Monday, May 23, 2016

Pulp Heroes Returning

The first half of the 20th century saw a preponderance of magazines printed on cheap, coarse paper, so grainy that illustrators had to shade their pictures with techniques like pointillism and cross-hatching to prevent the ink from bleeding and smudging. These text-heavy magazines were called 'pulps', and often featured adventure stories featuring larger than life characters, similar to what would begin appearing in fully illustrated colour comics in the 1930s.

Characters like The Shadow, The Spider, The Green Lama and many others made their debut in the pulps, some going on to other mediums like radio, television, comics, or even the movies. Some are legendary archetypes, like The Shadow, while others are period curiosities, like The Green Lama. Despite a current low ebb in popularity, one of the poster boys for pulp longevity, Doc Savage, may be returning to the public eye courtesy of a major motion picture.

Clark Savage, Jr., could give Bruce Wayne a run for his money in terms of overachievement; from Wikipedia:
Doc Savage's real name was Clark Savage, Jr. He was a physician, surgeon, scientist, adventurer, inventor, explorer, researcher, and, as revealed in The Polar Treasure, a musician. A team of scientists assembled by his father deliberately trained his mind and body to near-superhuman abilities almost from birth, giving him great strength and endurance, a photographic memory, a mastery of the martial arts, and vast knowledge of the sciences. Doc is also a master of disguise and an excellent imitator of voices.
Most interestingly to me, where Batman works largely independently, this scientific superman still found it useful to surround himself with a coterie of mortal assistants, each of fulfilling a specialist role in Doc's loosely affiliated organization: 'Monk', an industrial chemist with an ape-like physique; 'Ham', the capable attorney who is also a dab hand with the sword-cane he carries; 'Renny', the construction engineer who is so big, one of his pastimes is punching the panels out of wooden doors, and many others.

Doc Savage is notable amongst pulp characters in that all of his periodical adventures found new life in paperback, remaining popular right up through the 1970s, and was made into a movie on a previous occasion, but not a particularly noteworthy one, by most accounts.

Writer/director Shane Black (whose new movie The Nice Guys I simply cannot see soon enough) has been a Doc Savage fan since childhood, and the gazillions he made for Marvel after making Iron Man 3 gave him the leverage he needed to start the ball rolling on bringing his idol to the screen. Casting such a film can be challenging, though: you need an impressive physical specimen, but they must also be able to convey scientific confidence and moral authority. Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson wouldn't necessarily have been my first choice, but it looks more and more like he could be the one Black is zeroing in on.

Back in March, he said, "Doc Savage is sort of in the ether now. We’re hoping to make it sometime next year. I would very much like to do Doc with a fellow named Dwayne Johnson if we can make that work. I made a decision that Dwayne is the guy. It’s on the back burner while he’s busy." And in a recent Instagram post, Johnson showed a script he said he hoped he would be working with Shane Black on in 2017, without divulging the title.

I'm not familiar enough with The Man of Bronze myself to say how good a thing that may be, but I know Black is more than enough of a fan to remain confident in his choices. There aren't a lot of dumb people who can do comedic timing as well as the former wrestler, so I have high hopes that the two of them can pull it off.

I also appreciate that Black is intent on keeping Doc Savage a period piece, and is not interested in updating it to modern times, which I think is a good choice; the period between the two world wars was one of the most fertile for adventure fiction, which is why it suited Indiana Jones so well, and many others too. A time of tremendous unease so and growing international tensions, while more and more remote areas of the planet were explored, for better or worse. Technology and the occult both figure prominently in tales of the time, especially in the pulps.

While the idea of a hyper-competent leading man would lead most people to think of Batman (detective/industrialist/inventor/martial artist et al), the best modern incarnation of pulp idealism is probably the 1984 cult hit The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai: Across the Eighth Dimension.
Peter Weller plays the titular character, a neurosurgeon, particle physicist, martial artist, rock star and test pilot, who encounters the evil Red Lectroids in the Eighth Dimension while driving his prototype Jet Car through a mountain thanks to his invention, the OSCILLATION OVERTHRUSTER (capitalization intentional). Backed up by Rawhide, Reno of Memphis, Perfect Tommy and the rest of the hard-rocking scientists who perform with Buckaroo as the Hong Kong Cavaliers, he solves the riddle of Planet 10 while discovering the truth about the woman who is the spitting image of his late wife, slain by the malicious Hanoi Xan, leader of the World Crime League.

It's a lot to take in, and as a result did not perform terribly well at the box office, despite (or perhaps due to) being directed by the man who wrote another cult classic from the 80s: Big Trouble in Little China. As the logos doodled across my high school binders can attest, I was a dyed-in-the-wool member of Team Banzai, and I was not alone. You could always count on seeing other fans at cons in the 80s, who clamoured tirelessly for the sequel promised in the end credits of the film. A TV show entitled "Buckaroo Banzai: Ancient Secrets and New Mysteries" was tantalizingly close to production (a visual effects demo reel was included on the DVD) a decade ago, but never came to least, not yet.

Now we are hearing that the director of Clerks and Chasing Amy, Kevin Smith, has been given the opportunity to make a Buckaroo Banzai show for television, courtesy of MGM.

I have mixed feelings about this, despite having a lot of affection for Kevin Smith. He is a nerd's nerd, working multiple comic book and movie references into his 'Askew-niverse' pictures, and he claims to have a great love for the source material. On the other hand, he is unapologetically coarse and outside of comedy, his filmmaking peaked, for me at least, with Chasing Amy, nearly 20 years ago now.

I'm choosing to remain optimistic, based almost solely on his comment that he would like to touch base with the writer of the original story, Earl Mac Rauch. Rauch expanded his own script into a glorious neo-pulp novel which included the obligatory purple prose, larger than life characters and fantastical notions about the nature of consciousness, as well as footnotes suggesting a far wider universe, brimming with opportunities for adventure.

If Smith can capture even a portion of the flavour from Rauch's work, (which I re-read for the first time since high school this past weekend!) and has the same lucky lightning strike his casting choices as did the movie (Ellen Barkin, Clancy Brown, Jeff Goldblum, John Lithgow, and Christopher Lloyd!), then maybe at long last we will have the opportunity to see Buckaroo Banzai Vs. The World Crime League, nearly a quarter century later.

UPDATED MAY 30 2016:

Dwayne Johnson has confirmed today that he is indeed playing Doc Savage via a revealing Instagram post. Sounds like they are playing a bit of a 'fish out of water' angle, with Doc's being raised by scientists making him immune to most social cues. It's a neat angle, and The Rock has the comedic chops to make that work, so fingers crossed for this one!

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