Shane Black directing and co-writing a Doc Savage movie? Color me surprised. George Pal directed the only Doc Savage movie in 1975. While the cast was excellent -- the actors chosen to play the fabulous five nailed their roles -- the script was, quite frankly, terrible. I always thought they tried to make a Doc Savage movie too early. "Raiders of the Lost Ark" showed what they could have done, but it did not occur to anyone then to make a more straightforward action film. They chose to go the campy route in the flavor of the old "Batman" TV show and the result was a miserable failure. The same thing happened twenty years later with the Shadow movie. Tongue-in-cheek corn took the place of genuine suspense or action, which was a shame because I can think of several Shadow novels that could have translated well to the big screen. That urge to go campy is the bane of all efforts to make movies of pulp novels and one reason Hollywood has been leery of them. Of all the pulp novels, Doc Savage sits squarely in the tradition that inspired "Raiders of the Lost Ark". Handled right, with a script that respects the source material and stays smart, more along the lines of "The Avengers" and "Iron Man" meets "The Untouchables" and "McGuyver", it could be a winner. Another possible Doc Savage movie has kicked around the back lots of Hollywood for decades. Arnold Schwarzenegger once expressed interest in playing Doc. (I am so thankful that didn't happen.) I thought it would end up another one of those movie projects everyone talked about but no moved on, so I was pleased to learn that Shane Black, the director behind the recent "iron Man 3", signed on with Sony Pictures to develop a Doc Savage movie. He had expressed interest in the project before, way back in 2009, but continually got stalled. Now fresh off his stellar opening weekend for "Iron Man 3", he has stated "Doc Savage" will be his next film.
I remain guardedly optimistic. It appears a script, written by Shane Black, Anthony Bagarozzi, and Charles Mondry, already exists. Shane Black has chops as a writer. He rose to prominence as the screenwriter for the first two "Lethal Weapon" movies and "The Monster Squad". In 2005 he made the transition to directing with the movie "Kiss Kiss Bang Bang". Those are hopeful signs, though his works have a strain of irreverence and cynicism I'm not sure will mesh well with Doc Savage. There is speculation on whether or not Shane will tackle "Doc Savage" or "Death Note" first. Whichever film he chooses, he will enter two worlds with a deep back story, compelling characters, and a rabid fan base. Adapting a movie on either the "Death Note" manga and animes or the Doc Savage novels will be akin to Daniel in the lion's den. There are many ways it can go sideways.
Why am I concerned? Watch "Iron Man 3". Look at Shane Black's take on the Mandarin. If he could blithely destroy an iconic villain like the Mandarin, it gives one pause to think what might happen to Doc Savage and company once he takes over as director and co-writer. The Mandarin in "Iron Man 3" is a deconstruction and subversion of the comic book villain that does not feel right to me. Hannah Minghella, the president of production for Columbia Pictures, claimed in an interview that "Shane and Neal have a fantastic understanding of the character and a great take on the material and we can’t wait to get this production up and running.” Until I hear more details, I will be a little chary. This is Hollywood after all. "Fantastic understanding of character" and "a great take on the material" does not mean the same thing to them as it does to us.
Negativity aside, I am very happy that someone will attempt another Doc Savage movie. He is my favorite among the pulp heroes. Trained from an early age by his father to be a crime fighter, to protect the innocent and bring justice to the guilty, pushing himself to become a mental and physical marvel, Doc Savage is made to be larger than life. The greatest problem Shane Black will have may be that Doc Savage, once the most popular of all the pulp heroes, the character whose books formed a gold standard among pulps, is virtually unknown today. If they can avoid the horrid missteps that plagued Disney's "John Carter" advertising campaign, they might overcome that hurdle. Another issue will be crafting an interpretation of Doc Savage that stays true to his boy scout personna, something very out of fashion today, and his penchant for getting into the wildest, weirdest adventures.
In this jaded age, how do you market a hero like Doc Savage? Here is a man who combines Sherlock Holmes, Albert Schweitzer, Tarzan, Harry Houdini, Bruce Wayne, Spock, McGuyver, Charles Atlas, Thomas Edison, and Leonardo da Vinci in one person. I think there's a way to create a believable and marketable character from this mix, one modern audiences will like. I believe it will require going back to the original pulps and shaving off the more outrageous abilities, focusing on the reality of a man driven to fight evil and developing the human body to its maximum potential, along the way losing and then rediscovering his humanity. The best moments in the pulps were always the rare scenes when Doc makes mistakes or realizes he had a messed up childhood (read "The Freckled Shark" for an example of both).
Whatever happens, it will be interesting to see the results. Hopefully, this will bring a new generation of fans and greater appreciation of the original novels.