“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theories given for Marvel’s inconsistent characterization of Strange was that the Master of Mystic Arts had somehow been replaced by an evil doppelgänger from the Multiverse (or by Mephisto; yep, we’re doing that again).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

“Spider-Man: No Way Home” 1st Trailer Review!

Considered by many the Holy Grail of long-awaited movie trailers, the first official teaser for Spider-Man: No Way Home finally dropped last night after several tiresome months of pleading from fans; and much like the Holy Grail itself (at least if Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade is to be believed), it’s maybe not the flashiest thing in the world. Not, in my opinion, deserving of all the drama that surrounded its release and its premature leak. But at this point, I honestly don’t think the content of the trailer mattered that much. This thing was going to be big no matter what, simply because of the hype that had been built up around it, and the potency of name recognition.

Spider-Man: No Way Home
Peter Parker and Doctor Strange | usatoday.com

Now, as sacrilegious as it may be to write these words, Spider-Man: No Way Home is not one of my most-anticipated MCU movies; not even close. I’m excited for all the Multiverse stuff because that’s more my groove, but it’s the thought of everything in between involving the unrealized potential of Tom Holland’s Peter Parker that gives me pause. I’m happy for everyone who’s happy to see that version of the character again; I’m just more intrigued by the possibility certainty of Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield appearing as Variants of Peter Parker pulled from their own universes into the MCU timeline.

And this trailer gives me just enough of what I needed to hold my interest in No Way Home – Multiverse shenanigans involving all our favorite past iterations of iconic Spider-Man characters who have somehow never been reinvented for the MCU. Alfred Molina returns as the 2004 version of Doc Ock from Spider-Man 2, looking just as fabulous as always even though his mechanical tentacles are very obviously all CGI this time around, and we don’t really get a clear shot of them. We can hear Willem Dafoe’s Green Goblin laugh for the first time since 2002’s Spider-Man, and he’s even still using his original pumpkin-bombs. There’s hints to Jamie Foxx’s Electro, Sandman, and a blurry shape that is possibly Lizard.

That’s a pretty awesome team of super-villains right there, just one member short of a true Sinister Six line-up. For Tom Holland’s sake, I hope one of his own villains completes the team; preferably Mysterio. It would be kind of awkward if in two whole solo movies he didn’t have a single villain worthy of making the cut. But that could be attributable to the fact that the MCU uses Spider-Man mostly for crossover events, and doesn’t put nearly as much effort into fleshing out his own corner of the universe. Even his solo movies have become crossover events, and Spider-Man: No Way Home is going to be the biggest one yet.

Spider-Man: No Way Home
Doc Ock | screencrush.com

And unfortunately, Peter Parker had to go and rope Doctor Strange into his mess. The danger of crossover events is that directors and writers get to take a stab at characters they don’t usually direct or write, and it leads to…very weird inconsistencies. Like Doctor Strange apparently risking the stability of the cosmos for the sake of a teenager whom he vowed he would kill if it meant ensuring the stability of said cosmos just a few months before this film is set. And I genuinely cannot believe the number of people I’ve seen defend this plot point adamantly, claiming that it makes sense because Doctor Strange…texted while driving in his first movie. It’s funny, because I seem to remember that moment being the impetus for a whole lot of character development that pushed him to become the antithesis of everything he had been, but I guess that can all be ignored now?

On the flip-side, you can just have fun and make wild theories about how this Doctor Strange is possibly a Skrull shapeshifter, or Mysterio disguised by one of his illusions, or the evil Doctor Strange Variant whom we’re about to meet in What If…?, or even Mephisto (who at this point has become so widely-known, even among general audiences, that I think Marvel has to use him somewhere down the line). That’s what I plan on doing, because the thought of Doctor Strange actually having his entire personality rewritten to suit the plot of a Spider-Man movie is disheartening.

But I wouldn’t put it past Jon Watts to do that. His weak direction and lack of vision is consistently a major problem with the MCU’s Spider-Man franchise, and that’s what terrifies me about the future of the Fantastic Four under his guidance. I really liked Spider-Man: Far From Home when it came out, and I’m sure that somewhere on this blog you can still find a review where my younger self rambled on for hours about how it was the best MCU movie of all time, but…my thoughts on that film have changed somewhat in the intervening two years. I still think Tom Holland is very well-cast, but the writing he’s burdened with does him no favors.

Spider-Man: No Way Home
Spider-Man | gizmodo.com.au

And all that being said, I’m still excited to see him share the screen with Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield, because he’s still Spider-Man. The thing about the Spider-Man brand is that no matter how many iterations of the character there may be (and there have been a lot), the iconic image of the webslinger is already too firmly etched into the public consciousness to be disrupted by even the worst film adaptation. We all have our own version of Spider-Man that comes closest to matching that timeless ideal – for me, it’s probably the version who cameoed randomly in old episodes of The Electric Company – and that’s a wonderful thing. So celebrate it, and enjoy the trailer.

Seriously, it’s got Doc Ock. If nothing else, celebrate that.

Trailer Rating: 7.5/10

Marvel Offers 1st Look At Eternals And Upcoming Film Slate

What will it take to get moviegoers back into theaters? Hollywood has been asking themselves that question a lot recently: things were looking up for a moment with the success of Godzilla Vs Kong, but Mortal Kombat‘s limited mainstream appeal made it a poor successor to the Monsterverse epic. All eyes are turning towards Marvel’s Black Widow to make or break the box-office, and just this morning Marvel has released a teaser of their upcoming film slate that’s supposed to work as a little…incentive, to get people hyped up about their theatrical releases after a few months of Disney+ series’ (and streaming in general) dominating the conversation.

Marvel Eternals
The Eternals | comicbook.com

Granted, at least one of these movies will be available to purchase on Disney+ while it plays in theaters, and that happens to be Black Widow, so…we’ll see whether this ends up revitalizing the box-office like it’s supposed to, but either way this teaser gave me all the feels, and a first fleeting look at the upcoming film Eternals, my most-anticipated Marvel feature and the one best positioned to be a serious contender at next year’s Academy Awards race.

When I say fleeting, I’m not kidding – we only get a mere thirteen seconds to admire Oscar-winning director Chloé Zhao’s stunning cinematography, and a range of what will presumably be outstanding performances from an all-star cast including Gemma Chan, Richard Madden, Salma Hayek, and Angelina Jolie. But thirteen seconds is all it takes to sell me on the film’s premise, and Zhao’s stunning vision for her first MCU project, one to which she has committed herself with the same clear passion as her critically-acclaimed A24 drama, Nomadland.

Spanning time and space, Eternals follows a group of celestial beings (not to be confused with the literal Celestials, who created the Eternals) who have roamed the earth since prehistoric times, subtly guiding the forward flow of human civilization. Thirteen seconds isn’t much, but it allows us to see the Eternals in their ancient guise as godlike superheroes defending the city of Babylon outside the famous Gate of Ishtar (once considered to be one of the Seven Wonders of the World)…before showing them in their modern forms, revisiting the site of the Mesopotamian city as archaeologists.

We see a little bit of how they’ve each adapted to life coexisting alongside the human race; with some of them, like Salma Hayek’s Ajak, distancing themselves from civilization (Hayek appears to be riding on horseback through what could be the American Southwest or even the Pampas of Argentina), while others, like Kumail Nanjiani’s Kingo, have become celebrities among the humans (I love that he’s brought his own personal camera crew along with him to meet the other Eternals). Angelina Jolie’s Thena is the only character we see fighting in the clip (and I could be wrong, but I think she’s only sparring with her fellow Eternal, Gilgamesh), but the choreography looks good and her golden sword is both beautiful and cool.

Marvel Eternals
Angelina Jolie as Thena | indiewire.com

Perhaps my biggest fear was that the Eternals’ costumes wouldn’t look great in live-action, since up until now all we’ve really seen of them is some concept art…which, with all due respect to the artist, wasn’t quite as visually striking as some fans had been hoping. But this clip lets us see a few of the suits in action (not all, though, and not the ones that looked worst in the concept art), and they seem practical, well-made, and simply gorgeous – with Jolie’s Thena making a particularly strong impression, dressed from head to toe in white with gold accents. Her regal, even haughty, stride indicates that she’s not going to allow any opponent to get a speck of dirt or blood on her pristine outfit – and I respect that power move.

While the rest of the teaser does feature some new footage from Black Widow and Shang-Chi And The Legend Of The Ten Rings, the two major talking points besides the never-before-seen Eternals footage were both title reveals – Black Panther 2 officially receiving the emotional subtitle Wakanda Forever (that movie is gonna make me cry: I just know it), and Captain Marvel 2 rather unusually being retitled and rebranded entirely as The Marvels.

I’m a bit conflicted on how I feel about the latter title: firstly, because when I got the notification on my phone about this announcement, I honestly thought The Marvels was going to be an MCU sitcom. Of course, the title is supposed to reference the film’s holy trinity of heroines – Brie Larson as Carol Danvers’ Captain Marvel, Teyonah Parris as Monica Rambeau (who also goes by Captain Marvel in the comics), and Iman Vellani as Ms. Marvel – but it’s a bit too much of a cheeky pun on the company’s name, and slightly undermines what I feel should be more of an epic and awe-inspiring moment. Some fans are upset that the Captain Marvel solo franchise is now dropping Captain Marvel’s name, and I get that – though I also understand and appreciate that the new title celebrates more inclusivity, and puts the three women on equal status, rather than elevating Carol above her costars.

The teaser is very focused on release dates, some of which we already knew, some of which are a bit of a surprise. Black Widow and Eternals are both set in stone and unlikely to shift around on the calendar – the former is comfortably anchored by a Disney+ simultaneous release, and the latter is being positioned for awards season. Shang-Chi will still release in September, between the two films, while Spider-Man: No Way Home will close out the year on a bang, by all accounts setting up a Multiverse saga that will escalate in Doctor Strange In The Multiverse Of Madness, arriving March 25th, 2022. Thor: Love And Thunder and Black Panther: Wakanda Forever will be the big summer event-movies of that year, and The Marvels will premiere on November 11th.

Captain Marvel 2
The Marvels | marvelcinematicuniverse.fandom.com

So far, only Ant-Man And The Wasp: Quantumania and Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 3 are confirmed for 2023 (the former in February, the latter in May) but Mahershala Ali’s Blade will likely end up there too, along with Fantastic Four – the electric-blue logo for which pops up again in the final moments of this teaser, as if to remind us that we never know the full extent of Marvel’s plans for the future. Remember, these are just the upcoming movies.

But how do you feel about the studio’s slate of films, and which is your most anticipated? Share your own thoughts, theories, and opinions, in the comments below!