“What If…?” Episode 4 Goes Fully Dark, And It’s Marvelous

SPOILERS FOR WHAT IF…? AHEAD!

Although What If…? hasn’t ignited the same level of heated discourse or enthusiastic speculation as any of Marvel’s live-action Disney+ series’ (a sad testament to the fact that animation is still viewed by many fans as somehow inherently less canon), last Wednesday’s episode had become the subject of intense scrutiny after it became widely known that it would focus on the character of Doctor Stephen Strange…specifically, a dark and twisted version of him who goes by the title of Doctor Strange Supreme¬†(Benedict Cumberbatch).

What If...?
Doctor Strange Supreme | metro.co.uk

This was largely because, coming off the first trailer for Spider-Man: No Way Home, one of many theories given for Marvel’s inconsistent characterization of Strange was that the Master of Mystic Arts had somehow been replaced by an evil doppelg√§nger from the Multiverse (or by Mephisto; yep, we’re doing that again). It’s a good theory: as a Doctor Strange fan baffled by some of his actions in the No Way Home trailer, I really like it. And then lo and behold, here comes What If…? with an entire episode built upon that very concept.

Now having seen the episode in question…yeah, I’m pretty sure this is another WandaVision situation where we played ourselves. I still love the evil Doctor Strange theory, mind you, and I’m not writing it off until we see how Doctor Strange Supreme’s character arc continues across What If…? season one, but I don’t know if there’s any real connection to No Way Home. And that’s okay, because like the WandaVision finale, What If…? episode four is great storytelling first and foremost.

Some of that is perhaps attributable to length: this episode is the longest of the four by a minute or two, and it enjoys a steady pacing that feels urgent without becoming frantic. But what sets it apart from the rest of What If…?, and elevates it to a place alongside WandaVision and the most sophisticated episodes of Loki and The Falcon And The Winter Soldier, is the mature tone it’s able to capture. The episode earns and owns its darkest moments with a forcefulness that was once severely lacking from the franchise, and a sensitivity that evolves from WandaVision‘s nuanced handling of discussions about death and grief.

Usually, it’s Star Wars that’s not afraid to get bleak and depressing, even in their animated shows aimed (at least initially) at kids. But watching Doctor Strange Supreme lose his sanity, his soul, his loved ones, and ultimately his entire universe in a desperate attempt to cheat death that ends with him trapped in the crystallized remnants of what was once a timeline, begging What If…?‘s dispassionate narrator The Watcher (voiced by Jeffrey Wright) for mercy, demonstrates quite powerfully that having an anthology of self-contained short stories in which to explore risky ideas can only be a good thing creatively.

The episode doesn’t even wait that long to go fully dark. The Nexus Event that kicks off Doctor Strange Supreme’s alternate timeline is the death of his girlfriend, Doctor Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams), in the first few minutes. It’s admittedly an odd change, given that it relies so heavily on a chemistry between the two that was…never really there in Doctor Strange, but in this timeline apparently Strange really loves Palmer. The two surgeons are therefore on their way to a romantic dinner date when Strange’s car goes flying off a cliff – but in this timeline, Strange is miraculously unscathed and Palmer dies.

At first, this change doesn’t appear to have major ramifications: Doctor Strange still becomes a sorcerer and fights Dormammu (and somehow still survives that astral plane battle in the hospital where Christine saved his life in the original movie). It’s only when he gets his hands on the Time Stone that things take a turn for the worse, as Strange tries to revisit the moment of Palmer’s death and reverse it, only to discover that no matter what he changes in the past, all he does is weaken the integrity of his own universe. Christine still dies, over and over and over again.

And at a certain point, it starts to get really uncomfortable. Christine dies multiple times in the car crash, even when Strange has her drive. She dies of food poisoning the one time they actually make it to their destination. She gets shot dead in a pizza parlor when Strange picks a different location for their date. She dies in a random fire the one time he tries to abandon her for her own sake. It’s a lot, honestly. And maybe if Christine were actually a three-dimensional character, it wouldn’t be so questionable, but neither live-action nor animation did a very good job of fleshing out her personality and interests.

The problem only grows exponentially worse when the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) explains that Christine has to die…in order for Strange to become a sorcerer. It’s a textbook example of “fridging” – killing a female character solely to motivate a male character. There’s no attempt to subvert this trope, or even to comment on it. If anything, it only opens a frightening new can of worms because the Ancient One suggests that the universe itself needs Christine to die for Strange to rise. The Nexus Event caused by her death is referred to as an Absolute Point in Time that cannot be changed or undone without destroying the universe, and it’s left somewhat unclear why that is.

What If...?
The Watcher | mashable.com

Because if the whole point of Christine dying is to make sure Strange becomes a sorcerer, then it really shouldn’t matter how he gets to that point – just like it doesn’t seem to matter how Christine dies, only that she does die. I can totally get behind the idea that Doctor Strange is such a powerful mystic force that he (or some version of him) needs to exist in every universe and timeline; I don’t fully understand why his journey need be written in stone, especially since we know that other universes don’t require Christine’s death. Doesn’t that also throw out everything Sylvie and Loki did in the name of restoring free will to the Multiverse?

Interestingly, if Doctor Strange is so powerful that his universe literally balances upon him, that suggests he could be one of the MCU’s “Nexus Beings”, a group of characters in the comics who are considered the cornerstones of their respective timelines. Doctor Strange hasn’t been portrayed as a Nexus Being in the comics, but What If…? indicates that his power and influence puts him right up there alongside Kang the Conqueror, Vision, and the Scarlet Witch, all of whom are Nexus Beings in the comics and most likely in the MCU as well.

On that note, What If…? just might answer the burning question of what Scarlet Witch will be up to when we next meet her, in Doctor Strange And The Multiverse Of Madness. You’ll remember that Wanda Maximoff’s transformation into the Scarlet Witch during the WandaVision finale required her to absorb a large part of Agatha Harkness’ own magic and life-force into herself, weakening Agatha to the point of exhaustion. At the time, it seemed like a fairly simple way to incapacitate the witch. But What If…? reveals that power absorption has side effects, both good and bad. Mostly bad.

In the latest episode, Doctor Strange Supreme’s mission to bring back Christine leads him to the lost library of the ancient sorcerer Cagliostro, who was apparently one of the few people capable of undoing an Absolute Point in Time…but only by absorbing the powers of even greater mystical entities. Strange’s attempts to master this technique are not without some success (he gains the power he seeks, even if ultimately his universe implodes before he can spend more than a few moments with the resurrected Christine), but the experience transforms him into a horrible monster as he takes on the attributes of each creature he absorbs into his body: whether that’s a dragon, or the tentacled beast from episode one, or something that looks an awful lot like Mephisto.

It wasn’t until I rewatched the episode that I noticed the similarities to how Wanda’s first attempt at absorption also transformed her, albeit into a high-fashion sorceress rather than a grotesque demon. And that’s when I realized: if anyone in the main MCU timeline has reason to want to reverse an Absolute Point in Time, it’s Wanda. With the power she could gain from harvesting magical and cosmic forces far greater than herself, she could permanently undo the pain she’s experienced, and that her makeshift family suffered. She could even bring back her twin sons, whose voices she heard crying out to her in the WandaVision post-credits scene.

But first, she’d have to absorb a couple more beings – or perhaps, entire timelines and universes full of them. Good thing there’s an entire Multiverse gourmet buffet to choose from now, am I right? Maybe the demons and dark forces we once thought would be manipulating Wanda really ought to watch their backs because she could be coming to devour them. Though of course, the more powerful that Wanda grows, the more other entities will want to absorb her in turn…entities like, say, Mephisto. The possibilities are endlessly exciting, and I love how the MCU’s mystical side is developing its own complex ecosystem and food-chain.

What If...?
Doctor Strange | marvel.com

Doctor Strange Supreme’s journey in What If…?, however, acts as a cautionary tale for anyone trying to obtain that kind of ultimate power. Consumed in his personal agenda, he neglects his duties to his universe and allows it to rot and die. He does bring back Christine, but she returns only to witness the end of all things as Strange Supreme’s timeline finally collapses, leaving him trapped in a purple orb. Strange Supreme will likely return in What If…?, but it’s still unclear how he’ll be rescued from his prison, or who would want to do so anyway. My best guess is that at some point, The Watcher will finally break his no-interference policy to save the Multiverse from an interdimensional threat, bringing several timelines together so that a new team of Avengers can form.

But for now, we leave Strange Supreme right where he deserves to be – and with the tone and atmosphere of What If…? altered irrevocably by his tragic ending, I can’t wait to see what dark and ominous tale of suspense comes next.

Episode Rating: 9.5/10

“What If…?” 2nd Trailer Review!

In a franchise that has historically been very strict about what is and what is not canon (nobody knows that better than Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. fans), the medium of animation provides Marvel an incredible opportunity to expand upon the potential of Loki‘s Multiverse shenanigans and explore alternate universes branching off from the so-called Sacred Timeline – in an anthology series named What If…? that will remain (at least as far as we know) entirely separate from the live-action MCU. But although you might think that would narrow its appeal with hardcore fans who tend to get obsessive over the canon debate too, the broad variety of stories being explored in What If…? will likely make this a must-see event.

What If...?
What If…? | etonline.com

The format of the series is simple yet unique. One episode for each Marvel movie released thus far, but putting a twist on the version of events we know from our canon, and following the consequences of that twist down a winding rabbit-hole of endless possibilities. Until today, the marketing for What If…? had largely focused on just two or three storylines: one in which Peggy Carter took the Super-Soldier Serum during World War II instead of Steve Rogers and became Captain Carter (not Captain Britain, although the Union Jack is emblazoned on her vibranium shield); one in which a young Prince T’Challa was abducted from Earth by aliens and became a Ravager in place of Peter Quill; and one in which Bucky Barnes fights a zombie version of Captain America, in what I think might be the series’ Captain America: Civil War episode.

Everything beyond that had been just quick glimpses and unconfirmed rumors until today’s new trailer, which starts out in the back of an armored vehicle moving through the Middle East – yep, the same one where Tony Stark was ambushed in the opening of Iron Man and nearly got blown to bits by one of his own Stark Industries missiles, commencing his journey to becoming Iron Man. But this time around, something unexpected happens. Killmonger – as in Black Panther‘s Killmonger – leaps in to save Tony Stark’s life, effortlessly lifting the missile and tossing it into the sky. And from there, the trailer only gets weirder.

We see an armored Natasha Romanoff zipping through the battle-damaged streets of a city on her motorcycle, having been the only member of the Avengers to survive Ultron’s extinction-level apocalypse in Age Of Ultron. Pepper Potts, wielding some kind of high-tech gun, fights alongside Shuri and the Dora Milaje. Loki invades Earth, not with hordes of Chitauri aliens, but with Asgardian troops; while a tattooed frat boy Variant of Thor parties it up on the planet’s surface. Okoye hurls a spear at a levitating Wanda Maximoff. T’Challa and Yondu fight a muscular, cybernetically-enhanced Variant of The Collector from Guardians Of The Galaxy. Doctor Strange duels Tilda Swinton’s Ancient One. Howard the Duck is just…there, for whatever reason.

What If...?
Captain Carter | buzzfeed.com

Before Loki, I was intrigued but bewildered by the concept of What If…?, but now we know so much more about the mechanics of the Multiverse in the MCU that we can kind of get a sense of what’s going on, and perhaps even why. These are all timelines that branched but never got pruned, Nexus Events allowed to spiral further and further out of control, leading to chaotic crossovers with other alternate timelines, and what Miss Minutes described as “multiversal war”. We can see some of that going on in this trailer: Variants like Captain Carter and T’Challa as Star Lord won’t be confined to single episodes, but will also join forces across time and space – leading to a clever recreation of the iconic Avengers group shot in the first Avengers movie that also includes frat boy Thor, a Gamora Variant who’s dressed in golden armor like her adoptive father Thanos and is even wielding the Mad Titan’s sword, and a character who is possibly Killmonger, wearing the Black Panther suit.

Of course, if the Time Variance Authority isn’t around to prune these timelines and prevent a Multiverse, it raises the question of why. My guess is that at the end of Loki, the God of Mischief’s efforts to burn the TVA to the ground are successful, finally freeing the universe from authoritarian control and allowing time to do whatever the hell it wants. Whether the characters in What If…? will discover that and try to hop over into the MCU’s reality remains to be seen, but that could precipitate the Multiverse Of Madness which we know Doctor Strange will be dealing in with his hotly-anticipated sequel.

The only person who seems to have any answers is an ethereal cosmic being known as Uatu the Watcher, who will narrate the series and preside over events, hopefully cluing in audiences as to what’s really going on. Will he always remain on the sidelines, watching but never interfering with time? Will he be mentioned in the MCU at any point? Where does he even come from? As Darcy would say, “don’t know, don’t know, and…don’t know.”

What If...?
T’Challa and Yondu | nerdist.com

What I do know is that the animation on this series looks brilliant: crisp, clean, and richly detailed, allowing for the kind of spectacle sometimes unattainable in live-action except through extensive use of CGI. With the exception of Robert Downey Jr., the voice-acting is provided by the same actors who originated these roles in live-action, including Chadwick Boseman as T’Challa, in what will be his final posthumous performance. And my expectations for the next wave of Marvel Disney+ shows are at an all-time high after the resounding success of Loki. I was always excited for What If…? because I’m a big fan of animation, but I’m sold on the concepts at play here too after this amazing trailer.

Trailer Rating: 8.9/10

Avengers: Endgame Trailer 3!

The end of the MCU as we know it is almost upon us, and we have our first full length trailer for the movie that will bring it all crashing down into ruin and despair. Blood will be shed, heroes will die, Natasha Romanoff’s hair will change color again. Very few of our questions about this movie have been answered by this tantalizing teaser, which is the way I like it: honestly, I think at this point we don’t even need another trailer for Avengers: Endgame – the less we know, the more we are excited to find out.

So here it is! The trailer is so atmospheric, so dark – the opening scenes are black and white flashbacks to previous MCU movies: Iron Man, Captain America: The First Avenger, and Thor. Voice-over is provided by Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr) and Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell). The first new shot in this trailer is at 0:38, and here we see Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) training a girl with a bow and arrow. Fans were quick to jump to the conclusion that this girl was none other than superheroine Kate Bishop, an archer from the comics who ends up taking the name Hawkeye herself. However, it seems more likely she is Hawkeye’s daughter, Lila Barton. Whoever she is, though, I have no doubt that she and the rest of Hawkeye’s family (who can be seen in the background) will be dusted in this scene, and this is where we’ll see the lovable archer’s transformation into the grim, sword-wielding, mohawk-wearing assassin that he is in the very next shot, at 0:43, where we see him meeting Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson). Here, he is Ronin, one of his darker aliases from the comics. Something to note about this scene is that he and Black Widow hold hands – could we see them get back together? Clearly, there are still some romantic feelings between the two. (And I’m here for it – those two were made for each other, and no one can tell me otherwise).

At 1:12, after a heartbreaking montage of characters from Avengers: Infinity War being turned to dust, we see Black Widow’s new look – her hair has grown out quite a bit, and looks quite good, part red, part blond. The fact that it’s grown so long, though, is reason for us to believe that some time has passed between Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame. Some have speculated there could be a five-year gap between the two movies.

Blink and you’ll miss Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) at 1:14. This poor guy, who was sidelined in Avengers: Infinity War, definitely needs more screentime to make up for that – but so far, we’ve seen very little of him, and no hint of whether he can transform into the Hulk yet.

Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) shows up for the first time in the trailer at 1:18, staring in bewilderment at posters that read MISSING. Last we saw Ant-Man, in Ant-Man And The Wasp, he was trapped inside the Quantum Realm: I believe this is just after he’s escaped, and he’s come back to find half of the world’s population missing – possibly including his own daughter, Cassie Lang: though others speculate that Cassie will be in Endgame, played by Emma Fuhrmann, and will be a superhero in her own right.

At 1:21, we see the Avengers’ Quinjet flying over New York City: interestingly, in the previous teaser we saw NYC looking very dark and lifeless, but here there are city lights shining.

Black Widow and Hawkeye still look pretty close in the next shot: seriously, can these two just GET BACK TOGETHER ALREADY?

Unfortunately, Hawkeye seems to be in danger: we see him running down a tunnel filled with fluorescent red light, running through water – and then suddenly the tunnel is filled with an explosion of fire. I don’t know how he’s going to make it out of that situation, or why he’s even in that situation to begin with, but I’m terrified for him.

1:29 shows us two old friends: Rocket Raccoon (Bradley Cooper) and War Machine (Don Cheadle). They seem to be gearing up for war. Rocket’s interactions with the other Avengers is something I’m looking forward to – I can only imagine how serious characters like Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) and Black Widow will deal with him.

Speaking of Steve, he looks pretty surprised to see Hawkeye in the next shot: granted, I would be too, if I saw someone with that haircut. I’m not sure exactly why losing his family would inspire Hawkeye to cut his hair into the ridiculous style, but, I mean, you do you, Clint.

In quick succession, we see Ant-Man at Avengers HQ (looking less than cheery), Thor powering up Stormbreaker, and Nebula (Karen Gillan) charging into a fight with a battle-cry: could she be taking vengeance on her father, Thanos, for what he did to Gamora (Zoe Saldana) in Avengers: Infinity War? I can’t imagine how she’ll take him on, since he’s armed with the Infinity Gauntlet, and she’s got…batons. But she is pretty formidable – though I’m not sure if she could top her incredible entrance in the third act of Infinity War, where she literally drove a spaceship straight into Thanos (which, by the way, didn’t even slow him down: Nebula, you gonna die).

Hawkeye’s back in the tunnel at 1:39, now wielding his bow again – somehow, I can’t imagine he’s facing off against Thanos in this scene (the tunnel doesn’t seem large enough to fit the gigantic purple Titan, first of all), but if not, then who is he up against? There have been rumors circulating for months that Thanos won’t be the main villain in Avengers: Endgame, or that he might even team up with the Avengers against another threat. Could Hawkeye be coming face to face with some greater villain? (And if so, will he make it out alive? Armed with a bow? Yeah, no.)

There’s a scene from the previous teaser of Black Widow target-shooting: though again, when does this scene take place? Here, she has long, fully blond hair.

At 1: 44, we have Steve Rogers, fully geared-up in the Captain America suit, looking very angry about something. Please, let it not be that Tony Stark has just died. I can’t take that kind of pain. I know that somebody has to die, but just…let it be, like, I don’t know, Drax. Oh wait, he’s already dead. Well, just, don’t take Tony Stark or Steve Rogers, please!

This shot of Steve is followed by a clip of a very tiny Ant-Man leaping through a bizarre landscape that seems to be composed of…a pencil, water, and a power-cord? I have no idea where he is, but if I had to bet, I’d guess either of two things: one, most likely to me, is that this is at the beginning of the film, and we’re seeing Ant-Man escaping from the Quantum Realm. Two, less likely I think, but more terrifying, is that this some weird fight sequence where Thanos is wielding the Reality Stone – which, if you remember from Infinity War, had the power to transform bullets into bubbles, among other things. Either way, things don’t look good for Ant-Man.

Finally, the money-shot of the Avengers walking (destination: unknown) in their new Quantum-Realm suits. The suits are fantastic, and look great. Steve is leading them, and behind him are Tony Stark, Black Widow, Nebula, Ant-Man, War Machine, and Hawkeye – I think Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is behind Black Widow too, though it’s kind of hard to tell. They look absolutely great, and this seems to confirm the theory that the Avengers would be going into the Quantum Realm – or back in time – to try and reverse the Snap that wiped out half the population of the universe. Some think they’ll be going back even further than that, to the Battle of New York from the first Avengers, for instance, and this would seem to be backed up by the fact that Steve Rogers is wearing his old Captain America suit in the shot at 1:44.

The title – Avengers: Endgame lights up in brilliant purple, and the screen goes black. Is the trailer over? No, wait, I don’t think so…

Thor is walking towards a woman who has her back turned. She turns to face us – CAROL DANVERS! Yes, Carol Danvers, a.k.a Captain Marvel, (Brie Larson) is here, in Avengers HQ, and, boy, does she look fantastic or what? She stares back at Thor steadily as he extends his hand past her shoulder, testing her reflexes: his axe, Stormbreaker, flies into his hand.

Carol just barely flinches, and glances down at Stormbreaker with some curiosity.

Thor grins. “I like this one”, he says, and the screen goes black.

Just from that one scene, I already know Thor and Carol’s dynamic will be one of the best parts of this movie: Carol’s new wardrobe, also, looks to be pretty snazzy – she looks quite glamorous. I wonder if they’ll be friends, or perhaps…more than friends?

Okay, so April 26th needs to just arrive now, so that I can see this movie. I’ve got a lot of questions, like, why isn’t Thanos shown or even mentioned in the trailer – he also was absent from the second teaser, and only his armor was seen in the first teaser. What is the plan that the Avengers have for bringing back half the population? Will they time travel – where to, or when to? How do Tony and Nebula go from “lost in space” to “wearing fancy new outfits, walking alongside the other Avengers on earth”? What is going on?

And do Hawkeye and Black Widow end up together?

Trailer Rating: 10/10