Written By: François-Noël Vanasse
What If… Doctor Strange Lost His Heart Instead of His Hands?
Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), having been set on his path by the death of Christine (Rachel McAdams) in his fateful car crash instead of the loss of his hands, gets drunk one night with the Eye of Agamotto and tries to undo her death with catastrophic results.
Episode 2 felt a little lighthearted and Episode 3 lacked a little bit of weight to the proceedings but Episode 4 packs those punches. There are a lot of details in this episode’s execution that tickled me pink including the first callback to a previous What If…? in the form of the big green tentacle monster. The one that had the present writer exclaiming out loud was the definitive appearance of Kirby Krackles in the MCU. An effect created by comic book artist Jack Kirby, the Kirby Krackle is a series of floating pitch black dots that represent voids in the mortal ability to perceive what is happening in front of them. They are used typically to express vast amounts of cosmic energy being produced or channeled. In this episode, they are used beautifully as the calling card of the Evil Dr. Strange’s dark powers. This episode also marks the first direct confrontation between The Watcher (Jeffrey Wright) and one of the subjects he is observing. It ticks all the checkmarks of a textbook appearance of The Watcher, including his capacity for empathy, and his ultimate impotence.
After travelling back in time to save Christine from the accident, Stephen quickly discovers that the universe is resisting his rescue attempts. Untold variations later a dejected Stephen is contacted by The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) who informs Stephen that continuing down this path will result in this universe’s destruction. Tragically, and many interesting visuals later, Stephen proves The Ancient One correct. This kind of mildly deterministic universe that works to keep things the way they should be is exactly the sort of presence What If…?s highlight so well. These are stories written by teams of writers as best as they can over the course of decades of weekly and monthly publications and now yearly films and television. When you make stuff up as you go along anything is possible. Fans will balk sometimes at a character they love being put through trials and tribulations because they see through the artifice. It’s a story someone is making up so why don’t good things happen to them instead? By presenting the alternative as worse, by showcasing that coming to terms with one’s destiny is ultimately more rewarding that fighting against it, the audience too comes to accept the canon as inevitable or bittersweet rather than cynical manipulation.
This episode pushes the limits of the animation a little bit. It relies so much on the contortions of animated facial features that are fairly hit or miss no matter what the music insists I should be feeling. And unfortunately, to my ear, Cumberbatch’s voice could still use another pass through the Americanator. The fight scenes largely insist on being filmed in fairly confusing close-ups which does a good job of allowing the audience to feel the chaos first hand but robs a little bit of some potentially stunning visuals. There are a couple clever scene settings. The image of the two Strange’s in the window is framed quite well and the fake-out Watcher shadow is particularly delightful for viewers used to catching glimpses of him that way.
Doctor Strange is the Marvel character we’ve perhaps spent the least amount of time with in the MCU so a whole episode devoted to him is an interesting opportunity to explore that world some more. The most startling part of this episode is how much he seems to be in love with Christine who was, apologies to Ms McAdams, something of a nothing character in the original. Of course we could chalk this up to differences in the timelines but it’s something of a revelation that cocky miracle surgeon Stephen Strange is capable of this sort of affection. Of course ultimately Stephen’s attempts to “fix” his universe cause it to collapse around him, leaving nothing but a purple gem floating in empty space, housing only Stephen consumed by guilt and loneliness. Even the Watcher has stopped watching. So kind of a downer, but at least now we know dark rings around the eyes is the house style shorthand for “insane”.
What If… Zombies?!
Now that we’ve passed the halfway point, it’s safe to say this show is doing pretty good so far. The episodes are standalone, the retreads of single movies are pretty rare, and the characterization of the MCU’s interpretation of these characters remains reasonably consistent despite the adaptation. A little strange to throw Hank Pym under the bus twice so far but what can you do when you need a scapegoat?
This is the zombie episode and one I’ve dreaded since the very first trailer. Marvel Zombies, the wildly popular Robert Kirkman authored mini-series from the mid-2000s, is easily one of my least favourite series Marvel comics has ever produced. It’s gory and crass and violent in all of the worst ways. The only character handled even remotely with any kind of grace is Peter Parker. Spider-Man (Hudson Thames) also plays a central role in this episode but a lot of zombie themed stuff has come out since 2005 and the ones in this episode behave very differently from how they acted in the comics. Though they retain use of their individual powers they’re a contradictory mix of zombie qualities that robs the moldy old trope of a lot of its stink.
Spidey’s big role comes to fruition largely as a byproduct of ripping off Zombieland (2009) as the genre-savvy geek who teaches us the rules for surviving the zombie apocalypse. Cameos from Jon Favreau and David Dastmalchian as Happy Hogan and Kurt, respectively, round out a cast made up of pretty respectable movie stars slumming it for the show including a returning Chadwick Boseman and Sebastian Stan as T’Challa and Bucky. Mark Ruffalo and Danai Gurira get a bit more to do than their previous cameo as Bruce Banner and Okoye. Newcomers to the show include Evangeline Lily’s Wasp, Paul Rudd’s Ant-Man, Emily Vancamp’s Sharon Carter and, in a big surprise, Paul Bettany as Vision.
Normal zombie movie things happen in this one, there aren’t really many surprises. It’s fairly painted by numbers, but the genre-savvy lamp-shading takes some of the edge off. Where the last episode painted Doctor Strange’s hope as selfishness resulting in the end of the universe to try and save one person, this episode positions hope primarily as an act of selflessness, though ultimately also one with destructive ends. After discovering the mind-stone can be used to cure the zombie virus, the heroes bring it to Wakanda in order to broadcast the healing effects and into the waiting arms of zombie Thanos and his all-but completed infinity gauntlet. It’s a bit of a confusing lesson but bleak endings are the name of the game with What Ifs. Don’t want you wishing you were tuning into this universe instead of the one we’ve got.
What If…Killmonger Rescued Tony Stark?
This is a fun one. Tony Stark (Mick Wingert) gets rescued from being mortally wounded in Afghanistan by one Erik Stevens aka Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) while the latter is still an active Navy SEAL. Logistically it almost makes sense though since this takes place in 2008 everyone is presumably much younger. For some reason Killmonger still has the same iconic outfit as he wore in his first appearance in the MCU instead of desert camouflage as alluded to later.
In this episode after ingratiating himself to Tony Stark, and preventing the man from turning into a superhero, Killmonger lays a trap for T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) and kills him. As a result, the episode also acts as a very moving tribute to Chadwick Boseman’s character, and by extension Chadwick Boseman, who tragically passed away last year following a private battle with cancer. Like my fellow editor here at Porkchop when watching new Ted Lasso episodes I found myself surprised to be a blubbering mess towards the end of this one.
That being said, while Killmonger again makes very good points about inequity, his manipulative rise to power is met at every turn by compassion and understanding. Though Killmonger necessarily sees these qualities as weakness he can exploit, a version of this episode could have involved a very cathartic heroic turn for the character in much the same way as Tony Stark’s transformation into Iron Man or T’Challa’s own reckoning with his father’s legacy in light of Killmonger’s revelations.
I think this episode is also the first with a full-face appearance from The Watcher (Jeffrey Wright) who is normally bathed in shadow or made of clouds and twilight. Here, he is just himself grimacing down at the world unfolding beneath his gaze. Wright’s delivery at the end of this one also seemed unusually emotional fromThe Watcher, again underlining, I feel, the weight of Boseman’s passing even though the line itself is, in a literal reading, about Tony Stark. Another hopeful ending in this one. The consequences too severe to bear are the death of T’Challa, Rhodey (Don Cheadle) and Iron Man, but the ending suggests Pepper Potts (Beth Hoyt) and a young Shuri (Ozioma Akagha) are going to team-up to set things right in the end.