While movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe do a great job of having the comics come to life, nothing beats animation. The way that they can bring something to life without reaching the uncanny valley is fascinating to watch. It’s exciting seeing Marvel’s What If…? tackle Doctor Strange as its trippy visuals going into the animation realm is spellbinding to see. Combine that with some of the most tragic stories in the MCU, and it’s an episode that you won’t forget anytime soon.
Story: A Fixed Point in Time
The timeline we focus on is all about the Sorcerer Supreme, and what if he loses his heart than his hands in the accident. The heart is, in this case, Christine Palmer, as in this timeline, they were still dating at the start of the movie. It brings up a flaw from Doctor Strange that doesn’t make sense for this episode, and it was the usage of Christine in the movie. The movie gave Rachel McAdams very little to do as her character wasn’t really in it for that long. If you took Claire out of the movie, the changes wouldn’t be that drastic as it’s not a key piece.
Take Pepper Potts in the Iron Man series as an example. The audience cares about her because the movie develops her and roots in her relationship with Tony Stark. So, imagine if Tony loses Pepper; it will have a huge impact on the audience. Despite all that, the episode does a good amount of lifting in making you believe that these two love each other. It’s effective in terms of seeing Christine’s death and the journey that Strange goes on. We’re given a short montage of the movie’s events as now it’s taken place years after her death, and he still has the Eye of Agamotto. It naturally leads to Strange using it to save Christine, but it’s soon realized that it’s a fixed point.
This is where we really feel for this relationship because it ends in tragedy either way. Strange even tries to ghost her but soon finds out that her apartment building exploded. These events leave Strange down a dark path to bend a fixed point from happening. The episode turns into a tragedy as Strange tries to get as much power as possible. We soon find out that the Ancient One actually split Dr. Strange into two as each one goes down different paths. It becomes a battle of Doctor vs. Doctor and makes for one of the most compelling scenes in the MCU. We go into dark places without giving things away; let’s say it doesn’t land on a hopeful note.
Characters & Performances: The Tragedy of Doctor Strange
Benedict Cumberbatch does a fantastic job with playing multiple angles of Stephen Strange in a short time. We see the typical side that we’re used to seeing, and it doesn’t seem out of character. When he goes down the dark path of power, the brilliant thing is that it’s not out of left turn. Even with a short amount of time, it feels like a slow path until he meets the other Strange who didn’t try to save Christine. Benedict should have done a lot of Shakespeare works because this is the closest the MCU has gotten to a full-on tragedy.
Maybe the biggest surprise we got is how much of The Watcher we got in this episode. We usually hear him narrating the beginning and end with the occasional appearance in the background. Now, we hear him commenting on the events and the conflict of wanting to help but not interfere. As we advance, we might see more of The Watcher than just the narrator, and that’s an exciting prospect. Jeffery Wright has such a rich voice that he adds, and it’s powerful, without sounding too much like a god.
Cinematography & Sound: The MCU Opera
The usage of montages here is brilliant and showcases why we care about these events. We get two key pieces that show how far Strange will go. The first one deals with the death of Christine and Strange trying to save her. We quickly find out that no matter what he does, she will die in one way or another. It’s such a successful way to support someone who’s going through so much pain, and we kind of root for him to succeed even knowing the consequences that are ahead. Then the second montage is basically a training one, but it shows off the beautiful animation. The creatures that Stephen’s faces are so detailed that you would want to pause and marvel at them. It just escalates into something more terrifying as he absorbs their power.
The score from Laura Karpman enhances the whole episode as it becomes more out of something you would hear out of an opera. The epic scale from the music playing during the final battle is beautiful. Then it hits you with the one-hit punch of the piano playing that’ll take the wind out of you. The end credits, which just show the concept art with the score playing, are something that’ll take the wind out of you. You’ll sit with stunned silence as you process the painful beauty that’s being shown.
Editing & Pacing: A Compressed Tale
A common complaint from Marvel’s What If…? has been trying to compress so much in around 30 minutes. This story feels like the one that finally gets it right with working with what you have. We don’t know an extensive recap of Doctor Strange and have it play as the changing events. Instead, it’s a short tale of someone trying to save the love of their life, even with significant consequences on the way. It does get a little complicated with introducing another Strange into the mix.
They do have a good explanation for it, but I won’t be surprised if some people get a bit lost. The editing gets it through by showing both versions of the Sorcerer Supreme taking different paths. That style would have been cool to see even more shots like that. It would have been like a mini What If, showing the two courses for Strange.