John Mills
Dr Strange
Medium: film
Year: 1978
Writer/director: Philip DeGuere
Original creator: Stan Lee, Steve Ditko
Keywords: superhero, fantasy
Country: USA
Actor: Peter Hooten, Clyde Kusatsu, Jessica Walter, Anne-Marie Martin, Philip Sterling, John Mills, June Barrett, Sarah Rush, Diana Webster, Bob Delegall, Larry Anderson, Blake Marion, Lady Rowlands, Ines Pedroza, Michael Clark, Frank Catalano
Format: 93 minutes
Series: Dr Strange
Website category: Superhero
Review date: 7 January 2013
It's a TV movie and pilot for a series that never happened, based on the Marvel superhero Dr Strange. It's competent, but I didn't like it much.
Its main problem for me, even above the non-performances in the lead roles, is the sexism. There's something a bit laddish and demeaning about it. Dr Strange is a doctor of psychology, but more importantly he's got the hair, moustache and lifestyle of a porn star. (I exaggerate, but that's how he's introduced.) He banters with nurses about his conquests. Morgan LeFay doesn't kill him because she can't resist his manly charms, even though she's neither spoken to him, drawn his attention or even gone near him. "I am still a woman and the man attracted me." Good to know that even immortal all-powerful half-faerie sisters of King Arthur will turn into helpless stalkers when they see a sexual tyrannosaurus, eh?
Better still, John Mills (yes, him) stakes his life on Morgan finding Dr Strange irresistible.
This is a minor element of the film and I'm sure everyone in 1978 would have thought I'm being silly, but the film's visuals back me up. The writer/director clearly knows what he likes looking at. Both Jessica Walter (Morgan LeFay) and Anne-Marie Martin (Clea Lake) are asked to bend over in low-cut dresses and/or jog along in flimsy nightwear. I'm not complaining, but it hardly reduces the sense of objectification.
Apart from that, the film's okay. You wouldn't go so far as to call it good, but I liked the way it's wallowing in the lurid imagery of witchcraft and satanism. They're not embarrassed about the magic. On the contrary, they love it. The astral plane is nearly as trippy as I'd guess the original Lee-Ditko comics were back in the 1960s. They have proper "rubber-suit monster" demons. Furthermore the opening scene has Morgan LeFay effectively getting her orders from Satan in Hell, except that this guy can't be a particularly high-level demon because he's merely telling this minion to go to Earth and bump off some sorceror(s)... and she's not even going to be able to manage that. He might be Dormammu from the comics.
At the same time, though, Strange's job makes for an interesting contrast with that. There's nothing quite so unromantic and down-to-earth as medical professionals and office politics. (Yes, hospitals have office politics too.)
It would have probably made quite a good series, although it was never taken up. Hooten's Strange is less of a dick than Stan Lee's original and it's taking the premise seriously, as did Bill Bixby's Incredible Hulk that began the same year. If nothing else, Stan Lee liked it. To quote the guy... "I probably had the most input into that one. I've become good friends with the writer/producer Phil DeGuere. I was pleased with Dr. Strange and The Hulk. I think that Dr. Strange would have done much better than it did in the ratings except that it aired opposite Roots. Those are the only experiences I've had with live action television. Dr. Strange and the Hulk were fine. Captain America was a bit [of a] disappointment and Spider-Man was a total nightmare."
The cast is the most interesting thing about this film. Sir John Mills (CBE, Oscar-winner, later to be a Fellow of the British Academy of Film and Television Arts) has clearly wandered in from another film entirely. I don't know how they got him, but I'm glad they did. He's not showy, but he's classy and never seems to think he's slumming it. Unfortunately this can't be said of Jessice Walter, who surely isn't talentless given her past success at the Golden Globes and Emmies, but who here seems to think that facial expressions are beneath her. She's not as obviously rubbish as Hooten, but for me she's more damaging. Anne-Marie Martin (Dori Doreau in Sledge Hammer!) was a huge surprise for me and I loved having her in the cast, even though she's not being given a huge amount to work with.
Then there's Peter Hooten, whom you won't have heard of. There's a reason for that. Personally I didn't think he looked very Strange-like, but in addition he's an anti-actor. He walks, he talks and he charms the ladies, but nothing reaches the eyes.
Other Dr Strange films include a Full Moon effort with the names changed because their option expired (Doctor Mordrid) and a 2007 straight-to-DVD animation, Doctor Strange: The Sorcerer Supreme.
The film's competent, but for me it's dated badly. You'd never get away these days with female characters like that, although in fairness Walter's making no effort to redeem the script by doing something with, say, her character's vanity. Dormammu's worst punishment for her is to take away her beauty and make her look old, for instance. A good actress might have used this to characterise LeFay, but Walter merely makes it look like 1970s sexism. Nevertheless, apart from all that, this is a passable and respectful attempt at doing an unlikely Marvel character, taking the property a good deal more seriously than it might have done. There's worse.