Marvel movies: 'Doctor Strange' (1978) just isn't strange enough
This Sorcerer Supreme is no Benedict Cumberbatch
The 1970s was a wild time for live-action superheroes. Riding the high of the Hulk show’s massive success, every studio thought they could turn pretty much any Marvel character into a hit TV show. By 1978, it was Doctor Strange’s turn, with Universal funding a made-for-TV movie in the hopes that it would be popular enough to merit an entire show.
You would think that Dr. Strange, a hero that was so incredibly weird, might do well in the 1970s. Sadly this was not the reality. So, what happened?
The movie begins by introducing its main antagonist, the Arthurian sorceress Morgan LeFay. Well, hello there, Jessica Walter. What a delight to see you pre-Arrested Development.
Morgan LeFay has been trapped in some underworld for the last five hundred years in service to a hell god. We only get a silhouette of this god, but he seems to be a giant head shaped like a gherkin with red eyes.
The gherkin-headed god tells Morgan she needs to kill the Sorcerer Supreme and then kill the sorcerer’s successor — or convert him to evil. One or the other, it doesn’t really matter to Gherkin-Head. But Morgan’s only got three days to do all this or it’s back to the underworld as an old hag.
We also learn that the “Sorcerer Supreme” is this guy.
Instead of the “Ancient One” from the original comics, who is decidedly Asian (and then Tilda Swinton in the Marvel Cinematic Universe) we get this old, white guy. I think he’s actually supposed to be Merlin, but the movie never specifies. He’s just called “Lindmer.”
Wong also appears in the film. He’s a character who got an awful depiction as a servant in the early Dr. Strange comics. His portrayal in the 2016 Marvel Studios film is definitely an upgrade where Wong becomes Strange’s teacher and later a friend, thus eliminating any master-servant relationship.
This movie was made in 1978, so I had my concerns. I’ll give it this much… they tried?
You can tell negative Asian stereotypes were trying to be avoided, so they put Wong in a three-piece-suit and gave him a British accent. Unfortunately, Wong is terribly underused. He’s mostly there to assist Lindmer and make tea. It’s a shame more effort wasn’t put into his character as there was into his appearance.
Lindmer the sorcerer is getting on in years and he knows that Morgan is out to get him. So, he needs to find his successor ASAP.
This brings us to our hero, Dr. Stephen Strange. Who, oddly enough, is no longer a neurosurgeon but a psychiatric doctor. The movie goes to a lot of trouble to let us know that Dr. Strange is a cool doctor with a heart of gold who goes against the system and sticks it to the man in charge.
He’s also chronically late for work because of his late-night cavorting with women. But he’s such a loveable scamp that he never gets in trouble!
Lindmer encounters Morgan, who pulls a fast one on him by possessing the body of a student named Clea. He doesn’t see it coming when the possessed Clea shoves him off a bridge and onto the pavement below.
Lindmer doesn’t die, though. He’s able to pick himself up and heal himself with glowy magic.
While she’s no longer possessed, Clea has psychic trauma and ends up in the mental ward in Dr. Strange’s care. Unfortunately, the doctor’s idea of care means ogling his patient and deciding to date her once she’s been released from the hospital. So incorrigible!
Lindmer tracks down Strange and reveals he’s the successor and and needs training pronto. In the comics and 2016 movie, Strange suffers a debilitating injury to his hands, rendering him unable to perform surgery. He travels to the Himalayas seeking to be healed by the Ancient One but ends up becoming a student, instead. He learns the mystic arts, and in time, becomes a master sorcerer.
Here? He was born with powers! They just haven’t been tapped yet. There’s not even a genetic connection. It was just established at birth that he was born to be a Sorcerer Supreme.
Meanwhile, Morgan is screwing up and her hell god is getting pissed. She hasn’t killed either Lindmer or Strange. In fact, she’s had multiple opportunities to kill Strange but always ends up letting him go. Why? Because Morgan is hot for Strange. She’s had a five-hundred-year long dry spell, and she wants some good loving. So, Morgan plans to seduce Strange to the dark side.
Morgan brings Strange to her lair and it doesn’t take much effort on her part to seduce him. Dr. Strange is one horny bastard; he goes from dating his former patient to drooling over Morgan LeFay within minutes. These two are ready to make whoopie cushion, but Morgan plays her cards too early by revealing that she’s captured Lindmer and Wong.
In response, Strange defeats Morgan, rescues Wong and Lindmer, and comes into his powers as a Sorcerer Supreme. However, in the last scene, we see that Morgan is back in the human world and gathering followers for Gherkin-Head by posing as a self-help guru.
Which is actually a great idea. Can you think of a better way to start a cult in the ‘70s? If this movie took place today, Morgan would probably have become an influencer.
In theory, this movie should have worked. It’s a bizarre premise during a very strange decade. You would think the creators could have had some fun with it. But despite some of the slightly weirder moments in the movie, it really was bland. Strange’s story isn’t nearly as interesting as the original source material. In fact, we don’t even see Dr. Strange in his full hero persona until the last twenty minutes.
The only bright spot of the movie was Jessica Walter’s presence. She gave the Morgan LeFay role her all, and it did pay off. She’s the only actor from that movie who went on to have a career.
Rewind is an Inverse series that remembers the forgotten heroes we love.