Greetings, true believers. BAADASSSSS! has returned with the third edition of The 10 Best Unproduced Comic Book Movie Scripts. Get it while it’s still available because there will be no second printings.
If you haven’t checked out my bloated, unwieldy nerdgasm of an introduction to the series as well as a complete week-by-week breakdown of clues to each entry on this list you may do so here.
For this week’s entry I have chosen one of the more lesser-known unrealized superhero comic-to-film translations that also marked a rare moment in the history of civilization when an icon of the comics industry collaborated with a fearless guerrilla warrior of independent filmmaking to create their own magical work of cinematic nirvana.
Dr. Strange by Alex Cox and Stan Lee.
It’s easy for studios these days to green-light films based on massively popular comic book properties like Batman and Spider-Man, because those characters are beloved icons whose big-screen adventures have yielded enormous profits and launched franchises that pack their financier’s coffers with fortunes that previously only existed in a dream. But the path to the silver screen for easily-dismissed “second tier” characters like Thor, Green Lantern, and Marvel’s own Sorcerer Supreme Dr. Strange has been less than hospitable.
Because those legendary heroes are not regarded as sure things at the box office – usually due to the fact that their back stories lack the relatable traits that have endeared their more successful four-color brethren to modern audiences – their movie projects end up benched for years until one of three things happens: the movie is taken away and produced independently, in the case of Thor; the movie is kept in development and rewritten countless times in order to turn the character into a more accessible draw to moviegoers – and in the process removing every shred of originality and entertainment value in the process – and failing miserably as it happened with Green Lantern (which I will get to later); or the movie is stashed away with the hope that no one will even speak its name for the rest of time, or until Hollywood is destroyed in a battle between Godzilla and Jet Jaguar over who was supposed to pick up the check for dinner at Musso & Frank’s.
At least it can be said that Thor and Green Lantern made it to the screen with the essence of the characters mostly intact. While those movies were met with varying degrees of success there was a time when no studio ever fathomed making them a reality. A film based on Dr. Strange has been in development for decades and thanks to the record-breaking success of The Avengers it may yet actually happen. Now it all depends on who ultimately takes on the job of writing and directing that particular (and bound to be peculiar) and expensive feature film.
Dr. Strange is at times a baffling and esoteric creation with an expansive mythology that goes beyond mere time and space – not exactly the kind of two-dimensional daring do-gooder who can be sold to the hungry masses via fast food chain drink cups, Xbox 360 games, and a line of action figures and vehicles armed with plastic rockets that shouldn’t be consumed by any human being over the age of “sperm.” Condensing the sorcerer’s vast history in comics, his gallery of otherworldly adversaries, and the various dimensions and mystical planes of existence where he often does battle with dark forces beyond our comprehension into a cohesive two-hour feature film is a Herculean task many writers and directors have attempted. All have failed miserably.
Dr. Strange was the creation of Marvel Comics godhead-turned-figurehead Stan Lee and artist Steve Ditko. Ditko had previously worked with Lee developing the signature look of the company’s most popular costumed hero Spider-Man that would define the character for decades to come. The good doctor, first appearing in the pages of Strange Tales #110 published in July 1963, started out as brilliant but conceited neurosurgeon Stephen Strange. Following a car accident that causes irreparable damage to his gifted hands Strange becomes destitute and begins searching the world for the cure that will restore his surgical prowess as well as his life and fortune.
His quest takes him to the Himalayas where he is instructed in the mystic arts by the Ancient One, a 500-year-old sorcerer, and goes on to battle all-powerful enemies the likes of the Ancient One’s former student Baron Mordo and the warlord Dormammu of the Dark Dimension. Strange eventually wins the title of Sorcerer Supreme and has held it ever since – with a few exceptions – and to this day is regarded as one of the most powerful beings in the Marvel Universe.
Outside of the realm of comics Dr. Strange has made guest appearances in various Marvel-related animated series and video games. In September 1978 CBS premiered a television movie based on the character that was intended to be the pilot for a possible weekly series. However, the TV movie was roundly mocked for its staggering lack of fidelity to its source material and its miserable writing and acting. Ratings were not good enough to justify a regular series.
In 1986 Marvel Comics was purchased by New World Pictures, an independent film company founded by the B-movie producing legend Roger Corman in the early 1970s. The company had grown from a purveyor of inexpensive but profitable exploitation flicks that played in drive-ins and grindhouse theaters nationwide into a rising industry player with major film, television, and even toy-producing aspirations. New World even owned fourteen television stations across the United States.
With the mighty Marvel stable of line-drawn superheroes at their disposal New World spent the scant few years they owned the popular comics company developing movie projects starring Ant-Man, Blade, Deathlok, Sub-Mariner, and Wolverine (three years before James Cameron’s Lightstorm Entertainment briefly took on the task of bringing the X-Men to the big screen) but they all failed to evolve beyond the script stage. Only a few of them made it that far. Dr. Strange was one of them.
Bob Gale, who co-created the Back to the Future franchise for Universal Pictures with his longtime writing partner Robert Zemeckis (who also directed the movies), was first at bat to write the script. Gale’s work stayed pretty faithful to the character’s origins and the writer managed to deliver an entertaining yarn that only faltered during its hectic third act, a fate that has befell many comic-based movies. Development on the Dr. Strange movie halted not long after Gale delivered his draft and the proposed feature never materialized.
Three years later New World sold Marvel Comics to the holding company MacAndrews & Forbes and the Dr. Strange rights were once again up for grabs. Los Angeles-based production company Regency Enterprises, founded by Arnon Milchan and Joseph Grace in 1982, was set up at Warner Bros. for the moment and saw big-screen potential in the Sorcerer Supreme. They snapped up the rights and immediately began development.
Tapped for the job of writing the good Doctor’s first feature outing at Regency was a most unlikely source: Alex Cox, the British independent filmmaker who had made his name directing critically adored cult classics like the spacey punk rock sci-fi comedy Repo Man and the tragic music industry love story Sid & Nancy. Cox was beloved by the hardcore cineastes but on the outs with the major studios after suffering back-to-back critical and commercial flops with Straight to Hell and Walker. To write Dr. Strange Cox would team with one of the greatest writing partners imaginable: none other than Stan Lee, the co-creator of the doctor himself.
Their script begins with a prologue set at Stonehenge in the sixth century. Once the wizard Merlin is consumed by lightning the action jumps ahead to New York City, circa 1999. The Dr. Strange of this story is a world-renowned author and media celebrity who has become an authority on the occult, though he confesses to being “something of a skeptic.” His nemesis Baron (Byron here) Mordo returns as the servant of Dormammu, determined to bring about a new Dark Age as the Millennium approaches. The plot gets pretty confounding but Cox and Lee keep the story moving forward and eschew Strange’s origin for an absurd series of events laced with some of Cox’s trademark off-the-wall humor. It doesn’t always make sense, but at least it makes for an entertaining read. Plus the front pages of the screenplay are illustrated with photocopied pages of Ditko’s art for the original Dr. Strange comics.
Cox described the experience of writing Dr. Strange with Stan Lee on his official website (where you can also download a PDF file of the script):
“Doctor Strange was my favourite superhero, and his adversary Dormamu my preferred villain. Stan is a great writing partner. Starts in New York, goes to the Fourth Dimension, and ends on Easter Island, where Stan had always wanted a showdown. Very old-fashioned. It was almost made by an LA company called Regency. But they distributed via Warner Bros, who were in a dispute with Marvel Comics over merchandising, and Warners nixed it. Probably too pagan to be made today.”
Since Cox and Lee’s noble but failed attempt at bringing Dr. Strange to the big screen the project has resided in various states of development at Columbia Pictures, Miramax Films, and Paramount Pictures – the latter studio would later become the distributor of Marvel Studios’ Phase One movies. David S. Goyer and Guillermo Del Toro, neither a stranger to turning offbeat comic book characters into successful motion pictures, took individual cracks at the material to no avail. Del Toro even approached Neil Gaiman about collaborating on the script. Three years ago Marvel hired Thomas Donnelly and Joshua Oppenheimer (the 2011 Conan the Barbarian movie) to write a new Dr. Strange screenplay and currently plans are afoot to have the character headline his own movie as part of Phase Three of the studio’s long term release strategy.
Will the world ever accept a big-budget adventure starring a complex hero who doesn’t stand for truth or justice but for keeping the real monsters from consuming everything in their path? If Marvel says a Dr. Strange movie is going to happen then it would behoove us all to heed the words of the studio that allowed Ant-Man and the Guardians of the Galaxy to have their own feature films.