Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Dr. Strange (1978)

This review is more than likely going to veer a lot into the realm of comic book nerdery, so you have my apologies at the outset.  

The honorific “Doctor” makes just about any word coming after it sound more important or alternately menacing.  Would Doctor Who be as cool if he were just Who?  Would Dr. Diane Shmelman be held in as high regard if she were just Miss Shmelman?  Would Doctor Death be less of a threat if he were just Death?  Well, yeah, maybe on that one.  Anyone’s name is augmented with honorifics; that’s kind of the point.  In an odd sort of way they bestow a mantle of adulthood on the bearer by the speaker, or at least they do when used in a forthright manner (though admittedly, this only really effective on kids and young adults).  But perhaps what they do best (at least in terms of showmanship) is confer the tone by which the holder’s character is meant to be gauged.  Witness: Mr. Majestyk, Ms. 45, Professor X, Captain Kangaroo, etcetera, etcetera.  Almost every honorific in recorded history has its share of badasses and morts attached to it, but to my mind, none are quite as potent as “Doctor.”  Funny thing is, unlike so many fictive characters who share the title, Dr. Strange actually is a medical practitioner.

The Ancient One (a stop motion creation voiced by the late, great Michael Ansara, and more than likely intended to be the dread Dormammu) informs elderly (yet still smoking hot) underling Morgan LeFay (Jessica Walters) that she has only three days to pierce the barrier between the dark realm and our dimension and vanquish the elderly and current Sorcerer Supreme, Thomas Lindmer (John Mills).  Employing the unwitting assistance of lovely, soon-to-be Buck Rogers Babe, Clea (Anne-Marie Martin aka Eddie Benton), Morgan very leisurely sets about her task.  Enter Dr. Stephen Strange (Peter Hooten), a warm-hearted physician and a cold-blooded lover, who just so happens to be connected to all of this much more personally than he would expect (but hardly the audience).

Outside of cartoons, I believe Marvel Comics characters came to the live-action world of television adventures a bit later than their main rival DC Comics.  There was the Shazam television series starting in 1974, the Cathy Lee Crosby version of Wonder Woman who appeared in a TV movie that same year.  Prior to this there were, of course, series starring both Batman and Superman.  However, to the best of my knowledge, the first Marvel character to hit the live-action world was their own wall-crawling web slinger in 1977’s Amazing Spider-Man program (episodes of which were condensed and edited together into feature length form a few years down the road).  Funny enough, the character with the best track record on television (two original pilot films, a show running five seasons, plus several more television features afterward), The Incredible Hulk, is also the one with the least cinematic success (hopefully this will change in the near future, as he’s my personal favorite).  Following this Dr. Strange outing, Captain America would even get a couple of films in which action star Reb Brown was allowed to strut his proverbial stuff.  

But this time period was really a heyday (at least in my mind) for the popularity of comic book superheroes (a time which is seemingly repeating itself currently, though now it could be argued they are much more self-serious).  They had seeped into the popular culture and saturated the market with everything from stickers to posters to records to toys to costumes and on and on and on.  But if you look at the above-mentioned characters, they predominantly all had a presence in the pop culture psyche before they hit the screen (big or small).  Hell, most of DC’s characters referred to here were created before or around the onset of World War Two (and yes, I know Shazam aka Captain Marvel was not even created at DC, but that’s another discussion).  Hulk and Spidey were extremely popular in their respective comic titles, and both had also had animated runs to further cement their statures.  By this logic, Dr. Strange seems a…um…strange choice to elect for Hollywood treatment, but if you look at the culture of the time, it actually comes a bit sharper into focus.  There was a fascination with all things occult and supernatural at this time.  In all sorts of media, if there weren’t ghosts haunting your house, Bigfoot raiding your fridge, or devil worshippers living next door to you, there was something wrong with you.  Obviously, Dr. Strange, at least from a perfunctory perspective should have fit right in and even dominated this time, but he didn’t.  

This film is part of the reason why he didn’t (or at least explains it a bit).  Hampered as I’m sure they were by a tiny budget and a short schedule, what writer director Philip DeGuere turned out is perfectly passable for a Wednesday night television programmer.  And that’s the real problem.  The story has any number of interesting avenues it can explore, but it does nothing with any of them.  The story of passing the mantle to the new Sorcerer Supreme is handled offhandedly.  Morgan’s ability to manipulate people and its ties to sexual gratification is teased but never explored (and yes, it could have been done so in a way that would have passed the censors).  The action scenes have absolutely zero tension in them, and every obstacle is conquered with the facility of walking up a ramp rather than with the senses-shattering effort of climbing a giant mountain.  

But even discounting these things, and bearing in mind that origin stories are a chore to do in any sort of fresh way even in 1978, the filmmakers (as the powers behind just about every live-action superhero venture of the time) seem to completely miss the point of what makes this character and characters like him compelling.  It’s not that Spider-Man can climb walls and shoot webs.  It’s that he is forever trying to work off the unbearable guilt he feels over the death of his Uncle Ben (“With great power comes great responsibility”).  It’s not that the Hulk can throw men hundreds of feet or crack the ground with one stomp of his foot.  It’s that he is the embodiment of a suppressed rage and impotence and the inability of Dr. Banner to deal with these issues in a healthy manner.  Dr. Strange was an ego-maniacal neurosurgeon who was maimed in a car accident and came to know humility and enlightenment as well as discovering a new purpose in life through the mystic arts.  The interesting parts of these characters are not their super powers but their feet of clay.  It’s sharing in their human struggles, of identifying with their tribulations that makes them special.  The costumes, the powers, the property damage is spectacle, and though it has its place, it’s simply not enough to compel the long term devotion these characters have garnered.  By making Strange a really nice guy with an overactive libido, he is (mostly) normalized.  His ego is no longer a problem.  He doesn’t have to suffer the loss of his hands and his medical career.  All he has to do is smirk, spout a few “magic” words, and he’s suddenly Gandalf.  I can only assume that this sort of thing is done to appeal to as many children and age brackets as humanly possible, but the trick is it doesn’t work.  Banality does not engender commitment to a character.  I could go on, but I already have so I’ll stop there.      

 As a time-waster, as filler, this movie is acceptable.  As anything that distinguishes itself from the pack or is in any way memorable other than giving us a couple of nice shots of Ms. Walter’s bare legs, not so much.  And yet, I’m glad that this was made, just because it gave a very brief spotlight to one of the more obscure superheroes from Marvel’s stable.  

MVT:  I love the core ideas behind Dr. Strange as well as the stop motion monster effects.  The execution is lacking, but what’s beneath is rich for exploration.

Make Or Break:  Following from that, I liked the scenes featuring the Ancient One and LeFay.  They’re a triple threat.  They have a stop motion monster.  They have a beautiful woman in tight clothes.  They have Ansara’s grandiose voice acting.  If only the rest lived up to this.

Score:  6/10

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