Written by David Holland
“Absolute power corrupts absolutely”, or so the saying goes. Our favorite nerdy fictions are full of examples of truly good characters who wielded power far beyond anyone else in their world, but refused to use that power selfishly. I’m thinking of Charles Xavier’s reluctance to read minds without permission, Gandalf’s refusal to touch the one Ring, and Dumbledore’s decision to avoid politics and settle into a quiet career in school administration, since everyone knows that schools are never, ever political.
This episode of “What If…” centers on Doctor Strange, one of the most powerful characters in the MCU. The Master of the Mystic Arts commands cosmic forces so vast that, if he were in most other heroes’ movies, those films would only have been about 20 minutes long. But Strange has to focus on threats from beyond our dimension, he doesn’t have time for petty, Earthly concerns. In the MCU, it was injuries resulting from a car accident that led Doctor Strange to study the mystic arts and become the benevolent, if somewhat aloof, Sorcerer Supreme. But this episode asks, “What if the event that drove Doctor Strange to study magic wasn’t his injuries, but the death of the woman he loved?”
On his way to an award ceremony honoring him, Doctor Strange is in a car accident that results in the death of Christine, the woman he loves. Driven by despair, he studies magic until he becomes Sorcerer Supreme, masters the Eye of Agamotto, and defeats Dormamu. But he is still obsessed with the events that killed Christine. He uses the Eye, aka the Time Stone, to travel back and attempt to save her, only to find his plan foiled when she dies again. He tries again, and she dies again. No matter how many attempts he makes, the result is the same. A vision from the Ancient One tells him he cannot change Christine’s death. It was the event that led to him studying magic and therefore it cannot be altered without ripping apart reality. Apparently when the shimmering ghost of your dead mentor shows up, it’s never good news. That’s true no matter what universe you’re in.
Strange refuses to accept the Ancient One’s warning. He begins studying how to undo Fixed Points in time and learns that by absorbing the life force of other cosmic beings he can become strong enough. He sets about summoning and consuming all sorts of cosmic critters in an effort to gain their power. The Ancient One, foreseeing this, actually split Strange in two and created divergent realities, one in which Strange pursued power and one in which he didn’t. Naturally, the two Doctor Stranges battle to save reality, only for Good Strange to be absorbed by
Jafar Evil Strange. Having consumed enough power, Doctor Strange reverses Christine’s death. But the price was too high. With reality ripping apart around them, Christine flees from the revolting creature Doctor Strange has become. As the universe collapses from Strange’s selfish destruction of time, he cries out to The Watcher, pleading for his help to save the doomed universe. The Watcher, in a completely unpredictable move, watches.
One of the oldest forms of storytelling is the morality play. The storyteller weaves a parable designed to warn the audience of what not to do, without anyone having to suffer the actual consequences. Many of the most familiar stories of Greek mythology revolve around the concept of hubris, that a human might know better than the gods or might be able to subvert their will. Most ancient Greek stories of hubris end with the main character dying dramatically, getting turned into an animal, or suffering eternal punishment in the Underworld. This episode of “What If…” follows that classic storytelling arc. The hero is powerful, but flawed, he is warned about the limits of his power, but he ignores those warnings. In the end, not only is the world destroyed, but the woman for whom he destroyed it for, is disgusted by him.
The second “What If” told the remarkable story of T’Challa as Star Lord, in what seemed to be a much happier version of the MCU than the one we are familiar with. Then, in the last few seconds of the episode, it hints that Ego would have eventually found Peter Quill, and possibly destroyed the universe. It was a sudden dark turn in an otherwise uplifting story. This episode starts out dark, gets darker, and ends hopelessly. It’s not something we’re used to in comic book movies, the closest version probably being “Avengers: Infinity War”. This is another great use of the multiverse anthology setup of this show. This episode leans into the ancient morality play in the safety of another universe that we can dip into without lasting consequences. Fortunately, in our MCU we know that Doctor Strange would never, ever do anything so reckless.
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