DIRECTOR: Bryan Andrews

CAST: Jeffrey Wright, Benedict Cumberbatch, Rachel McAdams, Benedict Wong, Tilda Swinton, Ike Amadi, Leslie Bibb, Chuck Billy, Robin Atkin Downes, Fred Tatasciore

RUNNING TIME: 37 mins

CERTIFICATE: 12

BASICALLY…: The Watcher (Wright) observes alternate versions of events throughout the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

IN THIS EPISODE: Doctor Strange (Cumberbatch) sets out to reverse the death of his beloved Christine Palmer (McAdams)…

NOW FOR THE REVIEW…

Just when you thought Marvel’s What If…? couldn’t get any bleaker than the murders of the OG Avengers in last week’s episode, try watching not only one of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s most powerful heroes head down a much darker path, but also said hero bringing about such destruction that not even The Watcher himself can stand idly by as it happens.

This episode, titled What If… Doctor Strange Lost His Heart Instead Of His Hands?, is a dark and sombre tale of love and loss in the mystic arts, which The Watcher (voiced by Jeffrey Wright) observes in a universe where the pivotal car accident that destroyed the hands of Dr. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) instead claimed the life of his lover, Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams). The Strange in this universe still goes on to become the Sorcerer Supreme, but overcome with grief and guilt he uses the time-travelling Eye of Agamotto to go back and try to save Christine from her fate – however, upon finding out that her death is an absolute fixed point in time, Strange begins exploring other, much darker avenues to erase this particular point from the timeline. Things, inevitably, don’t get much better from there.

Unlike last week’s episode, which certainly went to some dark places but didn’t feel as though it grasped the whole concept of being in an alternative timeline, this one very much goes the full hog. Multiverses, separate dimensions, and even the physical presence of The Watcher (as opposed to him simply observing from the background as he always has done) all factor into the plot of this episode, creating an awe-inspiring visual spectacle of trippy imagery and stellar animation – the latter combining computer-generated graphics with 2D-animated creatures to fascinating effect – that is entirely on brand for the world of Doctor Strange, while also grasping heavily onto the universe-bending concept that has driven this show thus far. You are mesmerised as much as you are rather scared by the increasingly dark path that this version of Strange is heading down, because it is vastly unpredictable what he will encounter on his journey, as well as tragic since the episode allows you to understand – at least, to a point – why he’s willing to flirt with danger this much.

This is due to the fact that What If… Doctor Strange Lost His Heart Instead Of His Hands? is an episode that is heavy on both character and vocal performance, particularly with its central hero. Benedict Cumberbatch returns to voice Doctor Strange, and even in the voice booth he gives a very empathetic performance which certainly contains the smarm and arrogance associated with the live-action version of the character, but because this incarnation is ravaged by grief for the death of his beloved Christine, you can sense a hint of sadness in his voice, pining for the one person who seemed to keep him the most grounded. Cumberbatch does well to make this incarnation of Doctor Strange feel palatable even as he continues venturing down this dark and dangerous path, and he is supported by fine writing which details his descent carefully, barely missing a step when it comes to organically showing his journey from sensible Sorcerer Supreme to an out-of-control madman by the end.

Talking of the end, don’t expect a happy resolution to any of this. The episode sticks firmly to its darker tone all the way to the ending credits, and that means a conclusion where you may just feel utterly miserable afterwards. It is a gutsy decision to end things on such a dour note, especially in an animated show aimed for a slightly younger audience, but again it just shows that the slightest of alterations across these alternative universes can lead to extremely harsh outcomes, which in a way makes it all the more miraculous that the heroes we’ve come to know and love across the main timeline were able to keep it all together in the first place. Here, though, you can really feel the Twilight Zone inspiration in how certain things wrap up, to a point where the series’ Rod Sterling equivalent – that of The Watcher – actually has dialogue with particular characters for the first time in this series, which makes all the more sense when you remember just how bleak some episodes of that classic show would also end.

In terms of writing, voiceover work, and especially animation, What If… Doctor Strange Lost His Heart Instead Of His Hands? is an early highlight of this nine-episode series, and one of the few thus far that truly feels like a self-contained adventure with little chance of any spin-offs or continuations of any kind (without giving anything away, that’s very much the case here – unless it somehow ties into the upcoming Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness). The T’Challa as Star-Lord episode is still perhaps the most fun and entertaining, but if it’s rich character work and truly emotional writing you’re after, then this one is a magical must-see.

SO, TO SUM UP…

What If… Doctor Strange Lost His Heart Instead Of His Hands? offers the series’ bleakest and darkest alternative storyline to date, but aside from its stellar animation – among the best in the series so far – it is also an emotionally rich episode, thanks to some careful and considerate writing, and an empathetic lead vocal performance by Benedict Cumberbatch as a much more sinister version of the Sorcerer Supreme.

What If…?: Episodes 1-4 are now available on Disney+. Episode 5 will be available next week.

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