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If you possessed the power to alter reality on a whim, wouldn’t you attempt to save someone you loved from their death? That is the core question at the center of the latest episode of Marvel’s What If…, which focuses on Doctor Stephen Strange, the Sorcerer Supreme. All but one of the previous episodes had a bittersweet ending. For the first time in this series, we see a truly dark, devastating ending and it fits so perfectly to the themes of the episode.
Spoilers ahead, obviously, so don’t read this if you haven’t watched the episode.
The story of Doctor Strange is a familiar one at this point: arrogant surgeon loses the use of his hands and seeks out the Mystic Arts as a means to regain his life. In this episode, though, we see an alternate path that could have occurred. Instead of just Stephen Strange being in the car the night of the accident, Christine Palmer is in the car as well. Instead of losing his hands, Stephen loses Christine, the one person he loved.
The rest of the events of Doctor Strange play out as per our original timeline, with Strange learning from the Ancient One and defeating Dormammu. The divergence comes when Strange sits in the New York Sanctum Sanctorum decides to use the Eye of Agamotto (which holds the Time Stone) to reverse the night Christine dies. But every attempt Stephen makes ends in the same result: Christine dies. The montage of images shows that no matter what Stephen does, up to and including standing Christine up, she dies in some manner that evening. It is after his last attempt that this timeline’s version of the Ancient One appears, informing Stephen that Christine’s death is an Absolute Point in time and space (or for those of us that are Doctor Who fans, a Fixed Point in time and space). Without this moment occurring, Stephen does not seek out his destiny as the Sorcerer Supreme and save reality from Dormammu.Kindle Unlimited Membership Plans
Using a bit of magical trickery, the Ancient One splits Stephen’s timeline, something I wasn’t expecting. The majority of the episode is spent with Strange Supreme, the version of Stephen that goes further back in time to the Lost Library of Cogliostro (one of the previous Sorcerer Supremes). In the library, Strange finds a grimoire that details how to break an Absolute Point in time: by absorbing the essence and power of entities from other dimensions. In another montage filled with nightmarish creatures (including the tentacled Kraken from the first episode), Stephen absorbs countless beings, spending years in the process of accumulating more and more power. Every step of the way, he is warned by others, including Uatu the Watcher, that this path should not be taken and his actions will doom the universe.
Of course, Stephen doesn’t listen to those warnings.
The Ancient’s One’s trick resulted in an alternate Stephen who decided to forego attempting to resurrect Christine, only to find that the world around him is disintegrating. This leads to a final confrontation between Doctor Strange and Strange Supreme. Animation really helps with this type of sequence, which could have been done in live-action but would have been ridiculously expensive. The two sorcerers are evenly matched, but eventually Strange Supreme is triumphant, absorbing his alternate self and resurrecting Christine.
But his actions have severe consequences, as the universe begins to collapse in on itself (in a sequence that looks eerily like Dormammu’s domain bleeding in to absorb reality). Strange manages to create a bubble, calling out to Uatu to fix what he’s broken. The Watcher is having none of it, reminding Strange that he was warned repeatedly that breaking an Absolute Point would have catastrophic consequences. In the end, Strange doesn’t get to save Christine or reality. Instead, he is left as a broken shell of a man, inside a tiny bubble of what remains of his reality.
Stephen Strange as a character is someone who is built on arrogance and the need to control everything around him. That character flaw is still present in the original timeline. Here, we see what the ultimate cost of hubris is: the destruction of everything and everyone. A truly satisfying but depressing ending to the episode, which I enjoyed. Tragedies like this are among my favorite stories, particularly because it reminds me that we must be measured in our actions. While Strange’s obsession with saving someone he loved is understandable, this is what happens when grief is given power rather than processed and accepted. Death is a natural part of life but so is living and moving on from our grief.