The forgotten 1970s Doctor Strange movie
The release of the new Doctor Strange movie marks the eleventh movie from Marvel Studios that already includes films for characters like Thor and Captain America. While Marvel’s films have made literally billions upon billions of dollars, there’s a little secret that fans of comics know that most of the movie going public doesn’t — there was a series of films based on Marvel characters that were released in the 1970s that Marvel has wishes everyone would just forget about.
Back then, Marvel licensed several of their characters to studios in an attempt at creating TV properties. The first of these was The Amazing Spider Man in 1978.
Owing to the limitations of 1970s movie technology and smaller budgets for TV, Spider-Man, like all the other Marvel TV properties, began as a movie of the week. The original movie served as an origin story for the character of Peter Parker (Nicholas Hammond), here not a high school teen but instead his 20s, who’s bitten by a radioactive spider and is given superpowers he uses to solve crimes.
The original TV movie was popular enough that it would spawn two seasons of an The Amazing Spider-Man TV series from 1978 to 1979. Either I was too young at the time or I simply didn’t watch, but I have no memory of seeing the Nicholas Hammond version of Spider-Man on TV until the 1990s when, I believe, USA Network would air the series each year around Thanksgiving.
This 1970s costumed Spider-Man isn’t on screen very often since the movie/series mostly focuses on Peter Parker rather than Spidey. At times The Amazing Spider-Man is remarkably dull for a series based on a comic book.
The Incredible Hulk would follow Spider-Man in 1978. Starring Bill Bixby and Lou Ferrigno, The Incredible Hulk was the most successful of these 1970s Marvel TV series and ran some 80+ episodes as well as having several TV movies afterwards. Seemingly each episode of the series featured Bixby as David Banner always on the run from town to town trying to help some poor soul out of a bind before circumstances out of his control would cause him to Hulk-out (Ferrigno) and wreck some scenery before being forced to move on over dreary music and in the rain to the next town.
In 1979 two Captain America TV movies would debut with Captain America and Captain America II: Death Too Soon. This Steve Rogers (Reb Brown) is, no joke, a body-building artist who drives around in a van who’s given a serum which gives him super-abilities. Reb’s Captain America rides a motorcycle which rockets out of the back of his van and has a semi-transparent shield when he fights the bad guys.
I remember the Captain America TV movies being shown in syndication from time to time and these two movies are available on DVD.
If The Incredible Hulk were extremely popular and Captain America would get two movies, then the Doctor Strange TV movie must’ve drawn the short straw since it’s all but a lost film today.
Starring Peter Hooten in the title role, here Doctor Strange is a hospital psychiatrist who’s called to become the next “Sorcerer Supreme” in a never-ending fight against the evil forces of the universe — here personified by Morgan le Fay played by Jessica Walter later of Arrested Development fame.
It took me years to see Doctor Strange. As far as I can tell the movie only ever aired on TV a few times and while it was released on VHS Doctor Strange has so far never been available on DVD or a more modern format*. I finally saw it on a bootleg VHS tape taken from the official VHS release a few years ago.
And I can see why Doctor Strange wasn’t turned into a series — we spend a lot of time with the good doctor as a hospital physician before we get to Doctor Strange the mastery of the mystical arts. And even when we get to him a lot of the movie features Strange battling le Fay on a black velvet background void that features a soundtrack that’s part disco and part new wave.
I can only imaging the latest incarnation of Doctor Strange starring Benedict Cumberbatch will easily outdo the cheesy 1978 version of Doctor Strange and will one day be available on DVD too.