In the Marvel Universe, Doctor Strange is ready to take center stage. The master of the mystic arts will steal the show in Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, after his participation in the record-breaking Spider-Man: No Way Home. The film is expected to alter Strange’s persona and the MCU as a whole, as well as introduce crucial characters such as the Illuminati and America Chavez.
It’s taken a long time for Doctor Strange to get his due, and it’s not only because he was created by Steve Ditko and Stan Lee in 1963. Strange was one of a select group of Marvel Comics characters that made their live-action debuts before the MCU was even a glimmer in Kevin Feige’s eye, in his case on a network television live-action drama. Despite Lee’s best efforts, Doctor Strange’s initial attempt to get into the public failed, unlike his Defenders partner The Hulk.
Stan Lee had established himself as Marvel Comics’ media pitchman by the time The Incredible Hulk premiered on CBS in 1977. That paid off in his dual roles as executive producer on all of Marvel’s film adaptations, not to mention all of the appearances. Lee had to deal with years of shoddy Hollywood adaptations of his co-creations before it happened.
The Incredible Hulk was the most successful of the early live-action adaptations of Marvel heroes. The Hulk TV series was a true smash with the vast, general audience that characterized network TV watching in the 1970s, running for five seasons. It was a win for comics adaptations, despite a lack of adherence to the books that would make contemporary MCU fans shudder.
Other attempts to make Marvel adaptations for CBS failed miserably. The Amazing Spider-Man was canceled by CBS after 13 intermittent episodes, despite the fact that Marvel’s main character’s single live-action series had high ratings. In a 1985 interview with Comics Feature, Lee described the process of adapting Spider-Man as “a total nightmare.”
Doctor Strange, which intended to follow the established tradition of introducing a Marvel hero with a movie-length pilot episode, was a better fit for Lee. Lee worked on the project as a consultant, and it wasn’t just for show. Strange was the TV project with which Lee had the most experience, he noted in his Comics Feature interview, perhaps because it offered him “the greatest involvement” throughout the creative process.
Lee’s excitement for Doctor Strange’s first appearance was not contagious. Strange’s chances of moving to series were dashed when the show flopped in the ratings. While Lee is correct in that the pilot had to compete with the cultural phenomenon that was Roots, the pilot had issues that would have handicapped it regardless of the competition.
Despite having a substantial special effects budget for the period and medium in which it was released, Doctor Strange failed to convey the most compelling aspect of its source material. In 1978, the mind-blowing graphics generated by artists like Ditko and Gene Colan in Strange’s comics could not be recreated on television. Marvel Studios didn’t get around to bringing the character to the big screen until 2016.
It didn’t help that the film didn’t do much to engage viewers over its 93-minute length. Strange has been criticized in the past for feeling more like a medical drama than a superhero narrative. Strange, played by Peter Hooten, has been chastised for being “barely there” and a sidekick in his own program, which doesn’t create a compelling argument for continuing his exploits. Even Jessica Walter, who played sorceress Morgan le Fay, was limited by the material she was given.
Regardless, it’s difficult to dispute that Doctor Strange’s unsuccessful TV movie was not ahead of its time. The general public simply wasn’t prepared for something as odd as Marvel’s star mystic’s exploits, for lack of a better phrase. Strange and other powerful comic book magicians like Wanda Maximoff would take decades for “normies” to take an interest in them. Strange on TV eventually hobbled so that his cinematic descendent could run.