Marvel In The 1970's: DR STRANGE And CAPTAIN AMERICA

Todd Brown, Founder and Editor
[Over the next several weeks, Comics Bulletin will be teaming up with Twitch to explore the world of Marvel Comics film adaptations in a series of essays from some of our best writers. We'll begin with Marvel's early efforts in the '70s, '80s and '90s before moving on to the more modern era of adaptations that Blade heralded. These essays will cover the ground of some of Marvel's most obscure adaptations and shine a light on how far comic adaptations as a whole have come in that time, as well as showcasing some of the value that can still be found in these early explorations. This entry by Paul Brian McCoy]

Wednesday, September 6, 1978 saw the premiere of Marvel's third attempt to move into live-action; this time with the Sorcerer Supreme, Doctor Strange.

By nearly everybody's reasoning, Doctor Strange was an odd choice to star in a television movie/backdoor pilot. Even the writer/director, Philip DeGuere noted in an October 1978 interview with Starlog magazine that it was "hard to even get a grasp on it." Ultimately, the difficulty involved with not only presenting a visual-effects-heavy supernatural story, but with the expense of the shoot running "five days over schedule and probably 50-to-100,000 dollars over-budget" contributed to Doctor Strange being a one-off appearance.

But they gave it a good try.

Not only did CBS stick to the successful approach they took with The Incredible Hulk of handing the reins to a single creator, ensuring a singular vision from the writing through the direction, they also chose to bring in actors already well-established with both film and TV audiences. Sir John Mills was cast as Doctor Strange's mentor, Lindmer (a play on Merlin) and Jessica Walter was cast as the villain of the piece, Morgan Le Fay.

Mills was one of England's most popular and beloved actors, whose career eventually stretched over eight decades, from 1932 to 2003. He was best known for starring turns in films as diverse as Scott of the Antarctic (1948), to Disney's Swiss Family Robinson (1960), to King Rat (1965). My own personal favorite role of his was in the 1979 ITV miniseries, Quatermass, in the title role of the brilliant and haunted Professor Bernard Quatermass.

Jessica Walter had been working consistently in film and television since the early Sixties, with a breakthrough performance in Clint Eastwood's directorial debut, Play Misty for Me (1971), as the psychotically obsessed fan of a radio disc-jockey. And of course, years later she owned the role of borderline-evil matriarch of Arrested Development, Lucille Bluth.

DeGuerre also took another inspiration from The Incredible Hulk and chose to ground the film in the realistic elements in the concept and de-emphasize the more flamboyant, pop aspects. Unfortunately, that could have been just what this project needed. Instead of a self-obsessed surgeon who loses the use of his hands and learns humility, Strange, as played by Peter Hooten, is a groovy, laid-back psychologist.

But at least he still rocks the mustache.

The story is interesting and manages to be entertaining, although I'm not surprised it didn't get picked up as a series. It was a little too mature for the Spider-Man audience, but not quite mature enough for fans of The Incredible Hulk. It was notable, however, that this was the first of the Marvel movies to feature an actual super-villain and I can't help but wonder if that contributed to its failure.

What made both Spider-Man and Hulk affordable to the suits and relatable to the audience, was keeping them both squarely in the real world, with the only effects budget going to prop doors and walls for Hulk to burst through and making sure there was enough cable to let Spidey scurry up and down buildings. Doctor Strange's "high tech" lighting effects and the unavoidable need to have mystical villains and threats would have made this a pretty hard sell to the average viewing audience; especially when, according to some sources, just this pilot spurred complaints about demons and witchcraft being shown in Prime Time.

Say what you will, I love the crazy, creepy magical being that Morgan serves. Depending on one's mood it might look overly cheesy or genuinely unnerving. It seems to be some sort of stop-motion monster with yellow glowing eyes, but the scene is so hazy we can't get a good look at it, which actually works in the film's favor. You can mock it, but I like the otherworldliness that the stiff animation adds. It's not great, but it's an impressive visual that freaked me out a little as a kid.

While Doctor Strange may have been doomed from the start, you can't say CBS didn't give Marvel's next attempt at television success, Captain America, a fair shake. Two of them, in fact.

The first Captain America film (I say first, because the 1944 Republic serial, while technically Captain America, was most likely based on Fawcett Comics' Mr. Scarlet, as it sticks to the basics of Scarlet's source material and has practically no hint of Captain America's) aired on Friday night, January 19, 1979, and is a mixed bag, I have to say. Of all the Marvel movies so far, this one has the weakest acting and strays the farthest from the source material.

Although TV veteran Len Birman does play the role of Dr. Simon Mills with a nice dramatic intensity, the rest of the cast fails to find a spark. Reb Brown, former football player for USC, plays Steve Rogers/Captain America in his first headlining gig. He went on to do some well-respected work, but this one is just a stinker.

But to be fair to the actors, the script is a real problem. It was written by Don Ingalls, an experienced scripter for episodes of Star Trek, Have Gun Will Travel, Fantasy Island, and many other shows, so I don't know happened. The direction is also pedestrian at best, which is yet another surprise, given that Rod Holcomb was in the director's chair. He was a veteran of The Six Million Dollar Man and would go on to direct episodes of Battlestar Galactica and is still directing today. He directed the "Jughead" episode from the 2009 season of Lost.

So somehow, a talented writer, a talented director, and actors with actual skills all got together and choked. By all rights, this should have been passable, at least. I'll go ahead and blame the failure on the network.

CBS imposed creative limitations on the film, in order to not be too close to the comics, and the main problem with the film is that it completely jettisons everything that makes Captain America Captain America except for the fact that he's the product of a drug experiment.

Rogers here is an ex-Marine who just wants to drive around in his van working on his art. His dad, though, was a crime-fighter so patriotic that his enemies called him "Captain America" as an insult. Steve refuses to be a part of any of this, until he's nearly killed and F.L.A.G. (the ultimate steroid) saves his life. The climax is boring and cliche, but at least it's over quickly.

Then, in the final moments of the film, Steve decides he does want to be Captain America for real and even wear his dad's old costume. Yes, his dad actually wore the classic Captain America costume from the comics even though this was never mentioned before.

They were really hoping for another Incredible Hulk. So much so that even though this first film was pretty awful, they still bankrolled and aired a second film, Captain America 2: Death Too Soon, on November 23, 1979, and it's a better production in nearly every aspect.

The script was by Wilton Schiller and Patricia Payne with direction by Ivan Nagy (with Rod Holcomb doing some second unit directing). Nagy's got more flair than Holcomb did; unfortunately, he wasn't long for mainstream television.

The real surprise here is Christopher Lee showing up as the villain of the piece, General Miguel, a terrorist who weaponizes a chemical that speeds up the aging process to those who are exposed. They zip through seventy years in four weeks. As an actor, Lee is definitely slumming, but he always classes up the joint and runs with the material here.

Also as with Hulk, this second film jumps right into the traveling stranger motif, only Steve's got a van and a cat. He's also a loveable doofus, which is a little hard to take seriously, but at least you don't hate him. It really is like a dumbed down Incredible Hulk. But at least they improved on the costume. He dressed more like Evil Knievel in the first film ñ motorcycle helmet and all.

In looking back over the production of these films, this is the biggest surprise of Marvel's Seventies output. The quality of this film is so far above the first Captain America, I would have thought it was definitely going to be picked up. But it was not to be.

By the end of 1979, The Incredible Hulk would be the only superhero series still on CBS, and it would run until 1982. In 1979, Wonder Woman aired the final twelve episodes of its third and final season; then despite good ratings, the eight-episode Second Season of The Amazing Spider-Man was aired sporadically with its first six episodes spread out over six months from 1978 through the beginning of 1979. And its two-part special finale aired five months later in July!

Ultimately, what kept Captain America off the air and choked out Spider-Man was a combination of prohibitive stunt costs and an executive decision to keep CBS from being characterized as "The Superhero Network."

As the Eighties began, Marvel would find it harder and harder to get a film into production, much less completed and released. And what we did get was occasionally staggering in its ineptitude. 

Paul Brian McCoy will next dive into the comic book adaptations of the 1980s. Keep an eye on Twitch for more!

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