Thursday, May 9, 2013

Things to Keep In Mind When Doing a Doc Savage Movie



 


Yeah, I know, we've been hearing about a possible Doc Savage movie since 1996 (!) when Arnold Schwarzenegger was "hot" and up for the part. But this time, there are some reasons why a character like Doc Savage, who has fallen off the pop culture radar, might really get a film adaptation.

First, writer/director Shane Black (best known for the Lethal Weapon movies and for being the guy doing pussy jokes at the start of Predator – really!) just made Marvel 700 million in the first week for his baby, Iron Man 3, which he directed and wrote. He's "hot" and can do whatever he likes, and what he wants to do is Doc Savage.


Second, our film culture might just be at the point where a Doc movie is possible. If there's any time in history something as culty as a Doc Savage movie could actually happen, it'd be today in our WEIRD film climate where Disney pins its finances on a "Tron" sequel, and someone's remaking "Videodrome."

I'm not saying a Doc movie is impossible to get right. It is possible...but you have to tread very, very carefully and get what made the original stories unique.

Here's how to do it:


1. The keyword is "plausibility." 

In the age when heroes like the Shadow had "powers" that left people scratching their heads, what made Doc Savage unique is that he got his abilities from very ordinary special training. With enough fanatic intensity, you too, could be a Renaissance Man like Doc Savage. All of his fantastic feats are laboriously explained, with an entirely ordinary cause that, like a magic trick, isn't so special when you just explain how it works.


His ability to hold his breath for long periods? He learned that from South Seas pearl divers who really can hold their breath for a very long time.

Doc Savage stories had some fanciful elements, like the lost island with prehistoric monsters from "Land of Terror," the hallucinogenic seaweed world of lost ships in the "Sargasso Ogre," or the white-haired gorillas in "The Phantom City." But the thing to remember is, even those exotic things were believed to be perfectly plausible to people in the 1930s. Today, they're seen as fanciful but back in the day, they were just at the cusp of possibility.


There is not a single piece of technology Doc Savage had in the 1930s that didn't actually exist then or wasn't at least on the drawing board at the time. He used infrared and night vision goggles, had a car with automatic transmission, a television closed-circuit camera system, and featured an uzi-like machine pistol. That's one way to predict the future, I guess: just use things that currently exist. In fact, if anything, it's kind of startling how un-miraculous Doc Savage's gizmos are, since most modern police departments have all of them.


The point is, Doc didn't exactly run around with phaser guns. Nothing bugs me more than when I see fan art by people that haven't read the books who draw Doc with some kind of particle or energy gun. I see this over and over and it makes me crazy. I suspect this is due to the fact that because of Doc Savage's role in pop culture history, more people have heard of him than have actually read him.


2. "Debunk" the villain or mystery weapon at the end. 


It astounds me to this day Doc Savage was never embraced by skeptics as their mascot hero.

Nearly always at the end of every Doc Savage story, the "hereto unexplained" and absolutely bizarre murder method that's the central mystery is debunked and turns out to be something quite ordinary. For instance, in "Fear Cay," Doc Savage and the gang are horrified to discover there's something on the island that turns people into flesh-dried skeletons. And what does this creepy way to die ultimately turn out to be? A swarm of giant carnivorous ants. "Repel" featured a "ray gun" that turns out to be a just a fake spotlight, intended to terrorize with unknown power, and the real cause of the destruction were explosives the gang planted ahead of time, to make everyone think the ray worked.


Remember the monstrous giants from the Thousand Headed Man? They turned out to just be really big fat guys with suits that have hundreds of faces on them.

Remember when the bad guys thought they found the fountain of youth in "Fear Cay?" Turns out the slyphium that "granted eternal life" was just a vitamin-rich superfood and it didn't allow immortality, though it helps people live a long time provided they get plenty of exercise, too. It's no more a secret of immortality than spinach or yogurt.


Doc Savage sticks pretty closely to the idea there are no "real" aliens, vampires, werewolves, or ghosts. Even Batman, another hero that prides himself on not straying too far into fantasy territory, solved hauntings and encountered sincere alien abduction victims. Not Doc. In a Doc Savage story, a ghost or alien is revealed to be a ruse, trick or hoax by the end. In fact, in one story, he solves the mystery of "Foo Fighters" (the World War II era name for UFOs).


3. Keep it humanitarian.


By the standards of pulp detectives, Doc Savage is an absolute bleeding heart philanthropist. Doc's "Thou Shalt Not Kill" code, weird and unique at the time, became the standard for Comics Code-era superhero adventures, and stands out even today as strange. If you're looking for something that makes Doc Savage unique, this is it.

Even in the early novels when they were still working out his code against killing and the use of knockout drug "mercy bullets," he still rescued a guilty criminal from an alligator instead of letting him be eaten.

Doc Savage is so keen to have the hero's hands be bloodless that bad guys, who deserve a horrible fate, usually have it be accidental, a misfire of a weapon they intended to kill others, what in the bombmaking world they call an "own goal."

People make a big deal out of Doc's brain surgery that makes a criminal forget their evil nature, and compare it to brainwashing. But just think how people in the 1930s must have seen it. At the time, when lobotomies were a new procedure and our understanding of the nature of evil was more innocent, this must have seemed tremendously humanitarian as an alternative to capital punishment, a way of straight up "curing" evil, the ultimate expression of a prison system based on reform and not punishment.


4. Keep the "Doc Savage" plot. 

Doc Savage stories are the ultimate "build your own mystery thriller" kit.


Like James Bond movies, Doc Savage plots are less individual stories and more gigantic Mad Libs. They can get repetitive when you read a bunch in one sitting, but they offer a pretty strong and recognizable skeleton for a single movie.



Doc Savage stories are centered around a mystery or unexplained event, like the glowing meteors that drive everyone who see them crazy in "Meteor Menace." The stories usually start somewhere ordinary like New York, and then go somewhere exotic, like Egypt or Indonesia. The ordinary starting point to the story makes the exotic setting at the end seem more exotic. Early on Doc Savage does something minor that no one pays attention to at the time, but later on this tiny little thing is revealed to crack the case. Finally, Doc Savage's enemy has a totally unknown identity, but is revealed to be someone from the start of the story given away by a small clue everybody missed but Doc Savage.


Usually at the halfway point, the bad guy plots to get Doc Savage into a lethal trap, which Doc Savage spots immediately and pretends to go along with to learn the villain's plan or fake his own death. Bad guys often try to frame Doc for murder, but this is optional. Finally, the bad guy creates a final trap, which he falls into and not Doc Savage, who reveals how the baddie's superweapon works.


5. Don't assume you'll get a sequel. Because you might not.


Have everything you like about Doc Savage in the first movie. If you want Doc's female cousin Pat Savage, put her in the movie. By far the most aggravating thing about Green Lantern was the arrogant expectation of a sequel, to the point that movie felt like it was killing time and padded out (how'd that work out for you guys?).

Doc Savage isn't really traditional franchise material. He's based on source material I love, but the character has mostly fallen off the pop culture radar and doesn't have name recognition or a legion of fans like Superman and Batman. He reminds me of another character I like: John Carter of Mars. Like Doc, John Carter is tremendously significant to the history of adventure fiction, but all his rip-offs are more popular than he is.

Bottom line: it's far from divinely ordained this movie will be a success, so make this shot count.

Millions of asses are going to be put in seats for a Superman movie no matter what (even the much-maligned Superman Returns was the #6 highest grossing movie of its year), something not true of a Doc Savage movie. But Doc Savage, like John Carter of Mars, is a passion project with a tiny fanbase only possible because the stars are miraculously aligned by the success of Iron Man 3.

…And guys: put Pat in. She's a foxy girl men AND women would like, and she'd "work" on screen.


6. Don't emphasize the backstory of Doc Savage.


An origin story is a waste of everyone's time, because this character doesn't have an origin story. Even the first Doc Savage story wasn't the first Doc Savage story!

Superman and Batman have dramatic origins you can build a film around. "Doc Savage Begins" is wasting everyone's time; it's a lose-lose situation, as the character has so little background you either have to make it up for the movie, or you have to do a story unlike the traditional Doc story and without the traditional Doc elements. In either case, you get a result so different it defeats the point of adapting Doc Savage in the first place.

Likewise, emphasizing on some aspect of Doc's psychology or delving into his backstory to explain why he is the way he is would be a mistake.

The one drag on the otherwise interesting John Carter was the emphasis on giving alpha dog John Carter some wounded sad hero backstory for an inappropriate arc where he learns to trust again.


Film makers have a tendency to overthink very straightforward characters.

Every movie needs an internal arc where the main character changes from the start to the end and realizes something important (yes, EVERY movie). But that has to be done very, very carefully and can't be invented from thin air.

Themes in Doc Stories a necessary internal arc could be made out of: brotherhood/friendship between men, learning the value of teamwork and group power.


7. Doc Savage doesn't have a girlfriend. 


Doc Savage, when you think about him, is kind of a weird character who doesn't exactly lend himself to Hollywood, which needs warm, human leading men. Doc doesn't express strong emotion; he keeps even his own men in the dark about what he's thinking, and he's not interested in women or sex, which he finds a distraction. He's impassive, stoic, tight-lipped and monosyllabic. He never tells jokes or wisecracks, his only humor is a very dry kind so subtle you need a microscope to find it. He never threatens, never loses his temper, never yells. Doc has five allies, but because of his emotional distance, he doesn't really confide in any of them. He's more like a Vulcan than your average hot blooded earthman.


Hollywood has a tendency to squeeze a romance subplot into anything. Heck, even Kwai Chang Caine from TV's Kung Fu, a priest, got it on with a horny widow in the Old West he did odd jobs for, in a scenario that could only come from the weirdest ranch romance ever written.

This isn't to say there aren't any beautiful girls in Doc Savage stories. Beautiful girls are in Doc Savage stories all the time, but they're there so Doc can tell them "no." If you have to have a romance subplot, give it to one of the assistants.


8. Don't go crazy with the visuals. Doc Savage is not visual.  

Here are some images from the interior of the Doc Savage magazine.





Notice there's no art deco, no Sky Captain style period stylization, no outrageous costumes or bright colors.

Doc Savage is not Dick Tracy or Batman, based on a stylized comic strip. Like James Bond, he doesn't wear flashy clothing. His vehicles are advanced, but only on the inside; outwardly, they are in non-flashy, non-attention getting vehicles designed to not attract attention (and sure as heck don't have his name decaled on them, by far the campiest detail of the George Pal movie, which drove George Pal to die of shame). His gadgets fit into his vest and clothes.

Don't get me wrong, Doc Savage is "period." Setting him in the 30s-40s is non-negotiable. But this is not the place to go wild with art direction.


9. Doc Savage is not a "kiddie-friendly" property. Keep the horror and death.


A characteristic of Doc Savage that marks his stories as very different from say, the more clean cut superheroes are the elements of horror, fear, suspense, and death.

"Fortress of Solitude" featured a gas that eats your eyes out from the inside, known as the popeyed death. In "Meteor Menace," those seeing the meteor were driven to permanent, feral insanity. "The Monsters" of the title were a creation of tension and suspense: you didn't even SEE the monsters themselves until two-thirds of the way through the story, building the suspense in an almost Jaws-like way. They weren't there for an exciting fight scene. The monsters were there to build fear and tension.

One of the most intriguing observations Watchmen made was the idea that the comic book heroes had purer lives, without the undercurrent of human Id found in the pulps: the darkness, sexuality, and horror.

9 comments:

David Morefield said...

Lots of great points, and I agree with most of them. A few comments:

re: "Plausibility": this could be less of an issue than you might think. Modern movie heroes routinely perform superhuman feats and no one bats an eyelash. Skyfall opens with 007 surviving a fall that would have killed any ordinary human, and not one word of dialog is devoted to explanation. Arnie and Bruce and decades of wannabes have made the impossible routine, so anything "superhuman" Doc does would not only require no explanation, but would pretty much be a prerequisite to starring in an action film, period.

re: "De-Bunking;" I agree it would be cool to have Doc be a sort of "anti-Indy," with any elements of mysticism or SF being debunked at story's end. Or better yet, much earlier in the film, lest it turn into "Scooby Doo" ("It was Old Farmer Brown in a scarecrow costume!")

re: "Humanitarianism": this is going to be the biggest hurdle. Movie heroes kill, period. I think the way to handle it with Doc is the same way you'd handle his super-strength, or his multi-mastery of so many fields of study: just present it without comment. Don't have him pronounce, "I shall never kill," just give him creative ways to avoid it. What makes Doc "corny" or "camp" by modern standards (as painfully proven in George Pal's "Doc" film) is the scout-like code, the abstinent, super-virtuous lifestyle, and everyone standing around commenting on how amazing he is. The answer is to just get that across by his actions, and make audiences decide for themselves how cool it is. Wow, he identified that chemical by smell, he must be smart. He built that gadget himself? He's sure handy. He could've killed that guy, but he didn't; he's got a good heart. Indiana Jones knows a lot but is still an action guy; James Bond (depending on the iteration) is a walking encyclopedia and can operate vehicles he logically never should have even seen before, and if it's done right, we never stop to ask how all this is possible until after we get home and think back on the film. That's how it should be with Doc.

re: "No Backstory" This is the other big hurdle that's most likely to prove insurmountable. Comic and pulp-based films seem forever driven by two motives: (1) a desire to tap into the huge ready-made audience for a character loved by millions and (2) a deep and abiding embarrassment in that same source material. It always feels like, "Here's a really awesome super-powered character everyone loves, and now we'll spend two hours trying to explain why the whole concept isn't insanely juvenile and impossible." ANY comic or super-hero franchise that starts without an "origin story" will immediately be my number one favorite no matter who it's about.

The other big problem, which you don't get into, is how to fit in Doc's helpers. There are too many of them and, to be brutally honest, there's no need for them when Doc can do everything they do, and better. In the books, their primary function seems to be to pad out the middle third (or more) of the book while Doc is off somewhere doing we-know-not-what. As one observer noted years ago, Doc is like Batman with five Robins.

Honestly, I think Doc is in the same position John Carter was: he's been ripped off so many times for so long, that it's almost pointless bringing him to the screen now. He missed the boat by at least 60 years.

Julian Perez said...

Doc does would not only require no explanation, but would pretty much be a prerequisite to starring in an action film, period.

Doc did some crazy, crazy things in the books, too. The one that takes the cake has to be that sequence everybody remembers from Polar Treasure where he beat that polar bear up with just his fists (although in the defense of Doc, it made sense given how they explained it – he avoided the blows by jumping to its right always, as most polar bears are left-handed...I guess it kind of makes sense).

The reason I mentioned plausibility is, there might be a tendency to go crazy with Doc and introduce far-out fantasy elements. That's due to a misunderstanding. people are more likely to remember really crazy stuff in the Doc books without context. "Hey, did you hear Doc Savage set up a game preserve for dinosaurs?" Ignoring the effort made to making you believe it, and how something like a dino island didn't seem farfetched in 1934.

There's a very, very good reason all these stories begin in New York: start somewhere normal, so you believe it when they go to the lost valley of the Mayans or whatever.

People have to resist the urge to add out-there fantasy elements to Doc. I see it over and over. Remember when the plot of the Lone Ranger movie was going to be about him vs. werewolves? Didn't the plot of the Doc Savage DC Comic involve Doc and crew finding a crashed UFO in the Amazon?

Movie heroes kill, period.

Tell me about it! I was surprised by the previously comics code behaving Iron Man straight up saying he was going to kill the Mandarin on national TV in the recent movie.

What makes Doc "corny" or "camp" by modern standards (as painfully proven in George Pal's "Doc" film) is the scout-like code, the abstinent, super-virtuous lifestyle, and everyone standing around commenting on how amazing he is.

The thing I liked the most about Captain America's movie is, they understated. It really bugged me in the George Pal flick they did the Doc oath with the sweeping crescendo of music in the movie. If you have heroism as a part of your story, don't make it a caricature.

At the same time, as one of the first heroes with a positive mission, I always got the feeling it took a unique form with Doc and the gang, in that the overwhelming majority of the stuff they did motivated by international humanitarian causes was NOT just punching evildoers (and punching evil sometimes seemed like a side mission they did just for fun) but involved medical foundations, vaccines for poor nations, and so on.

The other big problem, which you don't get into, is how to fit in Doc's helpers.

I think it's an inevitability they'll be given more to do.

If I'm being honest with myself, I'd say it wouldn't be a dealbreaker for me if they left off, say, Long Tom or Johnny to keep the group tight.

I don't think the 5 are a problem that needs to be solved. One of the more interesting things about Doc is the idea of group power and teamwork, as opposed to lone wolf heroes like Mack Bolan the Executioner.

On the other hand, the Hobbit movie did a marvelous job playing up how many Dwarves there were for comedy!

David Morefield said...

Iron Man racks up an impressive body count in the first one, too. No way he didn't ice a pile of those terrorists when he escaped in the Mark I.

Personally I think one advantage Marvel has in the superhero movie race is that their characters can more easily get away with killing. Tony Stark is a munitions maker, Cap is a soldier and Thor is a warrior. I recently re-read a Thor issue from the Simonson run where he smashes (super but mortal villain) Blockbuster in the face with Mjolnir and says, "May Hela, Goddess of Death deal with you justly, assassin!" Which means, of course, that he killed the guy. Good stuff. But Doc should be more in the "villain killed by his own evil creation" camp.

As for the Fantastic 5, the problem isn't whether they have any value (which is debatable, IMHO) but whether a scriptwriter could find anything to do with them. Until Avengers, I'd have defied you to name a genre film with a large cast of heroes that came close to working (including, alas, Star Trek). Hollywood has a real problem assembling a film which (a) revolves around a titular character while (b) providing a strong supporting cast that all get their moments of glory. Even with Mission Impossible, by its very nature a team-based concept, Hollywood's Step One was "kill the rest of the IMF so Tom Cruise can shine."

Julian Perez said...

Iron Man racks up an impressive body count in the first one, too. No way he didn't ice a pile of those terrorists when he escaped in the Mark I.

Personally I think one advantage Marvel has in the superhero movie race is that their characters can more easily get away with killing. Tony Stark is a munitions maker, Cap is a soldier and Thor is a warrior. I recently re-read a Thor issue from the Simonson run where he smashes (super but mortal villain) Blockbuster in the face with Mjolnir and says, "May Hela, Goddess of Death deal with you justly, assassin!" Which means, of course, that he killed the guy.


I expected there to be a controversy over Captain America using firearms and killing in wartime. It didn't materialize. Nobody believes in the middle of the Big One Cap handled the Nazis according to Comics Code rules.

They DID keep the idea, from recent Brubaker-era comics, that Bucky (who was a lot older than he looked, especially by war's end) existed to do very dark things to keep Cap's hands clean, such as sniping.

Bucky was the only "kid sidekick" I ever found remotely, vaguely plausible: in wartime, lots of very young people enlisted and lied about their age.

As for the Fantastic 5, the problem isn't whether they have any value (which is debatable, IMHO) but whether a scriptwriter could find anything to do with them.

True, but I think the 5 are so crucial to Doc Savage's identity they're non-negotiable, like Battle-Cat in the next He-Man project, whenever that is.

The event they don't have the 5 is the event they're going somewhere so totally unrecognizable with a Doc movie that all the speculation is pointless (e.g. they don't leave it period). Which I find unlikely.

The scenario I find more possible is they make a Doc movie, but do a few things that miss the point like have real psychic powers or wolfmen, implausible gadgets Doc never had in the books (I can see robots appearing or a ray gun due to the love of art direction winning out over actually READING these books), or things like giving Doc a girlfriend or an origin story.

Until Avengers, I'd have defied you to name a genre film with a large cast of heroes that came close to working (including, alas, Star Trek).

It's a credit to the tremendous warmth and talent of George Takei, Nichelle Nichols, and Doohan that those 3 injected their characters with so much humor and humanity despite their negligible actual parts.

Having them be bit players was to be expected; the miracle is anybody thought of them as anything else.

It's way, way less okay with Next Gen, which was more of an ensemble cast.

Not having a Worf subplot in any of the Next Gen movies was especially inexcusable, especially since he was the best developed character on that show, especially come Deep Space 9, where among other things, as the stunt budget was higher, Worf became like a superhero. Anybody who tells stupid jokes about Worf getting beat up by the alien of the week needs to watch DS9 and re-evaluate that.

Having the bit players not get any character development is not surprising, but I was shocked the J.J. Abrams Captain Kirk didn't get any. He started the movie kind of an asshole, and ended it practically the exact same person.

The thing I'm looking forward to about the next Trek in a few days is, it looks like Kirk might grow and learn something.

bmcmolo said...

Good discussion here in the comments. I quite enjoyed the Captain America movie. (And couldn't agree more on Worf's lack of subplot in the movies; it seems the only person who got one was Data - and it was a retread of Spock's.)

I've seen the George Pal version and not knowing much about the character, I could tell something, still, was waaaaaaaaaaay off.

Following these guidelines, tho, I can definitely see a successful Doc Savage movie hitting the screen.

I agree keeping the character in the 30s or 40s is the way to go. I wonder if they will.

Julian Perez said...

Part of the reason Denise Crosby left (in retrospect, a mistake) was she was basically scenery, and it's hard to disagree with that. She was told the show was about Riker, Picard and Data, with the rest of the cast as background players in much the same way Shatner's famous "seven dwarves" were. She was once told, "okay, stand back there and stick your tits out."

Even Worf was a background player, kind of a barely sentient werewolf with few signs by the first season of the person of integrity he'd later become. I always liked the idea of Worf: he was a man of integrity in an era when most Klingons we meet are just politicians.

Worf was sort of like Hawkeye in Avengers: not everyone's favorite character, but clearly the writers' favorite character, because he could be "bad" from time to time, like in that episode where he refused blood to the Romulan.

By the third or fourth season, Trek stopped being about the three leads and became an ensemble show.

The George Pal movie was to Doc Savage what the Adam West Batman was to Batman. The exception is, there was a time when Batman really was pretty over the top.

It wasted a pretty good performance by Ron Ely, who, come to think of it, was great casting. He played the character with a little more warmth than I imagined Doc having. Doc, in the books, was basically a Vulcan.

I read an interview with Ron once where he played the character straight, so it came as something of a surprise when he first saw the film to see the Sousa music and the camp.

Unknown said...

"'Fortress of Solitude' featured a gas that eats your eyes out from the inside, known as the popeyed death."

Not quite. The "Pop-Eyed Death" was the horrific menace in "The Annihilist" and it caused the victim's to pop out of their sockets.

There was ray in "Fortress of Solitude" that paralyzed the optic nerve and produced blindness in anyone within its field of influence, but not the same as what you describe here, either.

Are you sure this particular gas was featured in Doc Savage and not one of the other hero pulps?

Julian Perez said...

Yeah, you're right, I got those confused there.

hbenthow said...

"I read an interview with Ron once where he played the character straight, so it came as something of a surprise when he first saw the film to see the Sousa music and the camp."

There's a fanedit called "Doc Savage: The Man of Bronze - Detarnished", that removes most of the camp and turns it into a fairly serious movie. With all of the ridiculous stuff out of the way, it's easier to see how good Ron Ely's performance really is.

Ron Ely saw the fanedit, and liked it so much that he even mentioned it in at least one public appearance.