When talking about comic book movies, there are always films that fall between the cracks. It’s understandable given the wide berth of quality in these projects. Even between 1979′s Superman and 2009′s Dark Knight there are gradients of brilliant to cringe-worthy comic book flicks. Part of the problem is that many of these properties do not translate to the big screen without some adjustments to the source material. This is why Rogue is a teenage girl in the X-Men films and Tony Stark is an industrialist of the modern age rather than during the Vietnam War, etc.
The other problem, rarely seen, is when the source material is regarded as a blueprint to the finished product with no real regard to the differences between movies and comics. Watchmen is a good example of this rarity where a 12 issue comic book series is presented nearly intact as an incredibly long movie not missing any details that the original creators put in the printed work.
Somewhere in-between is 1975′s Doc Savage. A pulp icon in the family of the Shadow and Dick Tracy, Doc Savage was a natural for a big motion picture treatment at the time. Legendary director George Pal (the Time Machine) was brought in to breath life into the character and his colorful world of adventure. The end result is… odd.
For those unfamiliar with who Doc Savage is, he is the central hero of several pulp novels and radio dramas of the 30′s and 40′s. Trained by a brain trust of geniuses from birth, Doc is a brilliant adventurer well-versed in various forms of scientific and medical study. He is also impervious to harm due to his bullet-proof skin. Assisted by a colorful array of experts known as the Fabulous Five, he lives in a sky-rise citadel decked out with all manner of state of the art crime-fighting gadgets.
Sounds like the ideal character to be adapted into a film, doesn’t he?
The dedication to mirroring every slight detail of the pulps is maddening, from trademark banter to signature characteristics that readers were used to seeing their hero exude. The plot was a mish-mash of vintage Doc Savage material, showing a faith in the character and his entertainment power. The star, Ron Ely, looked the part and enthusiastically promoted the film (and even took part in activities behind the camera). So what is wrong with Doc Savage the movie?
The problem is one word that has plagued superhero projects since they first jumped from the page to the screen, camp.
Despite the straight approach in the script and production, it seems like someone else was in the editing room adding goofy musical cues and sound effects as if this were a production of Sid and Marty Krofft. There are some that say the camp value in Doc Savage is what makes the film memorable, but the level of cheap laughs are an insult to die-hard fans, infuriated that their hero was so misrepresented. Besides, the potential for a pulp-style action story set in the 30′s is just mesmerizing. Look at the Shadow to see what I mean.
A planned sequel was not an option due to the negative critical and financial response. The much rumored and rather brilliant script by Philip José Farmer regarding a team-up between Doc Savage and a retired Sherlock Holmes in 1936 also went the way of all things. Political plans put an end to an Arnold Schwatzenegger reboot but there is now rumbling that Sam Raimi may be interested in bringing back the pulp action heroes of the Doc Savage, the Shadow and others such as the Avenger.
If anyone could do it, Sam Raimi could really make a film franchise based on these pulp characters work. In many ways, it would be an easier fit for him than the Spider-Man movies and it would offer an opportunity for him to utilize the skills he learned working on the web-spinning movies for Sony. But would Raimi also be tempted to add a touch of high camp? Given that he already did so in Spider-Man 3… I hope that he has learned his lesson and would refrain.