Thursday, February 14, 2013

Strange Magic, Part 1

"Go, Longhorns!"
Even before Marvel President Kevin Feige recently teased us with news of a possible Doctor Strange movie, I have long been imagining what a cinematic version of the Sorcerer Supreme might look like. I have a few ideas, but let's talk first about some of the previous incarnations of Doctor Strange.
For those unfamiliar with the good doctor, here's a brief history of the character:
"Jailbait? I'm Hellbait."
Created by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko in 1963, Stephen Strange is a brilliant, but arrogant and selfish neurosurgeon who damages his hands in a car accident. After traveling the world to try many different and unsuccessful remedies to repair his hands, Strange finally arrives in the Himalayas before a mystical hermit called only the Ancient One. While there, he thwarts an attempt on the Ancient One's life by his disciple Mordo. Seeing goodness in Strange, the Ancient One decides to teach him the mystic arts, and a superhero is born. With his manservant/assistant/sidekick Wong, Strange battles the vengeful Mordo, the otherworldly Nightmare, and the demon Dormammu, in some of the more fantastically-drawn adventures of Marvel Comics. During one of his visits to Dormammu's dark dimension, he is aided by a human-looking girl who turns out to be Dormammu's niece. Later, we discover that she is named Clea, and she becomes a disciple and lover of Doctor Strange (So inappropriate.) Okay, that should have us all up to speed.

"Listen to the ground. There is movement all around.
There is something going down, and I can feel it."
In the late 70s and early eighties, a slew of science fiction and superhero TV shows emerged, likely to capitalize upon the success of movies like Star Wars and Superman. Among these was a made-for-TV-movie/pilot of Dr. Strange (1978) starring Peter Hooten, Sir John Mills, and Jessica Walter. This version is quite a departure from the comics. Dr. Stephen Strange (Hooten) is a psychiatrist, not a neurosurgeon. He's charming and really quite a nice guy, and there's nothing wrong with his hands. Thomas Lindner (Mills) is the current Sorceror Supreme, aided by his disciple Wong (Clyde Kusatsu). Morgan LeFey (Walter) has returned from, well, somewhere, to assassinate Lindner and take over the world for her master, the Nameless One - not to be confused with He-Who-Shall-Not-Be Named.
Doctor Strange's real
In this version, Clea (Anne-Marie Martin billed as Eddie Benton) is a human woman temporarily possessed by Morgan in an attempt on Lindner's life. Emotionally distraught by her ordeal, she ends up in the care of Stephen Strange, who Lindner discovers is the Chosen One (there's a lot of "ones" in this) who is to become the next Sorcerer Supreme. Abracadabra, presto-change-o: the good guys win, the bad guys lose, CBS aired it opposite a re-showing of Roots, and nobody saw it. Mostly. Stan Lee consulted on the adaptation and had only good things to say about it. (He was not so generous about the TV adaptations of Spider-Man and Captain America.) 
"Are you sure you're not John Holmes?"
I can be pretty generous about this movie myself. Yes, the effects are cheesy, and, yes, it doesn't follow the comic books very well, but it was a way around the origin story that didn't consume the entirety of the movie, and it didn't start off with a lead character who is largely unlikeable for a possible series pilot. 
Peter Hooten is good, and he has that great, deep voice. That's one thing that you have to remember about the Sorcerer Supreme: he has to sound convincing reciting those incantations. Patrick Dempsey has lobbied Hollywood to play Doctor Strange in a new movie, but, I'm sorry: he just doesn't have the right voice for it, in my opinion. 

"Mork calling Orson. Come in, Orson."
Moving on to the early 90s, Full Moon Features has acquired an option on a Doctor Strange movie but lets the option expire before going into production, so the script is re-tooled to remove any references to the Marvel character, and f-bombs and nudity are added. What we get instead is Doctor Mordrid (1992), which is about a centuries-old sorcerer (Jeffrey Combs) from another dimension who is living on Earth to protect it from a demon invasion led by rival sorcerer Kabal (Brian Thompson). Throughout, there are hints at what a Doctor Strange movie from Full Moon Productions might have been, and, frankly, we're all very lucky that it never happened. Full Moon makes schlock films, and that's what this is. The special effects are okay for a low budget, but the script is a mess, and the final "battle" sequence is boring. Watch it as a novelty only or if you're a Jeffrey Combs fan. (Which I am.)

About 15 years later, Marvel Animated Features gave us the direct-to-DVD Doctor Strange: Sorcerer Supreme

Sidebar: I just want to say that I like that Marvel employs career voice-over actors for their features. DC does more "stunt-casting" with their animated features, using well-known celebrities to voice their leads. First, I don't think the fact that Eliza Dushku (good as she was) voiced Catwoman in Batman: Year One had any impact on people choosing to watch or not watch that feature, and, second, her casting took the job from someone who is a voice-over actor by profession. Okay, stepping off the soapbox now.

"There can be only one... Wait. What?"
Now, DS:SS does follow the comic book origin story a little more closely, but, frankly, I still don't think that the pre-accident Stephen Strange comes across as enough of a jerk. Another problem with the origin story is that - in a feature that's only 75 minutes long, it eats up 80% of the story. Now, one change is that the Ancient One starts out with small army of sorcerer disciples - including Wong and Mordo - so we do get to see plenty of magic battling going on even before Doctor Strange becomes the "Sorcerer Supreme" of the title. There's just not much from Strange himself. It's entertaining but way too short as far as I'm concerned. Is this to appeal to a younger audience? Given the body count by the film's end, I certainly hope not.

Here ends part one. Part two will have some of my thoughts about what a live-action 21st-century Doctor Strange movie could look like. 
In the meantime, here's the trailer for Doctor Mordrid as further evidence that you don't really need to see it:

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