Our lives are full of moments that make us wonder, “What if?” What if I went to a different college? What if I became a lawyer instead of a teacher? What if I had caught that subway train instead of the next one? The new show What If…? on Disney+ runs with this idea and explores how the Marvel Cinematic Universe would be changed if major events had happened in a different way – or hadn’t happened at all. This show is one of the first major steps that the MCU takes in exploring the idea of a multiverse: alternate, coexisting timelines in different universes. While watching the series, I was struck by the episodes about the women of Marvel. They show us that, if you get rid of the strong, brave women of the Marvel universe, the stories would be drastically different.
Warning: This article contains spoilers for What If…? episode 4 and the MCU Phases 1-3.
Dr. Palmer as the Voice of Reason for Doctor Strange
Episode 4 of the series literally asks the question, “What If… Doctor Strange Lost His Heart Instead of His Hands?” In the eponymous debut film, the brilliant and egotistical surgeon suffers a car accident that leaves him unable to perform surgeries, in essence robbing him of his career. It’s because of this accident that he goes on his journey of becoming a powerful sorcerer and protector of the time stone.
In the What If…? episode, the car accident causes Doctor Strange to lose his girlfriend, Dr. Christine Palmer, rather than his ability to do his job. Doctor Strange still becomes a powerful sorcerer, but he uses his power to try to turn back time and get Dr. Palmer back, rather than to help save the universe. In the original film, Dr. Palmer acts as Doctor Strange’s guiding light. She is his voice of reason and the person he goes to when his world is turned upside down. Without her guidance, Doctor Strange is driven mad and, in his desperation to get her back, he ends up becoming a villain who destroys his universe instead of protecting it.
The Women of Marvel’s Universe and Our Own
If Pepper Potts hadn’t been the heart of the Iron Man saga, or if Sersei had been a less compassionate and empathetic Eternal, what would have happened? These women and other female characters continue to impact the trajectory of the MCU in significant ways. And every day, women in our own universe – from those in “starring roles” like CEOs to women you meet in daily life like teachers – effect change that’s equally important.
What If…? demonstrates that a woman’s power – her genius – isn’t what she appears to be, but rather who she is in word and deed. While Marvel has been slow to highlight them, it’s finally starting to demonstrate the impact that female characters have on other (oftentimes male) characters. Through their actions and influence on others, the women of Marvel affect the franchise as a whole.
However, when audiences and critics discuss the women of the Marvel universe, their feminine genius is rarely the main focus. Instead, the buzz is usually about the physical attributes of these women: “She isn’t sexy enough.” “She’s too skinny to be a hero.” “She’s too muscular.” “What is she wearing?” “She’s too demanding. Too emotional. Too weak.”
Caring about female superheroes can feel like a lose/lose situation. The beloved women of the comic series are often belittled, cast aside in favor of male heroes. And when they do appear in mainstream conversation, it’s usually to criticize their physical appearance. Female characters face so much criticism, and yet at the end of the day we still hold them to be heroes in this fictional universe. Even those women who aren’t titular characters play important roles in their stories.
This isn’t unlike our universe. All women play a unique role and our presence is important in ways we might not realize. So, ladies: Whenever life has got you down, remember that even if your genius seems to play a background role right now, your story is still unfolding.