BY MATT TUCK
What If…?’s bleakest and yet most profound episode to date sheds a new light on Doctor Strange’s past and serves as a possible preview to Spider-Man: No Way Home. It also should have you looking closer at 1974’s Dracula Lives #5. WARNING: SPOILERS.
SPOILERS FOR WHAT IF…? EPISODE FOUR. DON’T SAY I DIDN’T WARN YOU.
Every episode of What If…? is meant to be connected to the Earth-616 MCU. After all, the premise, while inspired by the comic series, is set in the movie universe, thus all the tales feature alternate events from the MCU. Naturally, both the alternate What If…? and the normal MCU are inherently tied together without overlapping.
Up to this point, the episodes were departures from what we can assume has been the Sacred Timeline revealed in Loki. They did not have a direct impact on the events of the MCU as far as we can tell. Episode Four, however, may have just broken the fourth wall in that regard, making this one of the more important episodes to date.
The premise of this week’s entry is that Doctor Strange did not permanently injure his hands in his infamous car accident from the 2016 film. This version of events plays out with Christine Palmer in the passenger seat that night. When Strange’s car veers off the road and down the cliffside, she is killed, but his hands are left intact. Using the Eye of Agamotto, aka the Time Stone, Doctor Strange attempts to save her, but it only results in him reliving her death time and time again. The trauma redefines his character, turning him into a heartbroken shell of what he should have been.
The Ancient One arrives to explain that he cannot undo Christine’s death because it is an absolute point in time. Desperate to piece together his former life, he ignores his teacher’s warning, and he becomes corrupted as he absorbs the essences of beings from what we can assume is the Dark Dimension.
Where things get interesting is in the episode’s closing moments. The corrupted Doctor Strange Supreme battles the Sorcerer Supreme, but the evil Strange prevails and absorbs his other. He becomes a Cthulhu-like monster to save Christine, but it is all for nothing. His universe is being torn apart because he manipulated the fabric of time. The episode ends on the darkest and most ironic of notes as Doctor Strange is responsible for the destruction of his entire world, including Christine.
While reality is crumbling, Doctor Strange is the first character to acknowledge the Watcher’s presence. He begs for help, but Uatu says it is too late. The intriguing part with implications for the greater MCU is when the Watcher tells Strange, “You more than anyone else should understand that meddling with time and events only leads to more destruction.” Soon thereafter, the universe ceases to exist.
That quote can be interpreted many ways. Strange mentioned reading about the Watcher in the Lost Library of Cagliostro, which would imply that the Sorcerer Supreme has read of disastrous outcomes for others who followed a similar path. Where’s the fun in that? The far more exciting way to read that quote is this: the Watcher is implying that another version of Doctor Strange has done this before or will do it. That could mean Uatu’s reference is to the events of Spider-Man: No Way Home.
As seen in the No Way Home trailer, Doctor Strange alters the timeline to make the world forget that Peter Parker is Spider-Man. That causes a rift in the Multiverse, allowing supervillains from the Sony-verse to invade the MCU. How could Doctor Strange be so careless? Surely that means it is Mephisto’s doing, right? This episode of What If…? shows that, despite his best intentions and character development, Doctor Strange sometimes loses sight of the consequences of his actions. To paraphrase the meme-worthy words of Ian Malcolm from Jurassic Park, he was so preoccupied with whether or not he could, he didn’t stop to think if he should.”
Granted, the theory is a stretch, but let’s not forget that the Doctor Strange episode of What If…?” timed out with the release of the No Way Home trailer. If there is anything we have learned about Marvel Studios, almost nothing happens by accident. Every minute detail is carefully planned and plotted with heavy implications for future movies and series. The No Way Home trailer debuting a week ahead of Episode Four, both of which feature Doctor Strange tampering with the timeline, was on purpose to help the audience make the connection that altering the past is self-serving and only creates bigger problems.
If true, this would be the most direct connection between What If…? and the Earth-616 MCU so far. Could we see the two events cross paths in No Way Home? It is possible, but unlikely. Still, it makes for a good discussion and raises our vaulted expectations of NWH that much higher.
ON THE COLLECTING SIDE
Every episode of What If…? steers collectors toward another key issue, and this week’s pick is a true sleeper: Dracula Lives #5.
What is special about this issue? This happens to be the first appearance of Cagliostro, who also has gone by the name O’Bengh in the comics.
In Episode Four, Doctor Strange Supreme seeks out the Lost Library of Cagliostro. The library’s namesake is the only sorcerer to ever undo an absolute point in time. In fact, he wrote the book that Kaecilius is willing to murder for in 2016’s Doctor Strange.
Don’t forget that the librarian happens to be named O’Bengh. If the episode is pulling from the comics, that suggests O’Bengh was Cagliostro all along. Who knows? He may not be done with the MCU just yet.
There is more to Cagliostro than just writing a famous book of spells. He is connected to the Darkhold, and he was originally created as an antagonist to Marvel’s Dracula in 1974. The sorcerer also trained Doctor Doom when the Latverian dictator travelled through time to master the mystic arts.
With so many ties to the future of the MCU, it would seem that Cagliostro has a story to tell either in a movie or on Disney+, and that is why you should be watching Dracula Lives #5.
The last 9.8 to sell online was in July when a copy from the Suscha News Pedigree brought $250. Aside from that, the only other graded 9.8 to sell went for $152 in June.
As always, the cheaper option is to find a raw copy. Although you are taking a gamble on the quality, these sell for a fraction of the cost of the higher-end graded books. On August 19, one sold for just $15 on eBay. Before that, another went for $56 in July.
Matt Tuck is the author of the novel, Lost Bones of the Dead. He is a professional writer, avid comic collector, former teacher, and an international man of mystery. You can follow him on his Facebook page, The Comic Blog.