Marvel Explained is our ongoing series where we delve into the latest Marvel shows, movies, trailers, and news stories to divine the franchise’s future. This entry explores What If…? Episode 4 and why we should keep our eyes peeled on the mysterious sorcerer called Cagliostro. Yes, prepare for SPOILERS.
Since his introduction into the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Doctor Strange has always exhibited a bit of a dark side. His origin surrounds a selfish desire to correct a cosmic mistake. Despite the part he played in it, Strange could not accept the loss of his hands, and he searched the globe, plunging into the mystic arts for a solution. Despite his dismissive contempt for them, Strange embraced the dark arts to get what he wanted.
Sure, in the process, he did some internal reevaluation. He discovered a higher purpose for his capabilities; he became an Avenger and helped Tony Stark rescue reality from Thanos. But he still refuses the advice of others, knowing his opinion is the ultimate endpoint for any action. Just look to the Spider-Man: No Way Home trailer for further evidence. We want to see Mephisto in his actions, but maybe he’s just willing to break the multiverse for giggles.
“What If… Doctor Strange Lost His Heart Instead of His Hands?”
What If…? Episode 4 offers another grim glance at who Strange could be given the right, or wrong, circumstances. Rather than losing his hands in a car crash, he loses Christine Palmer. Her death sends him on the same path he took in his first solo outing, but the sorrow that drives him is even deeper. This Doctor Strange accomplishes what our prime Doctor Strange did, he prevents Kaecilius from betraying our dimension to Dormammu, but when his mind settles, it falls on tragic possibility.
As the Eye of Agamotto’s keeper, Strange can master time. With such power, he can go back and prevent Christine from perishing. Except, no, he cannot. Reality itself won’t allow such mischievous influence. Every time he alters the situation, fate strikes from another direction. Strange is forced to fail over and over, growing wickeder and wickeder.
When the Ancient One steps free from the afterlife to explain how Christine’s death is an absolute point in time, one that cannot be changed for fear of destroying reality itself, Strange scoffs. Don’t tell him what he can’t do. He doesn’t care if other magicians have failed before. He can accomplish what they cannot.
Strange exchanges a few combative enchantments with the Ancient One and escapes through the timestream, arriving at the Library of Cagliostro. There, he learns from the man himself and achieves what others could not. And as Uatu the Watcher observes unmoving, Strange brings an end to this What If…? splinter universe. He gets everything he wanted and destroys all as his reward.
His total confidence in self is everyone else’s undoing. If only he could comprehend the experience of others. But even when his reflection confronts him, he balks at their point of view.
Who is Cagliostro?
Cagliostro represents all the same failings continuously perpetrated by Doctor Strange. When the good doctor lands at the library’s doorstep, he meets the former Sorcerer Supreme presenting himself as O-Bengh. He knows what Strange is after. He knows what dark thoughts could be accomplished with the knowledge Strange seeks. O-Bengh shows him anyway.
We’ve heard the name Cagliostro mentioned briefly in the first Doctor Strange movie. He penetrated the Dark Dimension before Kaecilius, and he mastered time manipulation using the Eye of Agamotto. Strange believes he can do better, and the movies have proven this to be the case so far. But the Doctor Strange in What If…? Episode 4 is another matter entirely.
In the comics, Cagliostro ruled over India around 1000 B.C. When Doctor Doom sought similar grim magic to manipulate his tragic history (the death of his mother), he traveled back in time and pursued Cagliostro’s teachings. Doom and Cagliostro hit it off, trading secrets and encouraging each other to manipulate the world to their liking.
Before Wanda Maximoff acquired the Darkhold in WandaVision, Cagliostro used the spellbook to battle Marvel’s Dracula. The comic book iteration spends most of his time waging war against vampires, and it was through this pursuit that Cagliostro first met Stephen Strange. As you may not know, Stephen’s brother Victor was the first vampire to appear on Earth after Cagliostro apparently expelled them from our dimension using the Darkhold. This chapped his pride something awful.
What’s next for Cagliostro in the MCU?
In What If…? Episode 4, Doctor Strange leaves Cagliostro to die peacefully in his bed. But we should not expect this to be the character’s last appearance in the MCU. With Wanda flipping the Darkhold’s pages in her WandaVision post-credit scene, the Fantastic Four gearing up for their cinematic reintroduction, and Blade looking to squash bloodsuckers in his own reboot, multiple avenues are appearing for a Cagliostro comeback.
One of the great pleasures found in Doctor Strange comic books is the Sorcerer Supreme legacy. Many magicians held that title before our titular hero. Strange stands on their shoulders, learning from their victories and their mistakes.
With the Multiverse exploding into myriad branches thanks to the combined efforts of WandaVision, Loki, and Spider–Man: No Way Home, our MCU heroes will not only have their histories to learn from but also countless reflections of those histories. The What If…? Episode 4 Doctor Strange fails to comprehend the catastrophe baked into his arrogance. His negligence provides a masterclass lesson for our Doctor Strange.
If Stephen Strange can find that lesson, he can improve on it. That’s what he does.