halves engage in an elaborate mystical battle with one another that results in the Cloak of Levitation sacrificing itself before the righteous Doctor Strange becomes the final mystical thing that the dark-powered Doctor Strange absorbs. With all of the power he needs at his disposal now, he does what he set out to do centuries ago and brings Christine back from the dead.
Christine is horrified when she comes to and sees the beast that Doctor Strange has become; his appearance reflects the evil deeds he has done and the lives he has taken for his own ends. His joy at being reunited with the love of his life is abruptly cut short as the universe begins to cave in on itself. Finally recognizing what he had done, Doctor Strange begs the Watcher, whose presence he had sensed before, to help. Doctor Strange says that only he should be punished for his hubris and disregard for all of the wise warnings he received, telling the Watcher that he is a god and must have the power to fix this. The Watcher, directly interacting for the first time in the series, tells the finally humbled sorcerer, “I’m not a god. And neither are you.” The Watcher goes on to note that if he were to further interfere with time beyond what Doctor Strange has already done, only more destruction and chaos would follow.
In the end, the universe and Christine disappear, leaving only Doctor Strange. He gave up centuries, misdirected all of his genius and willpower and mystical abilities, and crossed lines that never should have been crossed to bring Christine back. Selfishly, his only goal was to avoid facing the immense grief and loss her death caused him. In the end, however, even the wrong path and changing an Absolute Point couldn’t prevent the destruction of his entire universe. Time led Doctor Strange exactly to the place he was destined to end up, not just as the Sorcerer Supreme but as a human being – alone and face-to-face with just his grief. As viewers are pulled away from the tiny portion of the universe encapsulating the now subdued and ashamed sorcerer, the only sound that can be heard is his devastated apology to a universe that can no longer hear him.
Serving as the most heart-wrenching and unsettling episode thus far in What If…?, episode four provides viewers with a much darker tale. Returning to the question that the series poses, specific traits seem fixed in the individual characters — even in different timelines. Peggy Carter is brave and determined. T’Challa is diplomatic and kind-hearted. Natasha Romanoff and Nick Fury are clever, loyal, and never surrender. Doctor Strange is brilliant and talented beyond measure, but arrogant. By putting these characters on different paths, their best, and sometimes their absolute worst, traits are allowed to flourish. “What If…Doctor Strange Lost His Heart Instead of His Hands?” certainly put a beloved Marvel character on the darkest path to date.