Doc Savage: The Man of Bronze (1975) (112 min)
Directed by Michael Anderson.
aka Doc Savage Arrive!
Written by Joe Morheim and George Pal.
Adapted from the 1933 novel Doc Savage: The Man of Bronze, written by Lester Dent.
Starring Ron Ely, Paul Gleason and William Lucking.
I don’t envy the poor soul tasked with making old-school superheroes cool for modern viewers. The pomp, pizazz, and power sets of your Captain Americas and Green Lanterns are one thing, but their stripped-down precursors are an entirely different story. The Phantom, The Spirit, and other crime-busters birthed in radio shows or pulp magazines usually wield outdated foundations that render efforts to adapt them in the here and now all the trickier. Change too much, and you risk betraying the source material; change too little, and people are nodding off in their popcorn. But years before Dick Tracy and The Rocketeer begat a whole generation of retro action fans, producer George Pal took a chance on a big-screen throwback with 1975’s Doc Savage: The Man of Bronze. However, while the picture tried to maintain relevance over four decades after its titular hero’s inception with a self-aware tone, it’s ultimately instituted too infrequently and too weakly to sidestep the film’s fate as one sizable drag.
His intellect is beyond compare. His body has been trained to stand up to the most strenuous of conditions. His eyes have that special twinkle in them. He’s Dr. Clark “Doc” Savage (Ron Ely), the world’s foremost smarty-pants and defender of justice. From his metropolitan headquarters, Doc — aided by his brain trust, the Fabulous Five — studies, experiments, and stays on constant watch for any criminal threats that might arise. But for all of the challenges that he’s weathered in his time, our man confronts his most personal battle yet when he’s informed of his father’s tragic death. As Savage quickly comes to learn, his dad’s demise was actually orchestrated by the evil Captain Seas (Paul Wexler), whose eyes are set on a deed gifted to the deceased by a long-lost civilization. Fortunately, Doc hops on the case without a second thought, employing his wits and brawn to help the Five stop Seas right in his villainous tracks.
“Gentle parody” was likely the most ideal route for Doc Savage: The Man of Bronze to take at the time. With Richard Donner’s Superman still a few years off from transforming comic cinema into a legit and lucrative genre, letting the audience in on the gag and addressing its protagonist’s more antiquated elements would have been a wise move. But outside of pausing every so often to superimpose a gleam across Ely’s peepers or randomly announce a new, heretofore unknown talent of Doc’s, the flick does little to deconstruct its parent property or its contemporaries in the world of crime-fighting fiction. Though deeming Doc Savage’s tone to be mean or mocking isn’t entirely fair, these winking flourishes are still casually applied to a movie that appears to have no interest in developing a “better” alternative to the original adventures off of which it’s riffing. “Isn’t that cheesy?” asks the film every time Doc expresses his unabashed patriotism, declares a desire to save the world, or employs a contrived means to escape peril. It’s a cynical mindset that only drives us to embrace the old-fashioned notions of fighting for truth and justice for all that it wants us to laugh at, especially when its rebuttal amounts to a banal, jungle-set treasure hunt.
It’s not that Doc Savage needed to go all “Batman ’66” on us to be worthwhile. But a consistent sense of humor makes all the difference in separating what’s a loving satire and what’s something cracking wise from the peanut gallery, with this film too scattershot with its jokes to call itself the former. Also, even though superhero flicks were still a long ways off from the lavish budgets that they’re regularly granted now, Doc Savage still skews drab and cheap from a visual standpoint, rarely exploiting its rich ’30s setting. It looks so muted and constricted, one wouldn’t be blamed for assuming it was a made-for-TV production, instead of something released into theaters (and subsequently creamed that month by a little ditty called Jaws). But if there’s one aspect that fans can take comfort in knowing that Doc Savage nailed, it’s the casting. Best known as Tarzan on ’60s television, Ely has Doc’s signature buff physique down pat, but his comedic instincts are on point as well, playing his role straight to an effect similar to that of Adam West’s portrayal of the Caped Crusader. Wexler’s booming voice makes him a perfect fit as the boo-hiss baddie Seas, and the Fabulous Five proves a menagerie of colorful character actors, including The Breakfast Club’s Paul Gleason.
Doc Savage: The Man of Bronze had the right idea in wanting to wink at a figure who’d go on to help define the template for those superheroes whose escapades we enjoy to this day. If one hasn’t the budget to dazzle people with action set pieces, comedy is the next best thing, only this comes up short in both areas. Doc Savage means well, but it’s not as observant or entertaining as it sets out to be.