Strange Magic: The Many Cinematic Universes of DOCTOR STRANGE
By the ruby rings of Raggadorr! Doctor Strange is back in our universe…and beyond! The Master of the Mystical Arts is no stranger to the macabre, but Sam Raimi Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness promises to be the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s first horror film. With this film on its way to our humble reality, exploring the Doctor Stranges of the cinematic multiverse felt fitting. From the spellcasters who inspired the Sorcerer Supreme to Stephen’s first forays into filmmaking, we’ll gaze upon the Eye of Agamotto and reveal the many forms of the man they call Strange. On our journey into mysticism, we will encounter magic, menace, and monsters far too strange for a single dimension. Unlike the average superhero, Doctor Strange has always been close to the horror genre, so expect to see plenty of familiar demons here. And with the protection of the Sorcerer Supreme, we now venture into the unknown!
Long before Doctor Strange uttered his first dramatic incantation, there was another man of magic: Chandu the magician. Created by Harry A. Earnshaw and Raymond R. Morgan, Chandu was the eponymous star of a popular radio show that aired from 1931 to 1936. Marvel legend Stan Lee often cited Chandu as Strange’s main inspiration, and the similarities are easy to understand. place. Like the Marvel-ous mage, Frank Chandler AKA Chandu was an American who learned supernatural skills in Asia. (Chandu was trained in India. According to Weird Tales #115, just like Strange. However, Marvel eventually changed it to “Kamar-Taj”, a fictional community located in the Himalayas.) The two wizards share several abilities, including the power of astral projection. Their main antagonists are sinister barons who also indulge in dark magic. Edmund Lowe, the first actor to play the hypnotic hero on film, certainly looked a lot like Stephen Strange with his Clark Gable mustache.
Speaking of Lowe, the ancestor of all Strange-adjacent magic movies dates back to 1932. Chandu the magician. You don’t often hear people talk about it, but the film may be cinema’s first superhero spectacle. With clever optical effects and miniatures, the film captivates. Watching Chandu the magician it’s like watching a classic stage magician: drawn tricks are old-fashioned, but they still have the power to amaze. Spirits leave the body, tiny doppelgangers appear out of nowhere, rooms turn into insects, guns turn into snakes, and other fantastical feats challenge our notion of reality. It’s not fancy entertainment; it’s just great fun! To threaten our mystical guardian we have vamp Bela Lugosi as the evil Roxor, Baron Mordo from Chandu’s Doctor Strange. Lugosi does it perfectly here and delivers what might just be my favorite supervillain monologue. The Pulp adventure doesn’t get much better than that, folks.
Lugosi was promoted from villain to hero in Chandu’s Return, a twelve-episode series in which Lugosi portrays Chandu. Predicting Super Mario as well as Doctor Strange, Chandu is on a mission to rescue a kidnapped princess. In most of Lugosi’s photos, he’s the one doing the abduction, so it’s refreshing to see Dracula himself on the side of the angels. To return to… is not as good as the first one Chandu out, but it’s a fun little series that provides traditional thrills. It’s worth watching just to see Lugosi as a proto-weird. (Has another actor played both a superhero and his nemesis?)
In 1963 (the same year our good doctor made his debut), Roger Corman evokes some conjurers in The crow. Ostensibly based on Edgar Allan Poe’s poem, the film is actually an oddly goofy horror-comedy about the power struggle between wizards played by Vincent Price, Peter Lorre and Boris Karloff. (Man, what a trio!) Price is the bizarre Dr. Erasmus Craven, a benevolent practitioner of witchcraft who must outsmart Boris Karloff’s villainous Dr. Scarabus in a duel of magicians. Craven’s final battle against Scarabus is an ingenious series of special effects gags that demonstrate how imagination can triumph over a small budget. (My favorite bit is when the gargoyles turn into puppies thanks to dramatic lighting and sound effects.) It also anticipates Doctor Strange’s own brand of magic with its extensive use of dramatic hand gestures.
Weird co-creator Steve Ditko modeled the doctor after Vincent Price, likely because of his Erasmus Craven turn. As a further homage to the merchant of menace, Stephen Strange’s official middle name is Vincent. While I couldn’t find Vincent directly acknowledging the influence he had on Strange, the Great King of Horror reciprocated The 13 Ghosts of Scooby-Doo. Price voiced Vincent Van Ghoul, a wizard who learned his trade in the Himalayas. There were several references to Strange’s lore on scooby-doo, including a homage to the spell Vapors of Valtorr (“Vapors of Vahishnu”). Because of these connections, I always read Strange’s voice as Price in my head.
Doctor Strange made his official film debut in the aptly named TV movie, Dr Strange. Aired in 1978 as a pilot for a television series project, Dr Strange aimed to capitalize on the popularity of The Incredible Hulk Pin up. Although it was not a success, Stan Lee felt a certain fondness for it.
In 1985 Lee said the following in comic magazine about the film: “I probably had the most input in that one. I became good friends with writer/producer Phil DeGuere. I was happy to Dr Strange and The Incredible Hulk. I think that Dr Strange would have done much better than in the ratings, except it was aired opposite Roots. These are the only experiences I’ve had with live TV. Dr Strange and The Incredible Hulk we are well. Captain America was a bit [of a] disappointment, and Spider Man was a total nightmare.” In my opinion, the first half of the film is a little slow, but the psychedelic finale is quite groovy. Peter Hooten is no Vincent Price, although he did a good job as a master mystical arts.
Chandu inspired the creation of Doctor Strange and Doctor Strange inspired Doctor Mordrid. Full Moon Features’ Charles Band had the option to adapt strange doctor, but the option expired before production began. Instead of abandoning the project altogether, the pragmatic group simply changed the character names and gave us Doctor Mordrid. While Strange was simply a normal man seeking medical treatment after a car accident, Doctor Mordrid was an interdimensional wizard sent to our realm by an alien called The Monitor. Here in our reality, he protects us from strange threats as the Master of… Unknown. Jeffery Combs is Doctor Mordrid, making him the third horror icon to play a strange magician. Comb’s unique charisma made him a perfect fit for an oddball superhero. Combs is the main attraction, but the stop-motion combat between two prehistoric skeletons makes this one even better.
Since Resuscitator to animation, we now have Doctor Strange: The Sorcerer Supreme. Released on video in 2007, this animated feature film deals with the origin of the mystical doctor. If you’re familiar with Doctor Strange, this is a pretty straightforward retelling of his story. There are monsters, demons, and the like that are bound to thrill the scary little kid in all of us. As far as direct-to-DVD features go, this one is pretty good.
And now we enter the Marvel Cinematic Universe. 2016 strange doctor is the movie that made a cult superhero a household name. Since Strange can never be far from horror, the film was directed by Scott Derrickson of Claim Fame. While the movie was never quite as weird as I’d like, it was nonetheless a perfect MCU blockbuster. Even as someone who tends to prefer foam rubber effects, I have to admit that the CGI here is truly magical. The climax in which Doctor Strange outwits the Dread Dormammu (his arch-nemesis from the comics) instead of fighting him encapsulates everything that makes Strange stand out in a crowd of capes and spandex.
After his MCU debut, Strange became a regular in modern cinema’s most successful film franchise. I sure hope the folks at Disney never forget Strange’s horror/pulp roots. Yes Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is a monstrous hit, maybe we’ll see more of the creepy side of Strange. After all, a character with ties to Bela Lugosi, Vincent Price, and Jeffrey Combs can’t stay away from the graveyard for too long.
Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness casts its spell in theaters on May 6.