The Doctor Strange movies that nearly happened

Marvel’s Sorcerer Supreme hits the big screen in 2016, but it’s not the first time he’s been tipped for movie treatment...

On November 4th 2016, Sherlock and Star Trek Into Darkness star Benedict Cumberbatch will play Doctor Strange, Marvel’s master of the mystic arts, in a big budget cinematic spectacular of the same name. The film will be directed by Scott Derrickson of Sinisterand Deliver Us From Evil, suggesting there may be a considerable horror flavor with the magical adventures.

Naturally, seeing as he’s been kicking around in the Marvel universe since the 1960s, this is far from Doctor Strange’s first rodeo. As an intrinsic character in Marvel lore, with his fair share of quality stories, multiple movies based around Doctor Strange have been in the works before. In fact, a Dr. Strange TV movie does actually exist, from the 1970s, predating a lot of the live-action Marvel adaptations. The whole thing is on YouTube, if you want to treat yourself.

However, the story of Strange’s big screen ambitions has been struck by something of a curse. Several attempts have been made to get his sorcery on the silver screen, but none have succeeded so far. We’ll start with a particularly peculiar one…

Doctor Mordrid

“In a Manhattan apartment, Doctor Anton Mordrid has stood guard between our world and the dark dimensions. Now, after centuries of waiting, evil’s ultimate warrior has arrived.”

That’s the introductory voiceover featured in the trailer embedded above. It also ends with the tagline “Doctor Mordrid – master of the unknown.” Does all that sound awfully familiar? Incredibly Doctor Strange-esque? Well that’s because it is – the 1992 movie Doctor Mordrid was made by B-movie experts Full Moon Entertainment (KilljoyPuppet MasterSubspecies), but it was originally planned as an official Marvel-licenced Doctor Strange movie.

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Why did that happen? Well, the studio’s license expired, so they made the intriguing decision to carry on anyway. If you’re looking for a 1990s Doctor Strange movie, then this is the closest you’re going to get.

There are some changes made to the official material, with Stephen Strange renamed as Anton Mordrid, and his origin shifting from neurosurgeon-turned-mystic to that of a wizard sent to Earth from space. The role of Mordrid was taken by Jeffrey Combs, who is known well to Star Trek fans for playing nine different roles in the Star Trek universe (see also: Re-AnimatorThe Frighteners).

The evil wizard Kabal was the main villain, and he had a plot to unleash the demons of Hell onto Earth. Spoiler alert: Doctor Mordrid stopped him. The film may not be official Marvel, but if you’re a lover of low-budget movies from the 1990s, this is definitely one to add to your collection.

Bob Gale and Wes Craven

No, not together (can you imagine?). But both of these big names in cinema took a crack at pulling a Doctor Strange movie out of the bag in the years surrounding Doctor Mordrid.

Gale took the first bite of the cherry of cinematic mysticism, with a script that sent a project into pre-production back in 1986. The Back To The Future screenwriting legend also has a comic book connection (he’s written for Ant-Man, Batman, Daredevil, and Spider-Man over the years), so he made an interesting choice to combine primary colored panels with cinematic sheen.

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Bob Gale’s script eventually did the rounds online, and makes for an interesting what-could-have-been discussion. The script opens snappily with a demonic battle from 700 years ago, before jumping ahead and faithfully retelling Strange’s car-accident-caused descent from hot-shot surgeon to desperate loner (Strange loses the ability to perform surgery because of his now-shaky hands) and eventual master of the mystic arts.

Gale stuck to Strange as a normal man for much of the runtime, closing in on the character and presumably keeping the budget low. It’s a Strange-sized mystery why this film never happened while Doctor Mordrid did, and the studio behind this particular project still isn’t known.

Fast forward to after Doctor Mordrid, and Marvel’s desire to get rolling with a Doctor Strange film resurfaces again. This time, horror icon Wes Craven is handed scriptwriting and directorial duties and Savoy Pictures (again, there’s a chance for B-movie vibes here, too. See: Savoy’s Dr. Jekyll And Ms. Hyde from 1995) were officially attached.

Naturally, we can only assume that Craven had a few horrific twists to the established Strange lore up his sleeve, as we’re expecting Scott Derrickson to as well. With such a big name slasher expert at the helm, this could have been the movie to shift the potential of the comic book filmmaking movement in a completely different direction. This script never leaked though, so it looks like we’ll never know what kind of dark arts Craven had in store.

Alex Cox and Stan Lee

Here’s an interesting one – around 1990, Marvel came up with the intriguing pairing of Marvel Comics’ godfather Stan Lee and Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas screenwriter (and one time director) Alex Cox to work on a Doctor Strange movie. It seems odd at first, but on second thoughts its one of those decisions that could have looked immensely inspired if the film had been a hit.

With Cox’s eye for the surreal (see: Repo Man and acid western Walker, as well as Fear And Loathing) and Stan The Man’s decades of Marvel knowledge (he co-created the character) and storytelling experience, and this could have become a melting pot where respect for the source material and outside-the-box thinking bubble together into something wonderful. Of course, it could also have been utter balls, but we like to dream.

The script has done the rounds online before, and interestingly, it doesn’t bother messing around with origins material. It opens with an assassination attempt on Kardell (the name given here to Strange’s mentor, traditionally known as the Ancient One) by classic Strange villain Baron Mordo, and a plot to wipe Strange and Kardell off the planet in order for Dormammu (another classic villain) to take over the Earth.

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Kardell escapes and soon he and Strange find out they have three days to stop the gate to the Dark Dimension (where Dormammu is waiting) from opening. Action ensues, and, upon failing to stop the gate, a battle of apocalyptic proportions breaks out involving Strange, Kardell, Mordo, Dormammu, and – yes! – Merlin.

It sounds a little wacky, and maybe needed a few more drafts, but there’s nothing there that suggests to us that a fun movie couldn’t have been the end product if a bit more effort had been made.

Speaking of the project, Cox said: “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.”

So why didn’t it happen? “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.” 

David S. Goyer

Loved by some, not by others, it’s impossible to deny Goyer’s impact on superhero cinema as we know it today. Alongside the entire Blade and Dark Knighttrilogies, Man Of Steel, and now Batman v Superman: Dawn Of Justice, Doctor Strange would have slipped into his CV nicely (he also played a part in making Ghost Rider).

What did he have planned for Doctor Strange? Would he make it a bit more grittier and grounded-er, as he’s become known for in recent years? Would it be as bombastic as Man Of Steel?

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Well, he told IGN later on – when he re-joined the project in 2001, after leaving previously – that he “would attempt to use as many practical effects and in-camera tricks as possible. I like CG the most when it is done subtly.”

Interestingly, he also mentioned that, “as for Doctor Strange, there is a mechanism in place that would allow me to write and direct the film […] I did write a script for Doctor Strange for Columbia about six years ago, but it didn’t go very well. There were elements of the story that I liked, but in all likelihood, I would start from scratch this time. Just as I did with Ghost Rider.” Eventually he left (again) to work on other projects, though.

There probably aren’t many filmmakers who would take a Doctor Strange movie over The Dark Knight if handed a Mephisto-style deal, to be honest, so we’re sure Goyer’s not too gutted.

Guillermo del Toro and Neil Gaiman

And finally, here’s a dream creative pairing for many. This could be the big one on this list that people wish they could summon back from the dark dimension of development hell.

After a period of post-Goyer faff, during which Marvel announced a release date without a script while Avi Arad and Miramax were said searching for an A-list writer to take over, Paramount eventually picked up the rights in 2005. Interestingly, two cards were on the table at this point: a $165m tent-pole budget, or a stripped-back $50m production. That says a lot about the different options you have with Stephen Strange stories.

Then followed some more faff (three years worth) before master of the gothic-ness and ghoulishness Guillermo del Torro signed up to direct. By our calculations, this would have been after Hellboy and just before the release of Pan’s Labryinth. Those two films are enough to convince almost anyone that del Toro could pull off a Doctor Strange movie with his eyes shut.

Around the same time, he approached Neil Gaiman with the suggestion of co-writing the script together. Again, even if Sandman was the only thing on Gaiman’s CV (let alone Stardust, his brilliant first Doctor Who episode, or his extensive work for DC and Marvel), many would still probably see Gaiman as an ideal fit to pen a Doctor Strange story. Gaiman even reimagined Doctor Strange as a core character in his 1602 twist on the Marvel universe.

Del Toro told Empire: “I talked with Neil Gaiman [about writing it]. I said, that’s an interesting character because you can definitely make him more in the pulpy occult detective/magician mould and formula than was done in the Weird Tales, for example… the idea of a character that really dabbles in the occult in a way that’s not X-Filey, where the supernatural is taken for granted. That’s interesting… But I wouldn’t use the suit!”

Sadly, the project fizzled out to nothing, which happens a lot around the ever-manically-multitasking del Torro.