With Benedict Cumberbatch’s Doctor Strange at the center, Episode 4 of Marvel’s What If…? tells a heartbreaking story in the darkest episode of the series yet.
After Episode 1 of Marvel Studios’ first animated series What If…? ended up mostly being a retelling of Captain America: The First Avenger (2011), the three episodes that followed have told largely original stories. Episode 2 is a heist episode, and Episode 3 features a murder mystery, and I can really only describe Episode 4 as a dark tragedy. I’m sorry for the lack of a review of Episode 3 last week. I took a vacation to Walt Disney World for the week, over 10 years after my first trip to the most magical place on earth, and had a wonderful time. Unfortunately, I did not find any What If…? merchandise that I liked while there, though I did buy an Avengers logo pin. With my break over, let’s take a look at Episode 4 of What If…?, which tells a gut wrenching tale focusing on Doctor Strange.
Episode 4 writer A.C. Bradley has Uatu, also known as The Watcher (Jeffrey Wright), present audiences with a timeline in which the events during and after Doctor Strange (2016) are altered. Rather than Dr. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) severely injuring his hands in a car accident, the circumstances of the accident are changed. The events following the crash mostly play out as they did in the film, with Doctor Strange becoming the Sorcerer Supreme and defeating the villainous entity Dormammu. From there, Episode 4 of What If…? shows us a period after Dormammu’s defeat, where a grief stricken Strange decides to use the Time Stone to travel back in time and prevent his car accident. His desire to change the past will lead Doctor Strange down a very dark path that could ultimately doom his entire world.
It’s hard to talk about the story of Episode 4 of What If…? without giving away major spoilers, but I’m going to do my best. Like WandaVision (2021), it explores the concepts of grief and loss in a satisfying way. Strange becomes corrupted by his grief and is willing to do just about anything to undo the events of the car accident. It’s a very realistic reaction to any sort of loss and you can understand why Strange makes the decision to use his power and throw away the responsibly that comes with it. Sending this character that normally does things by the book over the edge makes for a heartbreaking and dark story. You feel for Doctor Strange, but that doesn’t make the outcome of his decision any less terrifying.
Episode 4 of What If…? has the smallest cast list of the entire series thus far, including Benedict Cumberbatch, who gives his finest performance as Stephen Strange / Doctor Strange yet. The small cast allows us to really focus on and get invested in this new version of Doctor Strange. Yes, there are a few other characters involved, but they never take the spotlight away from Strange, whom your focus is squarely on throughout. That focus, along with a heartfelt, sadness-inducing, terrifying, and thought-provoking performance from Cumberbatch, helps create a story that feels more intimate and impactful.
The visuals, particularly after Strange decides to use the Time Stone, are cool and unnerving. Based on the visuals for most of Episode 4 of What If…?, it’s easy to see how 2022’s Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness will have “a horror show vibe”, as star Elizabeth Olsen told GLAMOUR it would in April 2021. There are visual moments in Episode 4 that could have been taken right out of a horror movie, mostly due to the color palette that both embraces and compliments the darkness of certain scenes. The visuals and the story work in tandem to create a dark, scary atmosphere for a good portion of the episode. You might understand why Strange is doing what he’s doing, but if you took one step into the world of this episode as he sets his plan in motion, you’d be scared out of your mind. The end result of Strange’s plan is scary, and visually, it looks like something out of a nightmare.
The story of Doctor Strange Supreme as told in Episode 4 of What If…? is a tragedy. You’ve spent so much time with this character, seen his joy as well as his pain, it makes him very easy to sympathize with. At the same time, it’s sad to see him go down the path that he chooses (and even scary, at times). By the end of Episode 4, everything just feels bleak and dark. Ultimately, the story is very much a sort of cautionary tragic tale of what grief and loss can do to even the best of us.
Episode 4 of Marvel’s What If…? is heartbreaking, terrifying, and tragic all at the same time. The visuals and story help to create what is without a doubt the darkest episode of the series to date. An increased focus on its lead character in Benedict Cumberbatch’s Doctor Strange also allows the story to hit with an impact that will feel like a shot to the heart. It’s a great episode overall, but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t incredibly bleak by the end.
What If…?‘s Episode 4 is now available to watch on Disney Plus.