“There is a way that seems right to a person, but its end is the way to death.” (CSB – Read the chapter)
What would you say if Captain America was British and female, Black Panther was an outer space Robinhood who reasoned Thanos out of destroying half the life in the universe, and the Avengers all got turned into super-powered zombies? I’d say you were reading a version of the comics different than the one most people have heard of. That would be correct. Marvel’s latest offering on Disney+ delves into a corner of the comics realm that is decidedly outside the norm and purposely so. Using a comic book line that first appeared in 1977, the latest Marvel series takes viewers on a beautifully animated journey into the question of “What if?” Now that the multiverse has been unleashed following the Loki series, each episode of What If? explores the universe that might have been created if a single event or decision by one of Marvel’s main characters had gone differently. This morning, I’d like to explore one of these with you.
Sometimes a superhero film or TV series is done because the writers genuinely have a new story to tell. The three Marvel Disney+ series released so far have definitely fallen into this category, especially Wandavision and Loki. Sometimes, though, a new media is created as a gift to the fans. This latest series, What If?, has definitely been mostly fan service, but it is wonderfully done. Using animation as their medium because it allowed them to use many of the same actors who played the heroes on the big screen, and to do so in wild stories that would have otherwise cost a fortune, the series is all officially canon material for the ever-expanding MCU…which I guess now needs to be called the MMM – the Marvel Media Multiverse – because it’s not just a single universe and it’s not limited to the cinema anymore.
Animation or not, though, the series has been fantastic so far. The animation is top notch. The writing has been excellent. The voice acting is of course tremendous (it couldn’t not be with the list of talent they have used for it). As a dedicated cartoon fan myself, the whole thing has been like a warm hug from a good friend. That being said, the series really isn’t for kids. That’s one of the dangers of modern animation. What used to be exclusively a kids’ storytelling medium has become something enjoyed by adults as well (at least, adults who haven’t yet given up completely on some cherished parts of their childhood). Because of that, though, parents must be extremely cautious to not let kids loose on a cartoon simply because it’s animated. Much animated content these days is made for more mature audiences.
This week’s episode, What if…Zombies?!, is a good example. It’s a pretty standard zombie apocalypse movie in 30 minutes. As such, it is the goriest content Marvel Studios has ever released. Being animated softens some of that affect, but not much. That being said, the episode was a lot of fun. Another example of the maturity of the series was last week’s episode, What if…Doctor Strange Lost His Heart Instead of His Hands? That’s where I’d like to focus our attention this morning.
The episode tackled the challenge of grief in a way similar to, but different from how Wandavision approached it back at the beginning of the year. In the episode, Dr. Strange’s life plays out just the same as it did in his solo film from 2016. He was a brilliant neurologist, had a terrible car accident which led him to explore the mystic arts, and he ultimately defeated the interdimensional demon, Dormmamu, and became the Sorcerer Supreme. The difference here, though, and the prompt for the what if question was that instead of letting his ego get in the way of his relationship with Dr. Christine Palmer, he let her love soften him and he became a better man for it. He gave her his heart and the two were deliriously happy together. Because of this one, small change, she was with him in the car on the night he was driving to receive the award for a groundbreaking brain surgery he had accomplished, but in the accident that started his path toward the mystic arts, she lost her life and his hands were fine. His pursuit of the mystic arts was not about recovering his physical abilities so he could go on being an award-winning doctor. It was about trying to cope with his grief over losing her.
The real heart of the story picks up sometime after the end of his solo film. He and Wong were hanging out together in the New York Sanctum, and the latter notices his glum mood combined with his toying with the Time Stone. Wong, ever observant, invites Strange to join him for some tea, and cautions him against doing something he would regret.
Now, before we go on, put yourself in his shoes for a minute. Have you ever lost someone you loved? Have you lost a spouse or a child? Have you lost a best friend or a parent? Maybe it was simply a beloved pet. Have you experienced a tragic loss before? Most folks have. Take just a second and put yourself back in the place of intense grief you had to journey through. Perhaps you are still there even now. If you had the power to go back and undo the loss, to save the person’s life, would you do it? Tomorrow is the 20th anniversary of 9/11. If you had the power to go back and undo that tragic event, would you do it? If you had the power to go back and remove the reason for your present grief, would you do it?
Well, Doctor Strange had in his possession, the Time Stone. That is the Infinity Stone (one of the six Thanos would later use to snap half the life of the universe out of existence), which gives its wielder complete mastery over time. With it you can stop time, reverse time, travel through time. Nothing is impossible for you any longer.
Let me pose one more question here: Would it be a good thing to remove someone’s grief? If you came upon a person who was grieving and had the power to remove their grief from them, would you do it? Would that be a loving thing to do? It sure seems like it would. After all, grief is pain, and it is in the nature of love to take away pain, right? Well, biblically speaking, no, but that’s not what our culture teaches us to think. When we love someone, we should take away their pain. Loving ourselves means removing sources of pain from our lives if we can. That just seems right.
Ignoring Wong’s warning, Strange uses the Time Stone to transport himself back to the night of the accident. He replays the whole scene except this time, he doesn’t pass the truck on the narrow, coastal highway that resulted in his head-on collision with an oncoming car. It seems he has saved Dr. Palmer’s life…until a speeding vehicle strikes them from behind and they crash anyway. He winds up in the same place he had been trying to avoid. Luckily, though, he has the Time Stone. He resets the scene and does things a bit differently. He lets her drive…and they still crash. He takes a different route. Crash. He goes to the party without even picking her up…and there is an explosion in her apartment building, killing her. They go out for pizza together instead of going to the party…and she gets hit by a bus crossing the street. He tries every variety he can possibly imagine for how that night could have gone and she dies in all of them. Again and again and again he relives the pain of her death. This way seemed so right.
At this point, the former Sorcerer Supreme pays him a visit and tells him that her death is a nexus event, meaning it is going to happen in every possible timeline (except, apparently, the original timeline as she is slated to be in the sequel coming out next year, but that’s plot hole we’ll pretend to not notice). Fueled by a rage at this grief he cannot avoid, Strange insists there must be a way to change things, to prevent her death from happening, but like Wong did, the Sorcerer Supreme warns him against walking a path that will not end well.
Like he did with Wong’s counsel, Strange ignores her and goes on a quest to learn how to change a nexus event. This leads him to discover that he is not powerful enough on his own to accomplish his goal. He solves this by pursuing his path even further and consuming the mystical power of various other creatures summoned from interdimensional portals. And I know that at this point we’ve gone pretty far down a comic book rabbit hole, but stick with me. The trouble with the path he is taking now is that consuming the life force of other creatures is a dark deed. It is an evil thing. It is murder. And the more life Strange now consumes, the more he becomes corrupted by it. The animation at this point in the episode was really brilliant. In his pursuit of a solution to his pain, he sacrifices his character. More than that, because of his manipulation of time and the balance of the universe, he is putting all of reality at risk.
At long last, he makes himself powerful enough to accomplish his task and succeeds. He saves her life. But in doing so, his now monstrous form is terrifying to his love. In throwing all caution to the wind in order to save himself from the pain he felt at losing Dr. Palmer because of the love he had for her, he had made her death his idol and had been completely consumed by it. Worse, he ripped apart the fabric of reality itself. The episode ends with Dr. Palmer having faded away along with the rest of reality and Doctor Strange’s monstrous form weeping over the spot she had laid as the universe shrinks around him into nothing.
There is a way that seems right to a person, but its end is the way to death.
I don’t suppose that you or I will ever get our hands on a jewel that will give us the power to control time itself. We are probably not going to become masters of the mystical arts and undertake actions that will threaten the very fabric of reality. And yet, as we go through our lives, there will be paths branching off in front of us that seem to be right by everything we can see. No, they don’t seem to quite line up with the path of Christ, but there doesn’t look to be anything wrong with them. In fact, if we’re being honest, they seem a bit…or even a lot…better than the one we are currently taking. Maybe this alternative path promises a quick salve for our pain. Perhaps it is simply an ethical compromise that will keep us out of trouble. It could be an act of revenge or vengeance that will establish us as someone not to be messed with anymore. There are many different forms this path may take. And they will all seem right. But where it deviates from the path of God, it is leading us in a direction whose end can only be death. Any path other than God’s is necessarily sin and sin leads to death every single time.
The path God has you walking may not be an easy one. It may just be downright hard. It’s not fun. It hurts. You don’t want to do it any longer. If I were walking in your shoes, I would probably feel the same way. But if it truly is His path, it is going to lead you back around to life. That may not come as fast as you’d like for it to come, but it will come. Have no doubt about that. The way to the empty tomb went through the cross. If the disciples had had the Time Stone, they would have been sorely tempted to go back and prevent the crucifixion from happening. And who could have blamed them for it? That would have seemed like the right path in every respect. There’s no way the path of God could have led them to that place. They must have left it at some point along the journey. But then where would we be today? Stick to God’s path. Stick to it through the tough stuff. There’s life waiting on the other side.