‘What If’ episode 4 shows us what’s at stake with the multiverse
Episode 4 of What If…? premiered Wednesday and centered on Doctor Strange, who is rapidly becoming the de facto hero of MCU Phase 4. With Strange at the center of the recently released Spider-Man: No Way Home trailer and multiversal theories on every Marvel fan’s mind, What If…? deliberately chose this week to show us the promise and peril of divergent timelines and universes.
In a world where Stephen Strange becomes Sorcerer Supreme after the death of Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams), What If explores Strange’s dark side as he exploits the mystic arts to save her. The first act of the episode plays like sci-fi horror, a time loop in which no amount of attempts at reliving the same horror can course-correct its consequences — as Stephen uses the Time Stone to save Christine only for her to die repeatedly in new and agonizing ways.
Eventually, the Ancient One appears to tell Stephen that Christine’s death is an absolute point in time — fixed, unchangeable, and pivotal to the timeline.
Now is as good a time as any to distinguish between timelines and universe (perhaps the best time). The Avengers and Loki messed with their respective timelines, but in one universe. That’s the universe where our MCU Stephen Strange saw 14 billion outcomes to the fight against Thanos and only one victory — but even that one victory means Thanos himself wasn’t a fixed point. He is not inevitable.
Thanos was not inevitable.
So fixed points vary between universes but not timelines, because Christine didn’t die in the MCU as we know it and What If…? episode 2 showed Thanos living genocide-free with his ravager friends. The question is how Sylvie destroying the TVA and the timelines in Loki created multiple universes, including the ones we see in What If…? Maybe a question for Kang/He Who Remains the next time we see him?
After learning the immutability of Christine’s death, Stephen unravels quickly. He visits the Library of Cagliostro, where he begins stealing power from magical beings across space and time. But his power remains weakened; The Ancient One split Stephen’s timeline after he embarked on this path, and Strange breaches the other timeline to join forces with himself.
This is pretty rich coming from The Ancient One after all that spiel to Professor Hulk in Avengers: Endgame about the perils of branching timelines. Guess it only counts if someone else causes the split? HMMM. Power-hungry Stephen feels the same way as he battles himself for their future. The episode manages to stay true to Stephen Strange as a character while exploring the dangers of his ego and how disastrous it would be for everyone alive if he went down the wrong path.
After a spectacular battle at the end of the world, the power-hungry Strange wins out. He saves Christine, but at the price of literally everything else in the world. He saves her, only to lose her to a fraying reality and the definitive end of his universe. Timelines and all.
What If…? episode 4 is shockingly bleak for what has otherwise been a fun series full of multiversal hijinks. It’s telling that the show has so quickly made Thanos look like a an adorable problem, because compared to what’s coming in Phase 4, he is. It’s Kang we have to worry about now, and this is what he threatens: Timelines, universes, every damn thing.
What If…? airs Wednesdays on Disney+.