Since these funnybooks we all love have grown into multi-billion dollar film and television franchises it’s only natural to start thinking about which of our favorite heroes will next appear on the silver screen. Marvel has already worked through their “A” and “B” characters and seem ready to greenlight anything in tights these days (Ant Man? Guardians of the Galaxy?), so to assist our friends at the House of Ideas I’m inaugurating a new feature here at Longbox Graveyard — Superhero Greenlight, where we pitch film takes for superheroes that don’t yet have a date with box office glory!
Joining me in the smoke-filled star chamber are my old comrades-in-comic-book-crime, Chris Ulm and Tom Mason, both dudes with deep roots in the intellectual property business, and both shameless fanboys still carrying a torch for the adventures of men (and women) who wear their primary-colored underwear on the outside. For this first Superhero Greenlight it’s my job to pitch my take on a comic book property for film, and the guys either buoy it up or shoot it down.
After due consideration, I’m offering up …
… Doctor Strange, earth’s Sorcerer Supreme!
Co-created by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko, and making his first appearance in Strange Tales #110 (cover dated July 1963), Doctor Strange is a master of the mystic arts, doing battle in far-flung dimensions to protect the earth from demons and supernatural beings intent on destroying mankind. Doctor Strange might be the last great Marvel Silver Age superhero who hasn’t yet had a meaningful screen presence. Aside from a couple animated appearances, a one-and-done TV movie in 1978, and the Doctor-Strange-By-Any-Other-Name film Doctor Mordrid from Full Moon Features in 1992, Doctor Strange has been an unknown quantity outside of comic books.
He’s one of my favorite characters — I reviewed his Strange Tales run here, and I spotlighted the strange faces of Steve Ditko’s Doctor Strange here — but Strange is a difficult character to do right. His own book hasn’t always worked, though you can see some of the better attempts over at Mars Will Send No More. Wedging Strange into the superhero-filled Manhattan of Marvel Comics sometimes feels forced — Strange seems to work best when in his own little corner of the superhero world, battling things unseen by the rest of his four-colored brethren (and no less a luminary than Game of Thrones author George R.R. Martin seems to agree, based on his own informal take for this character).
Brilliant surgeon Dr. Stephen Strange has it all — wealth, fame, fortune, and fatal hubris. When his drunk driving injures his beloved Clea in a car crash, Strange insists on performing the operation that can save her life himself; when his fiancee dies on the table, Strange loses his reputation, his license, and his soul in one fell swoop. Now he searches the world for a teacher that will let him rescue Clea from the spirit world, and is caught up in a diabolical web of black magic, demons, secret sorcerers, and an extra-dimensional dark god that threatens to possess Strange … and through him conquer earth itself!
Casting: Johnny Depp is my A-list first choice, but there are a host of actors appropriate for the role — including fellow A-Lister Leonardo DiCaprio, the always-reliable Guy Pearce, ready-to-blow-up Joseph Gordon-Levitt, or how how about … wait for it, baby birds … Daniel Radcliffe as a grown-up sorcerer supreme?
TOM: Okay, I’m in. I like your pitch and I think Depp would make a great Doctor Strange — not too young, not too old, and a reputation for playing characters full of quirkiness with some comedy (that the ol’ Doc desperately needs). Your other choices would be good too, but I think Depp could actually bring people into the theater. Iron Man is one of the lesser known Marvel characters to the general public, but Robert Downey Jr. was the draw that made that movie. Dr. Strange is even lesser known than Iron Man, and you need an actor like Depp who can open a certain kind of movie.
Iron Man & Doctor Strange, together again for the first time
PAUL: Depp couldn’t draw flies for Dark Shadows this summer but I’m putting that down to the public’s exhaustion with these Tim Burton/Johnny Depp gothic fetish pictures. Disney thinks Depp still has enough mojo to throw buckets of cash at Depp as Tonto in next year’s very dubious-looking Lone Ranger so I’m going to assume Depp’s star is undiminished and that he’d be key to making Dr. Strange work. At the same time, I’m going to let Burton sit this one out and go with whatever director Marvel pulls off the bench — they’ve had good luck with matching television and film auteurs with their superhero properties and I expect for a superhero picture they’d want a hungry director they could keep on a short leash in any case.
Here’s why I think Doctor Strange would work — it’s a supernatural picture with a streak of humility, humor, and romance for the date night crowd. I pitch this as a summer effects thrill ride perfect for the Ghostbusters and Men in Black audience. The underpinnings of loss, love, and spiritual longing give the movie just enough grit to feel substantial and anchoring events in the now-understood Marvel cinematic universe will let audiences quickly accept the larger-than-life monsters and (subtly) costumed characters at the heart of the story. Just as Iron Man had huge upside hidden by a black hole of a character at the center in Tony Stark, so too will the reinvention of Stephen Strange unlock one of comicdom’s richest visual properties for the silver screen!
ULM: One word on the Doctor Strange pitch — SOLD! The high concept pitch and the character arc are great — arrogant bastard learns wisdom. You’ve definitely built a very strong premise and a hero we can identify with. Throw in some humor (Doctor Strange should be the last human on earth to believe in magic) and a strong supporting cast (who plays Wong?) and I think you have a potential Thor-sized hit. Casting is great — I think all the choices you listed would work.
PAUL: A possibility for Wong is to cast him as an action hero — he’d be Strange’s servant and student, but he’s also a young, physical dude with immense strength or martial skills that contrast with Strange’s cerebral abilities. For comic relief, he could also be the world’s worst butler — maybe he’s clumsy and always dropping things, maybe he’s rude, or maybe he just brews the world’s most horrid tea but everyone (even Strange) is afraid to say anything because he’s such a glowering physical presence.
TOM: I like the idea of Strange trying to revive the love of his life, but two things stick out for me — first, we probably won’t get enough of Clea on screen pre-threat for us to believe in the couple’s love for each other so his quest runs the risk of not being emotionally involving. And second, if too much of the movie takes place in the weird mystical world I think the audience will tune out. It seems that most super-hero movies function better if the big action set pieces are set on Earth. The parts of Green Lantern that were the least interesting were the ones where Hal Jordan was on some distant planet.
PAUL: We might be able to communicate Strange’s love for Clea if he spends part of the first act coming out of some kind of traumatic mental or emotional melt-down, putting the pieces together for himself even as the audience comes to understand what happened. I’m reminded of how Sela Ward had only a few minutes on screen in the movie version of The Fugitive yet her presence and murder were still keenly felt.
The concerns about the story’s otherworldliness are legitimate. I think the most difficult tightrope that Thor walked was integrating action in Asgard with events on earth. I think we need to have at least one big scene where Doctor Strange visits that ropey, Ditko “otherverse” with off-kilter doorframes and pathways stretching off into the void, but for the most part I think the action should be set in the shadows of our own world, building on the idea of other realities infringing on our own (which audiences have already come to accept thanks to the Harry Potter and Twilight franchises).
the classic Ditko “otherverse”
ULM: The other missing ingredient: a villain that isn’t incredibly stupid. The villain needs to be two things: relatable and understandable. Perhaps it is an old rival of Strange — maybe somehow related to Clea (brother, former lover, sister, etc). Someone who cannot and will not forgive Strange for Clea’s death. Perhaps this character is possessed by the Dread Dormammu and is able to finally wreak vengeance …
PAUL: Strange’s great rival was Baron Mordo, who was also a student of Strange’s mentor, the Ancient One (and now I recognize I’ve cut that character from my pitch, though I suppose Strange will encounter him when he goes on his second-act road of trials, and becomes the sorcerer supreme). I like that Strange’s rival might have been part of a romantic triangle with Strange and Clea — we could also make him a surgeon, maybe better qualified to save Clea than Strange, but Strange pulls rank to perform the operation himself, losing a love and gaining a nemesis at the same time. Maybe the rival turns to the black arts to raise Clea from the dead, crosses lines our hero will not cross, and is possessed by demons or otherwise becomes the Big Bad. Or maybe the rival is a touchy-feely type who could have saved Clea with some tinfoil hat remedy that Strange foolishly discounted.
TOM: I think you can unfold the story in real time without too many flashbacks.
When Stephen was a kid, he had the powers and the Eye of Agamotto and while experimenting with it, he inadvertently pissed off the dreaded Dormammu. Dormammu wanted the Eye but Strange was clever enough to hide it in another dimension, denying Dormammu. Enraged, Dormammu responded by killing Strange’s family, wiping out his hometown and leaving Strange for dead.
But Strange survived, vowing never to use the Eye again and to use his powers to atone for the damage he caused earlier.
PAUL: I like that Strange could have had a personal supernatural experience when he was younger, but has denied it or blocked it out. Maybe he made some conscious decision to be a man of science, turning his back on magic, making him a character with an internal conflict between his head and his heart. We could even tie this to some (wrong) decision he made while Clea was on the table, trusting the book (his head) over what his instincts were telling him to do, whether it was some risky, House M.D.-like procedure or even refusing to trust his rival to do a better job with Clea than he could.
TOM: Cut to: It’s now the present day in NYC. He’s an adult now, a medical doctor, working at the hospital (he seems to keep moving; this is hardly his first job), helping others, but finds the city is inspiring him, his relationship with Clea is growing, but there’s evil afoot — assorted demons and dimensional troublemakers keep popping up wreaking havoc and Strange must summon his long-dormant powers again in order to defeat them. (Think Ghostbusters, as the ghosts get progressively worse). It’s all part of a plan by Dormammu who has been searching for the Eye for years but finally discovered that Strange was alive and has plotted to get him to use the Eye again so that he can take if from him once and for all.
PAUL: It feels a bit like Sauron looking for the One Ring, but that’s not a bad thing — audiences understand that story.
TOM: So with demons pushing him around NYC, and Dormammu threatening Clea, Strange is left with a choice: recover and use the Eye that he’s long since sworn to never do again or lose everything he’s tried to build since he was a child. This way, when there are giant-sized third act fights of sorcery, Doc must confront his personal demons while fighting some real ones across mid-town.
PAUL: Making recovery of the Eye and/or seeking out the Ancient One does give some direction and shape to our second act. The Ancient One is the classic mission giver/wise old man figure, and it would make perfect sense for him to award the Eye of Agamotto and the Cloak of Levitation to Strange after our hero completes the requisite montage and has his Moment of Enlightenment … but, sheesh, I’ve bored myself just talking about these things! I think the second act needs a judo flip.
the Ancient One, by Steve Ditko
TOM: I think one of the things you can do to flip it may not be the second act, but in the final act. Strange gives up the eye in exchange for Clea, then once assuring her safety, he has to go up against Dormammu who now possesses the power of the Eye and isn’t afraid to use it. And he starts by incapacitating the Ancient One and then sets about destroying everything Strange holds dear.
Now Strange has to fight, calling forth all his power, even stuff he blocked out from his childhood experience. And now the flip: Clea isn’t just “the girlfriend.” I don’t know enough about Doctor Strange continuity to care and I have no interest in the movie following lockstep with Marvel continuity, but it seems like it would be fun to make Clea more than we think — perhaps connected to the Ancient One, or someone else.
PAUL: In Clea’s first Ditko/Lee Strange Tales appearances she is deeply connected to Dormammu. He turns out to be her uncle or something.
Clea and Dormammu, by Steve Ditko
TOM: And she didn’t just happen to be at the hospital when Strange showed up for work — she was there to watch over him or something like that. Maybe she even has connections to his past in some way.
If you remember The Mummy, the Medjai are tasked with guarding the sarcophagus of Imhotep. Maybe Clea has a similar role with regard to the Eye?
PAUL: Now I’m all turned around. I thought I understood my pitch when I came in here, but now I’ve got a lot of parts that don’t fit.
ULM: What do you expect? This is Hollywood, baby! You’ve got to think like an executive! Don’t sweat the small stuff … hire some writer to put the pieces together, and if you don’t like what he gives you, claim he’s ruined your vision and fire the poor bastard.
TOM: And after you’ve hired a writer to clean up your mess, there’s only one thing left to do.
PAUL: What’s that?
ULM & TOM: Lunch!!
NEXT WEDNESDAY AT LONGBOX GRAVEYARD: #77 Longbox Graveyard Comic Book Holiday Gift Guide