Marvel's 'What If…?' Shows Us The Downside of Time Travel
While the first three episodes of Marvel's What If…? all ended with disappointingly tame, familiar story beats, this week's entry "What If … Doctor Strange Lost His Heart Instead of His Hands?" made up for that in spades, clubs, hearts, and maybe even some UNO cards too, deviating from the trend with an impressively bleak story.
In the new, alternate reality, instead of injuring his hands in that fateful car accident, Doctor Strange's beloved cartoon Rachel McAdams dies. He later uses the time stone to go back to save her, but regardless of what he does, she always ends up dead. It's kind of like a better version of that crappy early 2000s remake of The Time Machine.
One of the most impressive parts of the episode is how the What If…? format allows us to actually witness the repercussions of meddling with time. Not only does Strange have to battle his evil doppelganger, but at one point, the world itself starts coming apart at the seams. People freeze up, and their very existence seems to be decaying; it looks as if they're smoldering like a Pop-Tart in a broken toaster. Oh, and the universe is destroyed at the end:
Which is great/horrifying to see, not just in this one episode but also in the wider context of time travel stories. We're so often told about the reality-shattering risks involved with time travel. Doc Brown's worst-case scenario in Back to the Future II literally involves the space-time continuum unraveling -- but when a legit villain interferes with the timeline, it merely results in the construction of a gaudy casino, not an existential nightmare.
And even in Avengers: Endgame, our heroes know that they probably shouldn't be hopping around history, tinkering with events as they please -- but they never have to face any real consequences for defying the laws of time. And while this week's What If…? may not tie directly into future stories, it will enhance any future Marvel time travel stories just by illustrating how high the stakes are. This is something most franchises simply aren't able to do, as no one wants to see a movie where Bill and Ted tearfully cradle one another as they slip into an abyss of nothingness.
Top Image: Marvel Studios