The long-awaited trailer for Spider-Man: No Way Home finally arrived late last month, teasing not only the next appearance of Marvel's wise-cracking wallcrawler but also its Sorcerer Supreme, Doctor Strange. However, some fans were left suspicious by the teaser's depiction of the mystical superhero (played again by Benedict Cumberbatch) and this week's episode of Marvel's What If...? might explain why.
Spider-Man: No Way Home will see Peter Parker (Tom Holland) turn to his Avengers ally for help wiping his secret identity from the minds of the general public, after it was shockingly exposed in his previous solo film by J Jonah Jameson (with a little help from Mysterio). Unfortunately, the spell Strange uses to grant this wish causes chaos on an unprecedented scale, prompting some fans to wonder why the guardian of our reality would place it in extreme jeopardy to satisfy the wishes of a teenage boy.
One theory that has been suggested is that this version of Strange could be demonic Marvel villain Mephisto in disguise, who featured in Spidey comic book One More Day, which has some similarities to the plot of No Way Home. However, it seems unwise to place all our eggs in that basket given how baseless theories about Mephisto did some genuine damage to Disney Plus series WandaVision, where he was also rumoured to appear.
That said, Doctor Strange could still be up to no good in his Spider-Man appearance, with another theory being that he is the variant featured in Marvel's What If...? episode four. This week's chapter in the animated series explored an alternate timeline in which Strange got his beloved partner Dr Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams) killed in a car accident, a loss that drives him to madness as he attempts to use magic to change the timeline. It doesn't go well.
(Spoilers for What If...? episode four follow...) After Strange summons extraordinary amounts of power by absorbing the energy of numerous beings, the episode ends with the Sorcerer Supreme accidentally destroying his entire universe. The final two people left in it are himself and Christine, who dissipates into atoms shortly after, leaving him completely alone and hysterically sobbing for forgiveness in a magical life raft of-sorts.
Though this incarnation of Doctor Strange does seem to be genuinely remorseful about his misdeeds, it's not hard to imagine him returning to the mystic arts once more. After all, floating through an infinite void for eternity must get rather dull.
One possible idea is that this "evil Doctor Strange" could crack a spell that opens a gateway into another universe – the MCU we know and love – where he takes the place of his counterpart and begins working to his own nefarious goals. To this end, he may use Peter's trust in this universe's Doctor Strange against him, casting a spell that could start the various Marvel timelines on a path towards multiversal war – as had been foretold in Loki on Disney Plus.
On the other hand, if the incarnation of Strange featured in No Way Home does turn out to be the original we've seen many times before, that still might not be the end for this darker variant. After all, if Strange's memory-erasing spell is strong enough to drag alternate versions of Green Goblin, Doc Ock, Electro and perhaps even Spider-Man himself into the MCU – as has been teased – then it could just as easily transport Strange's twisted twin there too.
That would be a dangerous development given that Dr Christine Palmer is alive and well in the mainline MCU; a revelation which could be enough to send Dark Strange back to his menacing ways. Having already lost (literally) everything in his bid to save her life, it stands to reason he would act drastically to live in a reality where he can spend his days with her. That could cause him to lash out at any hero who would dare try to close the portal between dimensions – and we do see Strange seemingly fighting Spidey in a trailer moment that left many fans scratching their heads.
McAdams is reportedly reprising her role in 2022's Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, so it's not out of the question that the story from What If...? episode four could be continued as the MCU delves deeper into its alternate realities. Indeed, even director Bryan Andrews has subtly teased that characters from the animated series could jump into live-action.
On that possibility, he told The Hollywood Reporter: "You have to wait and see, but this is the multiverse and things do integrate and co-mingle at Marvel, so what if?"
Marvel's What If...? episodes 1-4 are streaming exclusively on Disney Plus. You can sign up to Disney Plus for £7.99 a month or £79.90 a year now. Check out more of our Fantasy coverage or visit our TV Guide to see what's on tonight.