Spoiler Alert: This article contains spoilers for What If…? Episode 4.
When the trailer for Spider-Man: No Way Home was released, many Marvel fans got their first look at a Doctor Strange acting out of character. Now, with the uncoincidentally timed release of What If…? Episode 4, we meet another Doctor Strange — a “misunderstood” Stephen who continues to bring up Cagliostro.
This What If…? episode asks, “What If… Doctor Strange Lost His Heart Instead of His Hands?” and the answer is pretty dire. Regardless, we have a lot of questions about the journey of how Doctor Strange brings the world to an armageddon, and all answers seem to point back to Cagliostro. So who is Cagliostro, and is he in any other Marvel stories?
Doctor Strange mentions Cagliostro several times in ‘What If…?’ Episode 4.
The first time we hear Cagliostro in the MCU is actually in the first Doctor Strange film, in which he’s mentioned briefly. However, we learn a lot more about who Cagliostro really is in What If…? Episode 4.
According to what we learn, Cagliostro was one of the first Sorcerer Supremes, who learned the secrets of the Dark Dimension and Dormammu before Kaecilius and figured out how to master time using the Eye of Agamotto.
So, when Doctor Strange wants to figure out how to bring back his love, Christine Palmer, using the Eye of Agamotto and the Ancient One tells him it’s impossible, his arrogance grows.
He believes that the only way is to study the Book of Cagliostro, so he goes to Cagliostro’s library where he meets O-Bengh. In the comic books, O-Bengh is one of Cagliostro’s many aliases — it’s likely that the arrogant Doctor Strange’s mentor in What If…? is actually the original Sorcerer Supreme himself.
Cagliostro is much more sinister in the Marvel comics than in ‘What If…?’ Episode 4.
In the Marvel comics, unlike O-Bengh in What If…? Episode 4, Cagliostro is actually a foe to Doctor Strange. His history begins in 1000 A.D. when he rules over a kingdom in India and learns the ways of mysticism. Around that time, Doctor Doom travels back in time to learn from Cagliostro, not unlike Doctor Strange in What If…?, to free his mother from the nether-realms.
Doom and Cagliostro trade secrets and become allies — Cagliostro learns from Doom’s time-traveling abilities and Doom respects Cagliostro’s manipulation of mysticism.
But in the comics, Cagliostro, not unlike Harry Potter’s Voldemort, will do anything to become immortal, which is very dissimilar to What If…?. Cagliostro usurps the body of an Egyptian wizard, Al-Tothas, and uses this to acquire the Darkhold. Yes, the same Darkhold we see in WandaVision.
From there, Cagliostro learns of an immortality potion that requires the blood of vampires and uses this to wipe all vampires from the Earth, making him and Dracula eternal nemeses. But, when Doctor Strange’s brother, Vincent, comes along as the first vampire to again walk the Earth, Cagliostro has a new foe: Doctor Strange.
Marvel’s Cagliostro is actually based on a real person.
Marvel’s Cagliostro is based on a man born Giuseppe Balsamo (one of Cagliostro’s many pseudonyms in the Marvel comics) in 1743. His legacy is completely shrouded in mystery and rumors, but nonetheless, his reputation precedes him. He was a lover of the mystic arts, not unlike Cagliostro and Doctor Strange, so it makes sense as to where Marvel writers got their inspiration.
While working as a secretary, he got so bored that he started leading a double life selling magical “Egyptian” amulets and fake paintings. He learned all about the mystic arts and spirituality by studying alchemy, the Kabbalah, and magic, but in some senses, he might have been more of a swindler than a magician.
The Marvel comics’ Cagliostro can easily be compared, but the Cagliostro of What If…? seems much wiser and more well-intentioned.
Episode 4 of What If...? is now available to stream on Disney Plus. New episodes drop Wednesdays.