From 'Doc Savage' to Mack Bolan, Hollywood seems poised for pulp to replace superheroes
How many of you have ever read an actual original era pulp story? Anything involving Doc Savage or The Shadow or John Carter or Doctor Death or The Phantom Detective or Tarzan or Solomon Kane or Conan or The Continental Op? If you haven't, that puts you in what I am sure is a vast majority at this point. I can't fault anyone for not being a reader of that sort of source material. It's not something that is part of the active mainstream right now, but if Hollywood gets its way, that may be about to change.
There are some huge names in the world of pulp. By far, the biggest budget pulp title currently pending release is the David Yates "Tarzan" that Warner Bros. is putting out in 2016. When I interviewed Samuel L. Jackson at Comic-Con this summer, he repeatedly told me how excited he was by what he'd seen while he was filming "Tarzan." He feels like it's the right version, fun and cool and different. I know nothing about it. I have no idea what they're adapting or what approach they're taking. I like that the film is finished shooting and in the can and we still basically don't know anything and haven't seen anything. That's sort of refreshing. Alexander Skarsgard plays the title role, and Margo Robbie is onboard as Jane, so it's going to be an awfully pretty movie all the way around, and with Christoph Waltz as a bad guy, it seems like he'll be more than capable of any moustache twirling that is required.
But I'm curious. I'm curious because I don't know if Tarzan is something that modern audiences want. Pulp stories were written at a certain time, when there was a particular cultural attitude towards exploration and science and gunplay and sex and politics and race… and while I love pulp, and I have a pretty healthy collection of original pulp writing, I recognize that many of those stories would be problematic at best if they were adapted in their original form.
In the last few weeks, there's been something in the wind, some sense that pulp is starting to draw the attention of the various studios, all constantly hungry for new IP that they can lean on in their search for existing "safe bets." There are some names that I think have enough awareness attached that they seem inevitable. Someone will make a Buck Rogers film sometime in the next five years. Part of me hopes it's the Frank Miller version that was announced, just because that would be terrible on a magnitude that I can hardly fathom, and I'd like to see that once. And I've got to imagine something else will happen with Conan in some form.
By far, the biggest possible thing that we know about already is Shane Black directing "Doc Savage." I wrote about that possibility at least four times in the last few years, and I remain just as excited as I was then about the idea. But we've been hearing Shane's name since 2009. That's five years now. That's a long time for things to cook, and at some point, studios either pull the trigger or they change directions. As recently as June of this year, there was a story about Black meeting with Chris Hemsworth about playing Doc in the film. If this comes together, it will be the highest-profile pulp film of all time, I think, easily surpassing the Russell Mulcahy version of "The Shadow" from the '90s.
Pulp evolved from the magazine style stories published in the Street and Smith era to the paperback novels of the '50s and '60s, and new characters arrived to replace the old ones. It appears that Black is a fan of all of pulp history, because last week brought word that he may be directing a Remo Williams movie, with screenwriter Jim Uhls working from the "Destroyer" novels that were published starting in the '70s and running through 2006. That's an unbelievable run of publishing, and they generated over 100 official novels, with a bunch of other books published in its wake as spin-offs and reboots.
There was, of course, an earlier Remo Williams movie starring Fred Ward and Joel Grey, and they tried to spin that into a TV show with Jeffrey Meek and Roddy McDowall, but I don't think they got it anywhere near right. The movie's okay in a goofy cheesy '80s way, and while Joel Grey is very good at what they hired him for, the yellowface stuff is acutely uncomfortable and unnecessary. See that photo at the top of this story? Let's try really hard not to do that again. I was a kid, the target audience for that movie, and Joel Grey's name in no way influenced my decision to go see the film. He was not the marketable element that was impossible to change. I doubt "Cabaret" fans were rushing the box-office for "Remo Williams," no matter what. Then again, considering the somewhat blunt force nature of the original source material, maybe creating an uncomfortable racial stereotype is right in line with that… which is why I said before that these adaptations are sometimes really tricky.
Todd Phillips and Bradley Cooper are going to take their shot at it with Mack Bolan, aka The Executioner, with Shane Salerno onboard to write and to help develop the overall property. While I think the Remo Williams/Destroyer numbers are impressive, they are dwarfed by the publishing juggernaut that is the "Executioner" series. 600 novels. That's insane. Gold Eagle, who also published the "Destroyer" books, published new books monthly, using an army of ghostwriters to keep up with that kind of demand. There were years they published more than one a month.
And I've never read one.
I'm really curious to see what happens with these movies because, while there are undeniable sales figures and history for each of these properties, I don't know what sort of demand or desire there is to see them as movies. If you're someone who buys a new "Executioner" book every month, are you reading them as some sort of all-consuming thing that you adore or easy-to-digest pulp trash to pass the time on the train? How rabid are the fans of these books? Are there Mack Bolan conventions I am unaware of? Am I walking by Mack Bolan cosplay at Comic-Con and just not recognizing it?
Here's what I think is going to be most interesting to watch. Looking at the way people talk about "Guardians Of The Galaxy," the word "fun" is a big part of the reaction. And why not? That's what makes the movie feel special. It is determined to make sure you have fun. It is a party that basically invites you along. And audiences are swooning for it. I think that's the best way to describe the reaction when you talk to someone who loved it. This weekend, I was at a party talking to someone who has no patience for most special-effects event films, someone who rarely even goes to them. Under duress, he went to see "Guardians," irritated before he even walked in the door by the raccoon on the poster. When he talked to me about the film, he was evangelical. It kicked his ass. And why? Fun. He had a blast. And it reminded him of why he likes going to the theater.
I would not be surprised to see superhero films start to trend towards the bright and colorful, the fun, and away from the grim and the grimy and the serious-faced. Could pulp be the way for people to scratch that itch while superhero films head in a different direction? You can go dark and grim with most pulp characters and play things straight and gritty and it's fine. It fits the world and the characters. It works.
But still… are these characters that audiences are going to be persuaded to go see? And if so, how? How do you sell me Mack Bolan or Travis McGee or Remo Williams if I don't already know who they are? What makes me feel like I have to go see these films?
I think it's going to be interesting to watch some of these efforts unfold, and i'm curious to see how many of them ever come to fruition in their currently-rumored forms.
"Tarzan" is aiming for a July 1, 2016 release.