Marvel’s What If…? Episode 4 Ending Explored: The Ramifications of Doctor Strange’s Choice

Things get extra dark in the latest episode of Marvel's big anthology cartoon. Let's take a closer look at this alternate universe.

Dr. Strange vs. Dr. Strange from What If...?
Photo: Marvel Entertainment

With the last couple episodes of Marvel’s What If…?, I was able to speculate on the tangent realities. What would a reformed Thanos mean for Earth? Where do the loyalties lie in the war against Loki’s rule over Midgard? The show asks, “What if?” and I asked, “What’s next?”

Well…episode 4 makes that a little difficult. There is no world to expand upon. There is no future. Dr. Strange, driven by an obsession to save Christine Palmer’s life, goes way overboard and abuses time travel and magic to the point that reality collapses upon itself and all that remains is a guilt-ridden sorcerer left with nothing but consequences.

Still, the events of the episode do suggest a deeper look.

The Nexus Event

Much like Hope Van Dyne joining SHIELD in the last episode, the nexus event isn’t ever shown. What separates this world from regular continuity is actually what makes it feel so tragic and even mean spirited. The universe is doomed because Stephen Strange was a better person before his origin. He was able to keep his ego in check enough to end up in a relationship with Christine. He was better and, in the end, everyone suffers. That’s messed up.

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In the movie, Strange learns a cosmic lesson about humility and comes out of it stronger. We see him get messed up from that car crash after texting while driving, we see what a dick he is, and we decide, “Hey, he got what was coming to him.” The lesson to be learned here is that, what, “Shit happens?” That pointless tragedy has to happen in order to push the narrative of the universe?

I have to wonder how the “absolute point” concept works in regards to various continuities. I imagine that if the movie version of Dr. Strange tried to go back in time and stop his accident, he’d get his hands run over by a steamroller or he’d accidentally punch a brick wall several hundred times or whatever. Reality is hellbent on making him Dr. Strange. So could the Dr. Strange from this episode set up that situation? If he somehow had the foresight to make his younger self a jerk so that he never gets too close with Christine and goes on to only lose his livelihood, would that actually work?

Animated Deconstruction

Hey, remember the Marvel Animated Cinematic Universe? Those straight-to-DVD movies that came out before the MCU was a hit? There were two Ultimate Avengers movies, a really boring Iron Man feature, a movie about the Avengers’ kids fighting Ultron, and so on? Back in 2007, there was a Dr. Strange movie. It didn’t work.

The people behind it couldn’t figure out how to make magic interesting, so all the sorcerer characters mainly fight with swords that they could summon out of thin air. At one point halfway into the movie, they mention that Dr. Strange has an innate power to absorb magic. By the end, when realizing that Dormammu is too powerful as he’s made of pure magic, Strange just remembers his ability and sucks Dormammu into his own body.

It does the job. It’s just that simple There are somehow no side-effects and the movie abruptly ends. What the hell?

I like that this animated Dr. Strange story also features him absorbing demonic and magic entities, only it’s very, very apparent that this is not healthy and not good for Strange or the world. It’s like they’re calling out that dumb ending that only I remember!

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Christine Palmer

Rachel McAdams reprises her role as Christine Palmer and this episode is not kind to her. No matter how many times Strange tries, she somehow dies, like she’s the homeless man from Groundhog Day. I understand Strange’s insistence of trying new solutions to keep her from getting the Final Destination treatment, but seriously. At one point she just straight-up keels over. Seeing her get randomly shot or hit by a car is unnecessary when “just falling over and dying for reasons” is something the universe can throw at her. You’re not going to dodge that like it’s a falling piano.

What’s really messed up about this is that this Dr. Strange was able to defeat Dormammu and what’s-his-name with the weird eye makeup. The events of the movie transpired like normal. That means that Christine wasn’t even important to the events of the Dr. Strange movie. Strange’s astral form could have picked another surgeon at random and would have achieved the same results.

Jesus. The fridging was bad enough, but now the episode is calling her worthless. Maybe melting this universe was for the better.

Speaking of worthless: way to go, Mordo! You ended up being totally right about everything and you’re not even doing anything to stop Strange. You trying to wipe out all the sorcerers is like me using my Nintendo Ring Fit. I talk a mean game about how hard I’m going to work out, but I know I’m just going to sit on the couch and watch Critic reruns.

Uatu the Watcher

Our host for What If…? gets a juicier role this time around. He’s spent several episodes hiding in the background, narrating the stories while only noticed by the viewer. In this episode, as the corrupt Dr. Strange was in the middle of eating demon souls, he was briefly aware that Uatu was in the room, discussing his refusal to intervene.

This comes off like Uatu’s #1 power move from the comics: showing up and not doing anything for the sake of letting everyone know that this is a big deal. If you’re a superhero and you see a giant bald man in a toga just standing around minding his own, it means that something historically important is going on. Of course, that negates the purpose of Uatu’s vow. Just by standing there, he’s interfering by tipping everyone off about the severity of the situation.

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Later on, when reality started to collapse, Strange called out to Uatu for help. Not only was Strange able to see him, but he had already studied his existence and understood who he was dealing with. Uatu refused to help and called him out for fucking up on such a major level. This whole continuity was destroyed because a man tried to play God and Uatu used it to support his argument to never get involved.

Yet it looks like that might be something he’ll be doing soon enough. One of the What If…? trailers had a very quick but memorable shot of various alternate heroes posing together like the iconic Avengers circle sequence. At the very least we see Black Panther (Killmonger?), Gamora (dressed as Thanos), and the T’Challa version of Star-Lord working together in the ruins of New York City. Signs point to a big What If…? crossover for the finale.

Signs point to Uatu the Watcher putting it together, choosing life over oath.

The same promotional materials show that we haven’t seen the last of this Dr. Strange. Whether that’s a good thing or not for the multiverse, we’ll find out soon enough.