“What If…?” Episode 9 – A Hollow And Hectic Finale

SPOILERS FOR WHAT IF…? AHEAD!

Marvel Studios has churned out three live-action series’ for Disney+ this year, and it didn’t take them long to match or frequently surpass the quality of many of their movies. What If…?, on the other hand, has had scattered moments and two full episodes that I’d rank right up there alongside the best of WandaVision, The Falcon And The Winter Soldier, and Loki, but if this series is going to be a multi-season commitment for Marvel’s fledgling animation department (and it’s intended to be), then it’s going to need a little more work.

What If...?
Guardians Of The Multiverse | mcutimes.com

Leaving aside the fact that some episodes could be better described as mashups of two or more Marvel movies than actual “what if…?” scenarios, or the occasionally awkward facial animations and voice acting, What If…?‘s most consistent issue is that almost every episode is trying to squeeze an entire movie’s worth of plot and character development into the span of about twenty-five minutes, a good amount of which is often credits. This problem doesn’t necessarily have to be solved by making every episode forty to fifty minutes long, either. More focused writing would do wonders for What If…?.

For instance, this season finale didn’t need to be almost entirely an action sequence pitting the newly-formed “Guardians of the Multiverse” against Ultron (voiced by Ross Marquand), for several reasons. Firstly and probably most importantly, because it’s largely pointless. The Watcher (voiced by Jeffrey Wright)’s plan to defeat Ultron doesn’t actually rely on fighting him for a prolonged period of time, so this sequence feels like a waste of screentime that could have been better spent formulating a more efficient plan; perhaps one that would have given The Watcher something to do in this episode after how active he was last week.

And the longer this pointless sequence drags on, the more it robs Ultron of all the fear and awe he commanded in last week’s episode. Wielding all six Infinity Stones and possessed of reflexes and mental capacities beyond human comprehension, Ultron was capable of devouring entire galaxies last week – the only opponent who should logically stand a chance against him in battle for very long, out of this line-up at least, is Doctor Strange Supreme (Benedict Cumberbatch). I love seeing underdog characters use their unique skills to bring down an enemy twice their size, like when Star-Lord (Chadwick Boseman) gracefully snatches an Infinity Stone from Ultron’s collection using his “sticky fingers” technique, but Ultron is already depowered even before that, and it makes the whole battle less interesting.

The stakes are also surprisingly low for a series that’s so far been almost sadistic when it comes to killing off our favorite characters. For a moment, I hoped that Party Thor (Chris Hemsworth) at least would get to go out in a blaze of glory, after having served his only real purpose – unwitting bait for Ultron. But in fact, nobody dies. Technically not even Ultron, although it’s hard to describe what really happens to him: his body, or rather Vision’s body, gets taken over by the mind of Arnim Zola (Toby Jones), and his armor gets transferred to Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), who wants to use it to conquer the universe with the Infinity Stones, and both of them get locked up in a pocket dimension for all eternity, fighting over the Stones.

What If...?
Gamora | looper.com

The Killmonger twist is one of many plot beats and character moments in this episode that required more time to develop organically. The entire build-up to Killmonger’s betrayal is one or two shots of him silently staring at an Ultron droid’s helmet. Similarly, Captain Carter (Hayley Atwell) sees one photo of Steve Rogers and suddenly wants to leave her timeline to go back and live with him. She ultimately decides against it, which I’m choosing to interpret as a jab at Steve’s out-of-character ending in Avengers: Endgame, but the whole scene feels too rushed to make this conflict or its resolution particularly interesting.

This feeling that we’re racing against the clock is compounded by another problem: none of the Guardians of the Multiverse actually know each other prior to this episode, and we don’t know them all that well – heck, this is our first time even meeting Gamora (voiced by Cynthia McWilliams), Destroyer of Thanos, because for some reason her individual episode got moved to season two – so they’re building relationships entirely from scratch, and without even so much as a common understanding of the universe to unite them.

The episode could have played on the radical differences between them to build bonds or create rifts and divisions, but this is an idea we only see realized through Captain Carter’s relationships with the two Black Widows (both voiced by Lake Bell). In her own timeline, their flirty banter is identical to that of Steve Rogers and Black Widow – which would be a lot more surprising and refreshing if it didn’t feel like What If…?‘s Captain Carter is literally just a reskin of Captain America. When she meets the haggard Black Widow of last week’s episode, she tells her things about herself that this timeline’s Widow wouldn’t have told a soul, proving her trustworthiness and unintentionally revealing that she and Widow are closer than Steve and Widow.

But that’s it. Other interactions, which could have been just as emotional if not more so, are ignored completely. Killmonger seeing T’Challa alive after murdering him in episode six should have been a humbling moment for him. Gamora talking about killing her timeline’s Thanos could have caused a clash with T’Challa, who successfully persuaded his timeline’s Thanos to see the error of his ways. And although zombie Wanda Maximoff shows up to fight Ultron and seems briefly confused by something, it would have been nice – and even more heartbreaking – to have explicit confirmation that she recognized her beloved Vision’s face on the android’s body.

Nonetheless, What If…? aims for an unearned heartfelt tone in its final minutes, as the Guardians go their separate ways. Obviously, the two endings that most fans will be talking about for weeks to come are Captain Carter’s and Doctor Strange Supreme’s: in a mid-credits scene, the former discovers the derelict HYDRA Stomper suit from episode one and is informed that someone is inside, setting up a Winter Soldier-type storyline for season two, while the latter is put in charge of protecting the pocket dimension where Zola and Killmonger are being kept, establishing him as The Watcher’s right-hand man and a being of infinitely more power than he could ever have obtained on his own. But neither ending really moved me.

What If...?
Gamora and T’Challa | butwhythopodcast.com

What did tug at my heartstrings was Black Widow being given a second chance by The Watcher, being dropped into the timeline that lost its Black Widow back in episode three, and helping Captain America and Captain Marvel take down Loki (Tom Hiddleston), even though I thought somebody ought to have warned her that Hawkeye, Thor, and Bruce Banner had also died in that timeline. What did break my heart was seeing T’Challa fly off to save the galaxy once again, this time with Peter Quill (voiced by Brian T. Delaney) by his side, and knowing now that Marvel wanted to give the character his own spin-off series.

These characters, even their alternate versions, are what we fall in love with, they’re why we watch, and my only hope for season two of What If…? is that Marvel gives them the space and time to really shine.

Episode Rating: 6.5/10

“Visions” Is Exactly What Star Wars Needs To Be In 2021

SPOILERS FOR STAR WARS: VISIONS AHEAD!

Every live-action franchise should consider experimenting with the medium of animation. It’s worked out extremely well for DC Comics (one of their most popular characters, Harley Quinn, originated in Batman: The Animated Series), and the MCU is starting to get into the business too, with What If…?, but Star Wars really redefined the ways in which animation could support and enrich a live-action franchise. And with the release of all nine episodes of Star Wars: Visions, Star Wars displays a willingness to think outside the box that shows why the franchise is still at the forefront when it comes to bridging that gap between live-action and animation.

Star Wars: Visions is an anthology series like Marvel’s What If…?, but whereas the various storylines in What If…? will eventually converge, the stories told in Star Wars: Visions are wholly unconnected – there’s no overarching plot, no framing device like What If…?‘s narrator, and no single animation style. Visions is also not intended to be viewed as canon, and most of the stories seem to exist outside of the Star Wars timeline, either unimaginably far into the franchise’s past or even further into its future. That’s not to say they couldn’t be integrated into canon, and there are several characters I’d love to see more of, but it’s not constantly in the back of your mind the way it is with What If…?

Because all of the episodes have been released already (robbing me of the chance to review them weekly), and they are all so different, I’ve decided to structure this review as a kind of episode ranking – moving from my least-favorites to my favorites.

Tatooine Rhapsody

Star Wars: Visions
Boba Fett | gamerevolution.com

The only episode of Visions that I found myself tempted to fast-forward through at multiple points, Studio Colorido’s Tatooine Rhapsody is a bland and uninspiring genre mash-up that feels like it was originally intended to be the pilot of an Apple TV original sci-fi series, and then got awkwardly reworked into a Star Wars story at the last minute. It’s the only episode that goes a little too heavy on the callbacks and nostalgia, with cameos from Boba Fett (voiced by Temuera Morrison), Jabba the Hutt, and Bib Fortuna, as if the writers realized that their main storyline about a garage band looking for work on Tatooine felt nothing like Star Wars, so they tried to force in a whole bunch of iconic characters to make it more natural.

Unfortunately, I didn’t like the writing, and I didn’t like the animation style here either. Some of the character designs were pretty cute, like tiny little Boba Fett with his big bobble-head helmet and even Bib Fortuna, but not enough to save the episode from looking like a low-budget Cartoon Network show devoid of charm or whimsy.

Episode Rating: 1/10

T0-B1

Star Wars: Visions
T0-B1 | theverge.com

There’s so many words to describe this episode…the most flattering of which is perhaps “quaint”. A vaguely disturbing twist on the story of Pinocchio, seemingly styled after that and other Disney cartoons from the 1940’s, T0-B1 plays out like the plot of the 1993 video game Putt-Putt Goes To The Moon…which is to say, there really isn’t all that much of a plot. T0-B1 (voiced by Jaden Waldman), a clumsy little droid who wants to be a Jedi, searches around his home planet for a hidden kyber crystal, and at any moment you expect him to turn to the audience and ask for you to click on objects on the screen. Occasionally he’ll report back to a zany old professor who teaches him valuable life-lessons about the Force.

If this were supposed to act as a lighthearted diversion from some of the heavier episodes, it would be one thing. But that’s very much not the case, as the zany old professor ends up being killed by a Sith Inquisitor and T0-B1 gets impaled (he’s a droid so he survives, but it’s still quite brutal). The hauntingly beautiful animation by Science SARU makes this an interesting watch, I suppose, but not a particularly fulfilling or even exciting one.

Episode Rating: 3.9/10

Akakiri

Star Wars: Visions
Masago | cbr.com

I’m still sorting out my thoughts on this macabre tale of horror and suspense, which plays with some very intriguing concepts about fate and destiny while also reusing the whole story (down to some awfully specific plot-beats) of Anakin Skywalker’s fall to the dark side. Tsubaki (voiced by Henry Golding) is our Anakin stand-in, a rugged young Jedi knight who falls in love with a princess in a political crisis and becomes her guardian, all while suffering from visions of her death (although in this case, he doesn’t realize it’s her in the visions, or that he’s the one killing her). He ultimately joins the Sith in a desperate effort to save her life, after accidentally killing her in a rage.

Regardless of the episode’s quality, I would not have chosen it to close out the first season of Visions. It’s a deeply morbid and depressing story of people stripped of their agency by invisible forces, and the eerie (yet strikingly beautiful) animation by Science SARU only heightens the feelings of dread that the episode inspires. I enjoyed it, and this episode had some of the best voice-acting in Visions (particularly Golding, Jamie Chung channeling Padmé Amidala in her character Misa, Lorraine Toussaint as Sith warlord Masago, and George Takei as a much-needed comedic relief character), but it’s not a fun watch.

Episode Rating: 4.9/10

The Twins

Star Wars: Visions
Am and Karre | avcaesar.com

Fast-paced, well-acted, and stunningly animated by Studio Trigger with a clean-cut futuristic aesthetic, this lean and mean story was right on the edge of greatness. With its tale of twin siblings bred and birthed by the dark side of the Force, one breaking free from their appointed destiny and the other bound to it, The Twins acts as good counter-programming to the hopeless messages of Akakiri, but it’s weighed down by a lot of exposition, and the action isn’t as thrilling as you’d probably expect, possibly because it’s so heavily stylized that it sometimes feels like a lightshow instead of an actual fight.

That said, there are some very cool elements here too: Karre (Neil Patrick Harris)’s multi-colored lightsaber gave me serious She-Ra vibes, and Am (Alison Brie)’s six robot appendages and lightsaber-whips make for some striking visuals. I also enjoyed seeing Karre employ the controversial Holdo maneuver from The Last Jedi, although seeing it recreated in a series of almost identical shots felt a tad unimaginative. And the ending lends itself to continuation, whether in animation or in live-action.

Episode Rating: 5.9/10

The Duel

Star Wars: Visions
The Bandit Leader | cbr.com

Of all the Visions episodes, each beautiful in their own right (except for Tatooine Rhapsody), Kamikaze Douga’s The Duel is surely the most striking from an artistic standpoint. Designed to resemble grainy black-and-white film, the animation style pays homage to Akira Kurosawa, the Japanese director whose work inspired George Lucas’ original vision for Star Wars. The story is a sci-fi twist on a classic scenario from the samurai genre: a war-weary sword-fighter, usually a rogue samurai (rōnin) comes to town and helps the local people in a conflict with another great sword-fighter, typically the leader of a band of raiders who’ve been pillaging the area’s natural resources.

Because it features such an archetypal setting and cast of characters, the outcome of the titular lightsaber duel between the subtly-named Ronin (Brian Tee) and the umbrella-wielding Sith Bandit Leader (Lucy Liu) is never in question, but there’s something comforting about that, as well as the gracefulness with which Ronin conducts himself in battle. The real subversion of expectations is that Ronin isn’t a former Jedi as you’re initially led to believe, but a former Sith repenting for his evil deeds, which is ten times cooler. In short I loved this, and I hope to see more of Ronin in the future.

Episode Rating: 8/10

Lop And Ochō

Star Wars: Visions
Lop | denofgeek.com

This episode would likely have cracked into my top three if the story hadn’t ended quite so abruptly. Even more so than the beautiful and richly-detailed animation by Geno Studio or the incredible score by Yoshiaka Dewa, what really stands out to me about this story is the character work. Set sometime during the reign of the Galactic Empire, we follow the disintegration of an ancient clan as its patriarch, Yasaburo (Paul Nakauchi), and his biological daughter Ochō (Hiromi Dames) fall to fighting over whether to side with the Empire in the best interests of their family, or fight back and try to protect their planet. Standing between them is Yasaburo’s adopted daughter, Lop (Anna Cathcart), a leporine alien who feels like an outsider in her own house.

The episode delivers a great message about found family as Lop emerges as the true successor of the Yasaburo clan, and even inherits their most precious heirloom: a green-bladed lightsaber that is probably one of the most beautiful in all of Star Wars history. I was perfectly prepared for this to become my favorite episode – and then it just ends, having not only not resolved the conflict at hand, but with the situation even more dire than before. If this story ever continues, I think the relatively small scope of the story, the beautiful backgrounds, and Lop’s ability to leap long distances and glide around via umbrella are all good reasons to make a Lop And Ochō video game.

Episode Rating: 8.5/10

The Ninth Jedi

Star Wars: Visions
Kara | theverge.com

Coming in at third place, I have The Ninth Jedi – which, of all the Visions stories, screams out for some kind of continuation. This gripping tale of mystery, suspense, and political intrigue, filled with extraordinary action and instantly endearing characters, comes to us from the mind of writer/director Kenji Kamiyama at Production I.G, who will also direct War Of The Rohirrim, an upcoming anime film based on The Lord Of The Rings. I was already excited for that, but now I can’t wait to see what Kamiyama will do with characters and stories I know like the back of my hand.

In this story, set hundreds of years after The Rise Of Skywalker during a new conflict between the Jedi and an emboldened faction of Sith, Kamiyama devises a whole new set of rules regarding lightsabers (specifically their colors) that honestly makes more sense than the established canon. Here, a lightsaber’s color is a visual indicator of the wielder’s personality as well as their strength in the Force, which is why as the heroine Kara (Kimiko Glenn)’s confidence increases, her blade goes from transparent to green. And the color can change even after that, based on the wielder’s actions. These changes have made some fans mad (of course), but this is the kind of expansive creativity I hope Kamiyama brings to Middle-earth.

Episode Rating: 9/10

The Elder

Star Wars: Visions
Dan and The Elder | starwars.com

Visions is quite a scary series, and Studio Trigger’s The Elder is a perfect example of how the most effective horror is almost always subtle, shocking our senses but more importantly affecting us on a psychological level. We can close our eyes to avoid a jump-scare, but there are things that lurk in the corners of our minds that are much harder to shake. Good horror plays on that, and gets into our heads. With a powerful message about accepting the inevitability of death, The Elder is able to do just that.

The episode is anchored by three characters at different stages in their lives – The Elder (James Hong), a mysterious Sith lord clinging to his frail mortal body, Tajin (David Harbour), a world-weary middle-aged Jedi knight, and Dan (Jordan Fisher), Tajin’s reckless young padawan who tries to defeat The Elder in combat and is soundly defeated, just barely escaping with his life. It’s Tajin who must ultimately defeat The Elder, and conquer his own fear that his best days are behind him. Their duel is appropriately mythic in proportions, and the episode ends with a tantalizing mystery about The Elder’s true identity that could easily support future chapters of this story.

Episode Rating: 9.5/10

The Village Bride

Star Wars: Visions
F | imdb.com

I had a hard time deciding my favorite between The Elder and The Village Bride, but there’s just so much to love about this story, from the way it masterfully interweaves elements of Shinto philosophy with Star Wars’ concept of the Force, to the ethereal score by Kevin Penkin, and the fascinating new character of F (Karen Fukuhara), all wrapped up in a vibrant, colorful package courtesy of the delightfully named Kinema Citrus. The Village Bride is the episode I would have chosen to close out Visions: it sums up everything the series is, and everything that Star Wars can be in good hands.

The story is similar to that of The Duel, with the crucial difference being that the cynical former Jedi F is inspired and her faith in the Force restored by the local townspeople when she learns how the titular village bride Haru (Nichole Sakura) is actively trying to save her people from their enemies. It acts as a wake-up call for her, reminding her that a Jedi’s first and foremost duty must always be to help those in need. And when she joins the townspeople in their fight, it made me respect the Jedi again in a way I haven’t felt as a viewer for a while now.

The episode has something for everybody, from amazing action (let’s just say, you do not want to get on F’s bad side while she’s wearing heels) to a genuinely happy ending that feels so rare for Star Wars sometimes that I had to mention it. This is my favorite Visions episode, and it’s the kind of hopeful story that I need to see more of from the franchise.

Episode Rating: 10/10

Do We Want Live-Action “She-Ra”?

Okay, so it’s not exactly the animated She-Ra movie that we all wanted and continuously asked for, but…it’s something. It’s something, all right. News broke today that Amazon Prime is currently in early development of a live-action series centered around the iconic character of She-Ra, and it caused quite the commotion on social media once it became known that the series would be a straightforward reboot or sequel to the original 1980’s animated series, and would have nothing to do with the popular Netflix reboot – She-Ra And The Princesses Of Power – that concluded its five-season run last year.

She-Ra
1980’s She-Ra | dallasweekly.com

Now to be fair, any connection between the two would likely be impossible given that this new live-action series is coming from a rival streaming service, and as a fan of Netflix’s She-Ra, I think I can speak for much of the fandom when I say I wouldn’t be too keen on the idea of a live-action version of that highly stylized series (although it still might be preferable to live-action versions of the original character designs…yikes). But as a fan, I can also guess why a lot of people are unhappy about this announcement. It feels like a step back.

When Noelle Stevenson rebooted She-Ra for modern audiences, they did so with the understanding that certain aspects of the original series didn’t work, and needed to be tweaked or played around with to keep the franchise alive and healthy, but also to ensure that the fandom could keep growing. Stevenson’s She-Ra honored the spirit of the original without being beholden to it, and anyone – whether they had watched the original series or not – could jump into the Netflix reboot and get caught up in a really awesome story that hinged on a groundbreaking depiction of queer love.

The significance of She-Ra‘s LGBTQ+ representation cannot be understated, but part of the reason why it works so well is because this story was already queer-coded, intentionally or not. Sorry not sorry to all the homophobes and transphobes out there, but everything about the premise of the original She-Ra (and for that matter its sibling series He-Man) makes ten times more sense when viewed through a queer and/or trans lens. This isn’t even a recent interpretation of either series. So Noelle Stevenson’s decision to make She-Ra queer wasn’t random: it built off the character’s established struggle with her secret identity and double life in such a way that it felt completely organic and thematically cohesive.

She-Ra
Catra and Adora | ew.com

But of course, this decision didn’t go over well with a whole bunch of people, mostly adult men who like to call themselves fans of the original She-Ra even though they seem primarily interested in the lead heroine’s physical attributes (and we all had to hear about how modern She-Ra wasn’t sexualized enough for them). These are the same folks who feel the need to justify the fact that they still enjoy He-Man by pretending that it was really dark, edgy, and aggressively straight – despite literally all the evidence to the contrary – because they need to make some point about how women and LGBTQ+ folks are ruining their childhood.

And when the fandom splits down the middle like this, we get things like Masters Of The Universe: Revelations trying to reconcile this completely baseless perception of the original cartoons as some kind of edgelord fantasy with what new generations want from the franchise – and it’s unappealing to pretty much everybody. Until now, because there had only been the one attempt to reboot She-Ra in particular, we’d mostly been having this conversation about He-Man. Now the question on everybody’s lips is: who is this She-Ra live-action series going to be aimed at?

And I think now that we’re having the conversation about She-Ra specifically, our argument as fans of the Netflix reboot feels a lot clearer. Because He-Man, while linked to She-Ra, is technically a separate franchise with a much larger and more widely spread-out fandom, and the benefit of stronger name recognition. A lot of people are going to watch He-Man just because it’s He-Man, and they know that character. She-Ra, on the other hand, is as popular as it is today because of Noelle Stevenson’s series, and because of the fans of that series who still get She-Ra trending on Twitter every few months because of how much we want more of that version.

She-Ra
Netflix’s She-Ra | kotaku.com

I’m not even as mad about this news as some people are, because I’m open to Amazon blowing my mind with a great idea, but I do understand where that anger is coming from – and I am disappointed that Dreamworks and Mattel, who own the rights to She-Ra, seem to be pointedly ignoring the potential for a She-Ra movie building off the events of the Netflix reboot. Currently, without many details to go on besides the unquestionable fact that live-action Catra is probably going to be another Sonic the Hedgehog situation, all I can hope is that the renewed interest in this franchise will lead to more She-Ra content in the near future – including an animated movie.

So what do you think? Are you excited to see what Amazon has in store? Share your own thoughts, theories, and opinions, in the comments below!

“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 doppelgänger 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