The First 'Doctor Strange' Film Was A Weird, Forgotten '70s TV Movie
With the imminent release of Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, it's time to refresh ourselves on the events of the first movie, like the part when Strange puts on a purple costume with a star on the chest or when he makes out with Lucille Bluth from Arrested Development. If those classic moments don't sound familiar, then you haven't watched Doctor Strange's actual first movie: the 1978 made-for-TV one that had a soundtrack that was somewhere between The Exorcist and a porno.
But fear not, we're here to catch you up on the plot of this film just in case Multiverse of Madness has a last minute plot twist about '70s Doctor Strange saving the day along with Doctor "Mordrid" from that awful '90s movie a studio made upon losing the rights to the real character.
The 1978 TV movie starts with Arrested Development's Jessica Walter (who plays the enchantress Morgan le Fay of Arthurian legend, but we'll continue calling her Jessica Walter) being told she has to kill a wizard in three days by a nasty reptile creature trapped inside some sort of satanic sauna.
But it's not just any wizard: Jessica Walter has to kill the legendary "Sorcerer Supreme" before he retires and passes on his enormous powers to a new guy. Instead of killing the Sorcerer herself, Jessica Walter decides to catch him unaware by magically influencing a regular college student into pushing him off a bridge. You might think that this is a terrible plan since he's also psychic and should see that coming a mile away, but no -- it turns out that the powers of the Sorcerer Supreme are no match for a random pedestrian.
On the other hand, after that fall the old wizard simply gets up and walks off with nothing but a mild backache, so yeah, that was a crappy plan after all.
The college student is horribly traumatized by the whole situation and has a nightmare about Jessica Walter and the elderly man that, as far she knows, she killed. She ends up in a psychiatric hospital under the care of Dr. Stephen Strange -- who, yes, is a doctor of psychiatry in his version. When he's not having sex with nurses, his favorite pastime is holding up comic books at the precise angle where the camera can see them and then putting them back on his shelf without reading them.
The student (named Clea, like Strange's love interest from the comics) refuses to go to sleep ever again because she's afraid of her nightmares. Most psychiatrists would probably slip her some sedatives so she can calm down and see that her fears are unfounded, but Strange is like "let's pump her full off coffee for a few days and see what happens." By the way, Strange also had a nightmare about Clea and the Sorcerer Supreme at the bridge, but he doesn't seem that fazed when the exact woman he saw murdering a guy in his dreams shows up at his place of work.
Speaking of murder, Morgan is still trying to kill the Sorcerer but can't get near him because his place has magical protections. She discovers this when she enchants a cat into walking up to the Sorcerer's building and it gets psychically electrified. (We didn't see any "No cats were psychically electrified during the making of the film" notice during the credits, so presumably this was done for real.)
Meanwhile, the Sorcerer also stops by the hospital and convinces the hard-ass head nurse to let him see Clea outside of visiting hours by straight up doing a Jedi mind trick. Like, with he same hand gesture and all.
So the Sorcerer goes to meet Strange, but then we find out that they'd actually met already ... when the latter was a baby. See, Strange's dad was a magic aficionado and both he and the Sorcerer Supreme could immediately tell that little Stephen was "a very unusual man" the moment he was born, having been gifted with "a clear mind and a love of humanity" (most babies are born hating everyone, apparently).
At first, Strange doesn't seem terribly interested in this mumbo jumbo, but when Clea falls into a mystic coma, he agrees to let the Sorcerer take him on "a journey into the astral planes" to retrieve her soul. That's when we get to the one scene every Doctor Strange movie should have: the one where everyone in the audience who suffers from acid trip flashbacks has to walk out.
Despite this being his first experience with psychedelics, Strange is able to defeat a horse-headed knight sent by Jessica Walter and get Clea's soul back into her body. Of course, the nasty reptile demon isn't pleased with Jessica Walter for botching her mission so far, and that's when she reveals why she's been holding back against Strange: she's horny for him. Or, in her words, "I am still a woman and the man attracted me. I would feel the warmth of a man's arms again, after all these years alone." In response, her master reminds her that she'd have even more trouble getting laid if she looked her age and stresses the point by temporarily turning her into Mrs. Claus.
Motivated by her fear of looking ugly, Jessica Walter finally manages to sneak into the Sorcerer Supreme's place and has a Dragon Ball Z-style energy beam battle with his apprentice, Wong (played by the actor who played like 85% of Asian characters on TV between the 1976 and 2006).
Jessica Walter easily defeats both Wong and the Sorcerer, whose powers are waning as he nears retirement. Strange is forced to interrupt his hot date with a very thankful Clea to go save his master. Unfortunately, Jessica Walter is immediately able to dazzle him via free jewelry and her womanly charms and they start making out, even though he was kissing Thea literally three minutes ago.
It actually looks like Strange and Jessica Walter are about to have sex in the astral plane when she makes a grave miscalculation: she lays down with him right in clear view of the apparent corpse of Strange's mentor.
That totally ruins the mood for Strange, and now that all of the blood in his body isn't going directly to his wand, he realizes this situation is sorta messed up and engages Jessica Walter in astral battle. Despite having had magic powers for like a day, Strange quickly defeats this 500-year-old enchantress and vanishes her back to the infernal sauna. It then turns out that the Sorcerer Supreme was alive after all, so they perform a ritual in which Strange gains his powers ... plus some snazzy new purple threads that look nothing like anything the character has ever worn in the comics.
As for Jessica Walter? There's a scene where the reptile demon goes through with his threat to turn her into an old hag for all eternity, but it's negated at the end of the movie when Strange and Clea see her being interviewed on TV about some sort of self-help scam she's running -- a scene that was actually spoiled in the movie's trailer.
No doubt that was a setup for the TV series this movie was supposed to be a pilot for. Despite all the liberties taken with the source material, Stan Lee was actually a big fan of this adaptation and, eight years later, said it was still the one where he'd had "the most input" so far. That says a lot about the state of comic book movies back then, but is also a reflection of the fact that this movie was made with actual care and respect, even if that isn't always evident. Plus, now we know that Stan Lee always wished Doctor Strange comics were way hornier.
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Top image: NBCUniversal Television Distribution