There’s a rather brilliant theme of duality about Marvel characters like Doctor Strange – for one, we have the mystical sorcerer, conquering vast, galaxy-threatening evils of unknown alternate dimensions. For another, we have the ordinary man living in New York City, left to rebuild his life after a tragic accident robbed him of his god-given talents, and only now beginning to realize the true significance of helping others. Doctor Strange, created by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko in the pages of Strange Tales back in 1963, is possibly the greatest of Marvel’s characters that literally walk in two worlds.
Strange also has one of the best, most rousing origin stories in comics, one which could easily make for a fantastic feature film. Enter Back to the Future trilogy writer Bob Gale, who back in 1986 penned a screenplay for a potential Doctor Strange adaptation. A hugely ambitious project for its time, Gale’s draft sadly never saw the light of day for unknown reasons. In fact, very little is known about the circumstances surrounding the project’s inception and falling-out; even the studio that would’ve produced the film remains unknown. We do know that after Gale’s draft fell through, the Doctor Strange film rights bounced around from studio to studio for a decade and a half, passing through the hands of big-name talent like David S. Goyer, Wes Craven, and Guillermo Del Toro before finally landing back at Marvel Studios, where an adaptation is still being mulled over. A project of such mysterious circumstances seems fitting for the subject material, but how does it measure up? A dated, rightfully scrapped misstep of yesteryear, or brilliant, criminally overlooked gem?
The script opens 700 years ago in Asia Minor, where a master of the mystic arts and his young apprentice are fighting against evil forces attempting to summon the dread Dormammu, a demon from the netherworld, to Earth via Skullkane, a magical rod embodying Dormammu’s power on Earth. During the battle, Skullkane is split in two and the master killed, leaving his pupil to hide away both pieces of Skullkane separately and carry on with his magic studies alone. Fast-forward to one thousand years later in New York City, where hot-shit surgeon Stephen Strange is garnering significant attention over his astoundingly prolific career. Strange credits this success to his hands, which he calls his “most prized possessions.” Yet with his incredible talent comes an incredibly inflated ego – Strange is a textbook narcissist, flaunting his skills to drooling onlookers and using sleight-of-hand tricks to pick up chicks. One evening, however, Strange’s act doesn’t play well with one particular woman at a party, and she leaves in a huff. Strange gives chase in his car, but after taking a sharp turn on a high peak, the car flies off the road and down a steep cliff, mangling Strange’s hands permanently. Doctors tell him he’ll never perform surgery again.
Unhindered, Stephen laughs off the assessment and begins searching elsewhere for a cure. But elsewhere becomes elsewheres, towards exotic locales and bizarre treatments that drive the once-prolific surgeon deeper and deeper into debt. As Stephen begins to bottom out, a mysterious Asian man presents him with a last resort – visit the Ancient One, a mysterious old medicine man living in the Himalayas, who may be able to help. As Stephen sets out to find the old man, he begins to discover a more sorcerous, righteous destiny. It all leads up to a climactic battle for Skullkane as Dormammu is once again summoned to Earth, forcing Strange to put his newfound powers to the test.
Gale’s Doctor Strange is a sweeping epic, presenting a comprehensive origin story for the Sorcerer Supreme. Like the fully realized Batman Begins, Gale’s script focuses far more on Strange himself, barely even scratching the surface of the character’s more otherworldly inclinations by the halfway mark. Some of the best moments center around these otherworldly moments, dealing with metaphysical reality and yoga-like magical abilities with some heavy Steve Ditko-inspired imagery. “Magic is simply a word to describe that which we cannot explain” says the Ancient One in a great line, under whom Strange trains. It’s a line that allows Gale to play in both worlds without being questioned (much like Kenneth Branagh’s Thor). Not to mention, Gale infuses some very funny moments that don’t come off as tongue-in-cheek, a surprisingly forward-thinking prospect for the time.
Taking us to a variety of locations, from the Himalayan mountains to the streets of New York, it’s clear Gale’s ambition exceeds any possible budgetary limitations for the time. I only wish the project had gotten at least as far as the conceptual stage, where a design artist sharing Gale’s passion for the source material could’ve really brought to life some of the more visual elements of the script. Realistically however, it’s hard to imagine the limitations of 1980s filmmaking yielding what would’ve been some seriously groundbreaking special effects for the time.
Any boundaries the producing studio may have put to Gale for the script were likely minimal at best – for such a seemingly tentpole-ish release, there are very few action beats in this, a highly expository script. And what action sequences there are tend become a bit clunky and confused. Some of the dialogue also leans a bit too far into exposition territory. But perhaps the script’s most amusing cliché is its, no joke, 80s montage sequence.
That’s right, even Gale can’t completely escape the trappings of age. Just read this, the sixth scene in the sequence:
Terrific, terrific. All it needs is some “Hearts on Fire.”
Trouble is, this all happens on page 80 of a 117 page script, leaving Gale scrambling to wrap things up, and rushing ahead with what should’ve been a far more lengthy climax as a result. As commendable as the script is for taking its time to build up Strange’s transformation, it takes far too long to get there, and sacrifices some of the best parts in the process. It’s a little like Superman: the Movie, when teenage Clark just sort of becomes Superman after twelve years travelling the galaxy with his dead father. It worked fine back then, but in today’s deeper character pieces, it’s not nearly as satisfying as watching that growth unfold in full.
Still, a highly enjoyable read, Bob Gale’s Doctor Strange is an excellent blueprint, faithful to the comics and centered squarely on the heart of its protagonist. This is boldly, unabashedly Strange, a pure Marvel experience if there ever was one. It’s sad to see that a project so ahead of its time never made it to the silver screen in any form, as Gale’s Strange would’ve easily made for a great superhero film. As for Strange’s continued journey to the big screen, last we heard Marvel Studios was actively developing a script by Cowboys & Aliens writers Thomas Donnelly and Joshua Oppenheimer. Perhaps instead, the studio should take a look back at this script and reassess their options.