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.
*Actually, Shout Factory has released a copy of Doctor Strange on DVD this week “remastered from original film elements.”
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It seems like the first movie of the franchise usually makes a bit of money, but the real money comes from the spin-offs and sequels that follow.
Man of Steel: The Fantastic Untold Origin Story (Not Really)
Henry Cavill as the Man of Steel
This summer, DC Entertainment is set to try and launch a new superhero movie franchise with Superman. Again. For the fourth time. And while I’m happy to see this strange visitor from another planet return to the big screen in Man of Steel, this time directed by Zack Snyder (Dawn of the Dead, Watchmen) with a script by David Goyer (the most recent Batman trilogy of films), I have to wonder why there’s a need to reboot a character like Superman at all? Is there really anyone out there at this point who DOESN’T know the origin of Superman, or at least have some grasp on who Superman and his alter ego Clark Kent is?
Superman Returns with Brandon Routh
Overall, comic book reboot movies have been popular as of late. Over the last few years the X-Men franchise was rebooted with X-Men: First Class, Spider-Man with The Amazing Spider-Man, Batman with Batman Begins and even (yes) Superman a few years back in Superman Returns that ultimately wasn’t successful and would lead to Man of Steel.
But why reboot? Why not keep telling a continuing story of the character with different actors and a different creative team ala the James Bond franchise? Here’s why I think that comic book movies, and comic books too, keep going back and retelling the same origin story over and over again; the origin story represents the only real a permanent change that will ever happen to the character.
Think about it. In the Iron Man (2008) origin, Tony Stark goes from being a self-centered weapons manufacturer who makes billions off of wars and conflicts to someone who’s brought to his knees when he’s almost killed by terrorists to a man who changes his corporation to do good and builds a super-suit of armor to try and benefit humanity. That’s a lot of changes and one heck of a character arc for Stark in Iron Man.
But in Iron Man 2 and 3 Stark doesn’t change too much. His character arc consists of him using his super-suit of armor to fight the baddies and protect the innocent. And the same goes for Stark in The Avengers too. In that movie, there’s a lot of Stark’s witty banter and him fighting armies of bad guys, but there’s not a lot of change there either.
Let’s not forget Thor (2011) where a literal god who’s full of himself and wants to rule because he sees it as his birth right is humbled and becomes worthy enough to lead and Captain America: The First Avenger (2011) as well who goes from a literal 90lb weakling wanting to fight for his country in WWII to risking his life to become a super-soldier in order to do so. But the only change either of these characters has in The Avengers is screen time and how many of the baddies they each take down.
I suppose there’s an argument to be made that the Bruce Wayne character in The Dark Knight Rises does change from the previous films — in the movie he starts out as a retired recluse broken from his past adventures. But most of these changes are physical and are only at the beginning of the movie. Minutes after a crippled Howard Hughes-like Bruce Wayne is introduced he’s rappelling out of windows and is back to his old gravely-voiced Batman self.
The heroes of X-Men: First Class
I think it all goes back to an old axiom of comic books that says telling stories that have the illusion of change are better than ones with actual change. At the end of the day no matter if Captain America is killed by a sniper’s bullet or Superman dies fighting some gigantic alien terror, in no time it will be revealed that the bullet that “killed” Cap really froze him in space and time or that Superman was brought back to life via alien technologies.
And within a few issues Cap will be back to being Cap and Superman being Superman.
So that’s why movies like The Amazing Spider-Man, X-Men: First Class and even the upcoming Man of Steel retell the origin of the character(s) in a reboot movie, it’s the only chance the audience will ever get to see the characters change and act as a reference point to what they become.
Man of Steel, really Superman VI, is set to be released in theaters Friday, June 14.