The 1980s Doctor Strange Movie You Never Saw

After Back to the Future, Bob Gale took a crack at making a Doctor Strange movie that never materialized. He told us about it...

Marvel Comics Doctor Strange
Photo: Marvel

With Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness being a box office sensation, excitement over anything related to Marvel’s, uh, supreme wizard has reached a fever pitch. Perhaps the most mystifying thing about Strange is the movies that almost happened. 

One of the most curious of these abandoned projects is a script written by Bob Gale. Fresh off of co-creating and co-writing Back to the Future with Robert Zemeckis, Gale’s script did a more than adequate job of bringing Strange to life. The problem — well one of them — was that any attempts to tell Doctor Strange’s story in a way that would respect the character would require a big budget, something that was unlikely in the pre-Batman era (Superman not withstanding, and even the Man of Steel suffered on production values — just check out Superman IV: The Quest for Peace). 

“When I was in high school, Marvel comics were a huge, huge influence on me,” Gale told us in a 2020 interview, “I read all those great classic comics and stayed with Marvel for many, many years, and when my agent said that they’re looking for a writer for Doctor Strange and Stan Lee is involved, I said, ‘I’ll get to work with Stan Lee, I’ll get to meet him personally.’”

Describing Lee as “one of my heroes,” Gale met up with the Marvel legend and quickly began work on the script. Although nothing came of that original collaboration, Gale was ultimately thrilled by the experience.

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“Sometimes you meet your heroes and you’re sorry that you did, but that was not the case with Stan,” he says. “He was just a wonderful man, just full of ideas, full of energy, a joy to be around you.” 

Eventually Gale was given another crack at the Doctor Strange project after New World Pictures bought Marvel in 1986. “Of course they didn’t have enough money to do all the parallel universe stuff that Ditko drew so beautifully back in the ’60s,” Gale says, “so I had to basically set it on Earth.” 

The threat of the proposed picture was, in his words, “Dormammu coming through to try to take over our dimension.” Although that is simplifying things a bit. Dated January 21, 1986, the draft of Doctor Strange that we read is an ambitious retelling of the character’s origin story.  Although decades away from superhero bloat that threatens some contemporary genre offerings, Gale’s definitely attempts to accomplish a lot.

The 110-page screenplay opens with a lengthy prologue that establishes Dormammu as the ultimate threat to Earth while also serving as a quasi-origin story for The Ancient One. Additionally, it  introduces the film’s McGuffin, the Skulkane, which can be used to help Dormammu to achieve his evil, apocalyptic plans. It’s a bit busy, and feels budget-busting for its times. 

Gale proved his comic meddle on films like I Wanna Hold Your Hand, Used Cars, and (obviously) Back to the Future, here his humor is largely muted save for some fun character moments and a terribly dated gay joke that isn’t so much homophobic as a product of the times in which it was written.

What the film lacks in sweeping comedy, it more than makes up for in sweeping action sequences that leap off the page. The most memorable of which is a sequence in which Strange is tricked into astral projecting so that Baron Mordo (the film’s primary antagonist) can swipe his body. With time rapidly dwindling before the deadline after which his body and soul can never be reunited, Strange’s spirit soars through the streets of New York City to catch up with Mordo’s goons. 

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There is also a clear Raiders of the Lost Ark influence on display whenever the Skulkane appears on screen, with the relic being treated with the reverence of the Ark of the Covenant.

A chunk of the script is dedicated to Strange’s time with the Ancient One, necessary for Gale  to establish Strange’s from cocky, Maserati-driving douchebag into lovable Master of the Mystic Arts. As one might expect, this portion of the script is focused on establishing that magic is indeed real. An example:

“Magic is simply a word to describe that which we cannot explain. Consider: a voice comes out of a box. An aborigine calls it magic. You call it radio. You push a button and there is light. Magic…or electricity? Swallow a pill and pain goes away. Magic…or medicine?

You’ve experienced things you don’t understand, so you call it magic. It is no more magic than radio, electricity, or aspirin. Your science teaches correctly that a normal man only uses ten to fifteen percent of his total brain capacity. I am able to use over 50 percent of mine. This allows me to do things that you call ‘magic.’

As for the Amulet of Agamotto… [indicates amulet] we use our eyes to see…and yet, we can improve upon their power with tools: telescopes, microscopes, eyeglasses. This too is a tool, to aid in the control and focus of abilities here…”

Naturally, any movie can live or die on the strength of its performances. Any number of 1980s stars from Tom Selleck to Harrison Ford could have pulled off the character of Strange, described here as “about 40, cocky, self-assured, handsome, with black hair, a little gray at the temples, with an Errol Flynn mustache” with aplomb. Since the movie never left the pre-production stage, we are left wondering which of the era’s iconic actors could have left their indelible mark on the character.

The script concludes with a climactic battle in which Mordo brings Dormammu to Earth:

“Suddenly, the ORANGE GLOW of Skulkane shoots a huge SPARK into the Dark Dimension. The cloudless dark sky erupts with COLORED LIGHTNING and THUNDER as the doorway to the DARK DIMENSION takes hard, physical form.

It is a cosmic spectacle, a display of imagery and power that goes fay beyond the conflict between Mordo and Dr. Strange. Both of them witness it in silent awe.

Now the ground literally catches fire at the junction of the Dark Dimension, and the atmosphere echoes with the eerie, frightening laughter of the dread Dormammu.

DORMAMMU steps forward and for the first time in eons, sets foot upon the earth. FIRE burns where his feet touch the ground.

DORMAMMU: At last, the conditions have been fulfilled! I am freed by the liberation of a human soul!”

If executed properly, this quick-moving finale would have left audiences breathless. In rapid success, Strange loses his love interest (Liana, whose brother was killed by Mordo), then begins his final battle with Mordo. Things look dire when Mordo is able to unleash Dormammu on Earth. But before you can say “excelsior,” Strange turns things around to save the day.

It is a fast-paced conclusion that would give the studio a huge, effects-heavy action piece to conclude the film, hopefully leaving the audience wanting more mystical adventures.

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Gale is such a talented writer that even in its current state – it is unclear if this is a final draft or not – his Doctor Strange is an entertaining origin story that does a respectable job of bringing the character to the screen. Its general vibe of mixing arcane mystical dialogue with action sequences and humor definitely set the template for the 2016 film that followed. “Some of my ideas are in that,” Gale says, referring to the Doc’s MCU debut, “the color-coding of the various powers, that was part of my script that they used.”

As for Gale’s script? Let’s chalk it up as a curiosity, one that may exist as a finished film somewhere in this vast multiverse of ours.