Secret comic book movies: Dr. Strange (1978)

ANAHEIM, CA - APRIL 02: Bernie Bregman dressed as Doctor Strange on Day 3 of WonderCon 2017 held at Anaheim Convention Center on April 2, 2017 in Anaheim, California. (Photo by Albert L. Ortega/Getty Images)
ANAHEIM, CA - APRIL 02: Bernie Bregman dressed as Doctor Strange on Day 3 of WonderCon 2017 held at Anaheim Convention Center on April 2, 2017 in Anaheim, California. (Photo by Albert L. Ortega/Getty Images) /
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“…would you still choose understanding over ignorance?”

Comparisons between this movie and Marvel Studios’ Doctor Strange are unavoidable. In the 2016 film, the sense of scale and stakes felt larger; after all, it was dealing with a cosmic, end-the-world level threat in the form of Dormamuu, and involved the manipulation of space-time. There’s still a cosmic level threat in the 1978 film, but the stakes seem more personal.

Aside from Stephen trying to save Clea, Lindmer and Morgan le Fey are essentially chess players who are competing for Stephen as their pawn. The 2016 film may have greater visual grandeur, but the 1978 film is more cerebral and, appropriately, mysterious.

The biggest drawback with Dr. Strange, however, definitely has to do with it’s pacing. What it is about these ’70s Marvel TV shows and movies that makes them feel so slow? Maybe, because of their limited production budgets, a greater emphasis gets placed on dialogue scenes than the action and effects. But not every screenwriter is Billy Wilder, Quentin Tarantino, or the Coen Brothers when it comes to writing quick, witty, and believable banter. If that banter is also bogged down by too much exposition, then the film feels even slower. That’s definitely the case with Dr. Strange, especially whenever Lindmer and Wong have to explain to Stephen what’s going on.

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Speaking of those effects, they are, as you might expect from a 1970s TV movie, pretty standard. Strange flying to the Astral Plain is definitely a green screen projection, energy blasts are basic after-effects, and, in the case one scene, rings of rubber cement lit on fire. Slightly more impressive, though, are the interior set designs.

The interior of Sanctum Sanctorum, while having old fashioned furnishings, looks like the interior of a cave with no straight angles, and walls decorated with impressionist paintings to further accentuate a feeling of disorientation. Establishing shots of Morgan le Fey’s multi-tiered lair in the Astral Plane are also visually striking.

Composer Paul Chihara’s musical score, meanwhile, is your typical, irritating progressive rock and jazz that you often find in 1970s cinema. Yet there are two pieces which really stand out and elevate the film above other ’70s Marvel TV shows. The music for the opening credits, with it’s discordant violins and horns, sounds like the lost track from The Omen (1976). Then there’s the Morgan le Fey theme. With its rhythmic, repetitive synth guitars and bass, it not only appropriately makes scenes dark and suspenseful, it’s very, very catchy.

In taking all of this into consideration, is 1978’s Dr. Strange a bad movie? It’s certainly not on par with the great superhero movies of the genre, but it sure doesn’t quite deserve the bad rap that it has. It also could have worked as an ongoing series despite it’s higher-than-average budget for the time. Maybe the world just wasn’t ready for Dr. Strange back then, but as evidenced by series such as Supernatural, The Dresden Files, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Harry Potter, there is a definite market for heroes using magic to combat witches, warlocks, monsters and demons. At least Marvel Studios, by bringing Doctor Strange into the MCU, realized this too.

Secret comic book movies: Captain America (1979). dark. Next

Speaking of Marvel, we’re not quite done with them yet. Next time, we’ll be revisiting another almost forgotten movie featuring a superhero we already talked about. He’s also a perfect subject for this coming Fourth of July, too.