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The Bizarre 1970s Doctor Strange Movie You Didn't Know Existed

The Marvel Cinematic was going full steam ahead by the mid-2010s, though the increasingly sprawling universe began to feel a bit samey. Franchises like "Iron Man," "Captain America," and "Ant-Man" told relatively grounded stories and toned down fantastical, comic book-inspired elements — a far cry from the MCU content of the 2020s that deals with variants, differing timelines, and the like. Thankfully, the franchise's tone took a drastic shift in 2016 with "Doctor Strange": a magical, visually unique thrill ride that brought Benedict Cumberbatch's version of the Sorcerer Supreme to the big screen for the very first time.

"Doctor Strange" served as a fine introduction to the titular surgeon-turned-magician, as well as supporting characters like Wong (Benedict Wong) and the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), setting the stage for this magical corner of the MCU to feature more prominently in the years that followed. Strange played a key role in both "Avengers: Infinity War" and "Avengers: Endgame" and most recently took part in "Spider-Man: No Way Home." Not to mention, he'll return in the impeding "Doctor Strange" sequel, "Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness," which hits the big screen in May of 2022.

That's an impressive résumé for Stan Lee and Steve Ditko's iconic creation, but did you know that it didn't technically begin in 2016? Let's talk about the oft-forgotten and rather bizarre Doctor Strange film from the 1970s that started it all.

The origins of 1978's Dr. Strange

Long before Kevin Feige and his team came up with a plan for the MCU, Sam Raimi sat in the director's chair for "Spider-Man," and Hugh Jackman donned black leather as Wolverine in "X-Men," most live-action Marvel adaptations called the small screen home. All fans really had to sink their teeth into were shows like "The Amazing Spider-Man" and "The Incredible Hulk" from the late-1970s, but they weren't the only efforts to dig into the Marvel catalog. Enter Philip DeGuere, who directed, wrote, and produced the film "Dr. Strange" for CBS in 1978.

The film stars Peter Hooten as Dr. Stephen Strange, who takes care of a wounded Clea Lake (Anne-Marie Martin) following her confrontation with the evil Morgan Le Fay (Jessica Walter). The sorceress had possessed Lake to attack Earth's Sorcerer Supreme, Thomas Lindmer (John Mills), in hopes of killing him to gain the favor of her mysterious superior. She remains committed to her mission, but Strange's budding magical abilities (and his dashing good looks) eventually thwart her plan. By the time the credits roll, he becomes the Sorcerer Supreme we all know and saves the day.

"Dr. Strange" hit the airwaves on September 6, 1978, and with its gripping story, cast of notable Marvel entities, and Paul Chihara's electronic score, it was surely a hit, right? Not by a long shot.

Dr. Strange crashed and burned

To put it mildly, "Dr. Strange" fell short in every conceivable way, especially in the ratings, prompting CBS to abandon plans for a Strange-centric TV series down the line (via The Hollywood Reporter). At the time of this writing, it currently holds a 57% audience score on Rotten Tomatoes, and it's not difficult to see why. For a film about one of the Marvel Universe's most interesting, colorful characters, it's visually and narratively dull, and the technology of the era couldn't keep up with the source material, amounting to a rather disappointing watch all around.

Even though most who've seen "Dr. Strange" don't have much good to say about it, those who worked on it seem to have enjoyed themselves, and they stated as much to THR in 2016. "We did the best we could without a lot of greenscreen, CGI, and all of that stuff. It was a great experience," recalled Wong actor Clyde Kusatsu, and the actor behind one of the hospital's orderlies, Frank Catalano, appreciated that the cast had a "rare kind of cohesion." Jessica Walter gave praise to Phillip DeGuere for his devotion to the project, adding, "He wanted everything to be really perfect."

At the end of the day, "Dr. Strange" is far from the best Marvel production to come out of the '70s, but it's not without its merits. The cast did their best to turn in some solid performances, and the crew worked hard to make the movie feel as magical as possible, so for those reasons, it deserves some amount of credit. It's a campy, cheesy product of its time and certainly an oddity in the world of live-action Marvel adaptations. Still, especially compared to modern superhero media, "Dr. Strange" isn't the most captivating watch.