Warning: Spoilers for What If...? and the entirety of the MCU. Proceed at your own risk.
If we continue the tradition of my sixpence summary review of the episodes in the first paragraph of the introduction, then I feel like What If... Dr Strange Lost His Heart Instead of His Hands? is a fairly decent episode of The Twilight Zone but not so much a good story about anything that's ever existed in the Marvel Cinematic Universe up to and including the character of Dr Strange.
To get more into that let's talk about Strange as a character and this story and the usual overview of the voice acting work.
I Am Not A Fan of MCU Doctor Strange
Let's get that out of the way right off the bat because I'm aware this is a bias that 100% makes me inclined to tune out the minute we get a premise of "What if... you spend 30 minutes of your life giving a shit about anything at all that happens to versions of MCU Stephen Strange but which does not include them being repeatedly kneed in the crotch by Lady Sif in a special crossover episode from her series about repeatedly kneeing Loki in the crotch?"
So if you're a fan of Dr Strange I apologize. I know you're out there, I know he really does it for you. I know there are concepts about him which are really interesting, especially if you love magic in the MCU. I don't even mind main comics universe 616 Stephen Strange that much! He's a bit of a douchebag but compared to 616 Tony Stark I'd say their good and bad points were neck and neck - or awesome facial hair to awesome facial hair, as the case may be.
When you get to the MCU, though, the problem for me is that the whole thing of "Dr Strange is Tony Stark except with magic" doesn't work the way it does in 616. Because yes, while the movie of Dr Strange hits all the same beats as the first Iron Man - arrogant rich white male jerkwad gets some kind of external kick in the pants to change his life and become a superhero - the motivations for Stephen and Tony are vastly different. And that difference is key to why this episode of What If...? doesn't much work either.
Because with Tony Stark his comeuppance is about his own fuckups. He's forced to realize that his cavalier attitude about anything but quite literally his own dick is responsible for the deaths of thousands of people. He is therefore motivated to become a better person to first and foremost fix his mistakes and then, later, to try to protect the entire world in a redemption for how previously he didn't care about how he personally endangered it.
I mean there's a reason why one of the key milestones of Tony's life is getting an arc reactor slammed into his chest in what even Stan Lee acknowledged was the least subtle bit of symbolism since the example illustrations in Georgia O'Keeffe's autobiography They're Just Flowers God Damn It.
All of which isn't to say Tony is perfect! I mean you know I love the guy but I'm first in line to say he's riddled with faults. But his faults tie nicely with his strengths to make a story: he wants to protect the world but he is the worst at figuring out how to do it. So he screws up, freaks out about the screw up, tries to make it better, ends up making it worse, the cycle repeats. There's two steps forward one step back in some ways but it's growth. It's character development. It's origin story to superhero with flaws. This is an interesting concept for a character.
Conversely we have Stephen Strange whose kick in the pants is... he can't perform surgery anymore. To which I reply I'm supposed to care because why again?
Yeah, he was a talented doctor. You know what talented doctors who can't perform surgery can do? Go teach. Go make other talented doctors. Or go do research. Or consult. Or any number of other things besides perform surgery. Billions of people manage to not perform surgery every day. He can take a dose of copium and join the rest of us in finding a hobby or two.
Now I, a disabled person, am perfectly on board for a story about how someone suddenly faced with a disability might go into denial about it and fight hard against accepting this new reality. Except that's not really Stephen's story. Sure it starts there but ultimately it's about a privileged white dude who isn't special in what he started out as anymore so he goes find something else to make sure there isn't a minute of the day when he isn't getting patted on the head for being the most amazing boy who ever lived.
Stephen doesn't get any kind of story arc. He was a talented doctor, he couldn't perform surgery - again not even couldn't be a doctor, he couldn't perform surgery - he had a huge pouty fit about it, he solved it by becoming a talented sorcerer. That's not character development, that's an update to his LinkedIn profile. At no point here does he learn something about himself, his mistakes, the people around him, the power of friendship, nothing. He's giving me nothing to show me a reason to care about him or his story. There's five thousand hours of MCU to watch. My life is short, I'm not giving any more of it over to Stephen than I have to.
(At this point let me say I acknowledge that there may be some fans of Stephen reading this who are gritting their teeth and going "okay BUT - " and I get that. His story worked for you. You saw things in it I didn't. That's okay. This is what I saw, this is why he doesn't work for me. I'm not trying to convince you of anything, I'm only explaining myself here.)
All of this then leads into why this episode of What If...? doesn't bring that much to the table as far as character work goes.
Good Concept, Not So Much Episode
Like I said before, I feel like this What If..? concept works well as an episode of The Twilight Zone. "Man obsessed with loss of one person brings about the loss of his entire universe" is a great "Time Enough at Last" kind of an elevator pitch that you can see it getting greenlit. And I think if you made it about some random dude who we only meet through this story it's not a problem that we're not getting character in lieu of story concept. After all, other than Henry Bemis and kids overly attached to cornfields, the things that we tend to remember about Twilight Zone eps are concepts and not people. Which is perfectly fine! It works great for the setup of that show.
But this is a story about Stephen Strange, so somewhere in here it would've been nice to, yanno, get something about Stephen Strange. Which didn't happen. Even the literal before and after comparison of "Good" Stephen to Strange Supreme (as the captions called him) had the first Stephen pointing out that personality wise they were the same dude. The only difference was the powers (more on this in a sec).
Now I feel that if I was a fan of Stephen in any form this wouldn't have bothered me so much. And to be fair if this had been Tony Stark fighting a darker version of himself I would have been all over that with a napkin handy to wipe away my drool. I totally get the inherent appeal.
I also suspect that greater knowledge of Stephen probably helps. For instance true lovers of Stephen probably watched a lot of the scenes here going oooh, this is a reference to that and now he's using this spell and so on and so forth. So I imagine on those counts this episode was a feast for fans of the fantastic facial haired fellow.
(Eh? Eh? Ahem.)
But as someone who's not a fan of Stephen I've only got what the episode gives me to go on. And what that was was... meh.
Like first up nothing showed me why he gave a fuck about Christine. It showed me he was obsessed with Christine, but the obsession read to me as him hating the fact that she was taken from him. We didn't see him loving her personality, her sense of humor, the way she snores when she sleeps, the way she eats a pizza by blowing on it first, nothing. She was something he had and then something he didn't have. He could've been equally upset about the loss of his car without huge changes to the story.
(And if I'm supposed to be coming into this remembering his feelings about her from the movies, I'll remind you that the universe was in danger and he didn't even briefly glance at a cellphone to ponder sending her a waving hi emoji. There's nothing establishing her as his One True Everything.)
I'm fine for the concept that in and of itself that could be the story! I'm fine for a character being more obsessed with the idea of a person than the real them and that obsession leading that character on a dark path. But I don't think the story wanted me to think that. I think I was supposed to be feeling sorry for Strange because his heart was broken. And I wasn't, because in the millions of attempts at trying to fix it (which I did appreciate the quickness and thoroughness of) exactly none of them included the words "Hey Christine, in a hypothetical where your death is an absolute in the universe, what would you want someone to do about it?"
I'm bouncing around a bit here but even at the very end Christine wasn't given any agency in her story. The entire fucking universe is destroyed - which I'll remind you is mathematically 100% worse than the cliffhanger of Infinity War - and the note we end on is that that's horrible because Stephen feels really super sad about it, you guys.
Like come ON. What in the WandaVision is this bullshit?
There's also the issue that the major plot beats don't really work. The Ancient One splitting Stephen into two wasn't foreshadowed or hinted at in the slightest. So that reveal was basically a John Mulaney-esque sure, why not?
Then the big fight with the two Stranges doesn't work because the show itself established that "good" Stephen was taken from the exact moment the other Stephen left. As in this is the same Stephen without the centuries of leveling up. There's no tension here! We know the "good" Stephen can't win because Strange Supreme is everything he has plus far more spells and power. All good Stephen had was Wong's protection spell which turned out to be only good for letting the fight take up more than a couple of rounds.
Which again - I'm fine for how good Stephen lost! I didn't need him to win. I'm just saying it wasn't handled well because the second the fight started I wrote in my notes that they didn't establish anything that would allow good Stephen to win and then sure enough good Stephen didn't win. Fights need to have stakes and suspense, otherwise it's just an animation exercise.
Not to harp on my writing obsessions from last week but when you remember that AC Bradley - aka Captain "We're doing nothing but hitting movie beats with Peggy instead of Steve" Carter, aka "What if the Avengers died in a poorly handled mystery?" - wrote this episode it does start to highlight that perhaps plot and characterization are not AC Bradley's core competencies. Which is a shame since she's effectively the showrunner of What If..? This is purely a stab in the dark on my part but it makes me wonder if her actual strong suit is coming up with big picture concepts but she falls flat when it comes to actually executing them.
Which isn't to say that the episode didn't have some good points. I mean they were small but I did like that at one iteration Strange put himself in the passenger seat, since that meant he was fine sacrificing himself so that Christine could live. (It took him a really long time to consider that option but hey, points for eventually getting there.)
I also liked how Strange heard Uatu. I meant to comment last week that we're seeing Uatu become more prominent with each episode - he was more visible in establishing shots in episode 3 compared to 1 and 2, for example - and a leveled up Stephen who is specifically taking in magic to mess with the fabric of the universe makes sense as a character who would hear Uatu monologuing.
I was less fond of their conversation at the end because it felt too meta too soon. But we are 4 episodes in and I suspect this scene was meant more to establish things to come in the future (more on this in the Lagniappe section) so we'll reserve final judgement I suppose.
So yeah. That's my reaction to the ep.
The Voice Acting
I'm not gonna lie. I put down in my notes that I was amazed that they found a voice actor who could so expertly imitate Cumberbatch's shitty American accent and then the end credits revealed it was actually Cumberbatch. Nothing else I write here is going to beat that so I won't even try.
As always, things that don't fit anywhere else
- I understand why the events of Loki weren't taken into consideration for this episode - the fact that this was written and animated well in advance of Loki being just one reason. But airing it after sadly weakens the story in and of itself and in the realm of possibilities. For example the Ancient One tells Strange he will destroy this reality, thus establishing that they are both already aware of multiple realities existing. Which story-wise raises the question of why Stephen doesn't just hop over to another reality and grab a Christine from there as a fix to his problems (recall that there's another Gamora running around in the so-called "Sacred" Timeline so this isn't actually an issue in terms of breaking anything).
- Secondly, if Christine's death is an absolute we know from Loki the show that this means that TVA Kang needs Christine to die for his own purposes. You can't tell me Strange challenging Kang to a fight for Christine's life wouldn't have been a thousand times more interesting than the story we got in this episode. Again: I get why they didn't do it, I'm just saying it's unfortunate that the choice of when this episode aired compared to Loki means we can't help but think of these things.
- The animation in this ep was a little weird even by the "1940s nostalgia style" version they're been going with, though I did get a small kick out of how the monsters Strange ate all had Disney-style vibes.
- Leslie Bibb reprising her role as Christine Everhart was a nice surprise. That Christine doesn't get enough love and respect both in universe and out, if you ask me.
- Strange Supreme's "For we are one in the same" line had a beat after it like they expected that to go to commercial. The pause went on for so long I expected good Stephen to make a joke about it.
- "Mystic beings do not bargain" - boy good thing one of the most famous lines from Strange's movie was "Dormammu, I've come to arm wrestle you as that's apparently the only method by which my origin story will reach a climactic ending."
- I am nerd enough that I went back to check and the tentacle monster in this episode was drawn the same as the tentacle monster in the Captain Carter episode. Not sure if that was meant to be the exact same monster or simply the same species though. Which leads to:
- No spoilers, only speculation, but if we are on the path of Uatu increasingly interfering as the episodes go on and if we are heading to Uatu bringing all the What If..? season 1 characters together to form the What If..? Avengers, my guess is that the tentacle monster will be the thing they fight instead of the Chitauri.
And that's all for now! Catch you next week!
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