Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson as Doc Savage: a fan’s view
I can legitimately say I’m a fan of Doc Savage.
I’ve read (and have on my shelves) all 181 of the original “adventures”. I’ve kept the Doc Savage oath (not in the originals, but still dating from that time) on my computer, and recited it for inspiration. I have a Flipboard magazine devoted to linking to Doc resources and news articles on the web (Doc Savage Fanflip), a Doc Savage category of articles on this blog, and Doc’s introduction is one of the “des-time-ations” in The Measured Circle’s Geek Time Trip at The History Project.
Doc is one of my literary heroes: I am a better person because of Doc Savage.
I also like Dwayne Johnson: I have The Rock Clock, which is a fun alarm app from the actor/wrestler, on my Galaxy S7 Edge.
However, when I heard that The Rock was being considered for the role of Doc Savage in Shane Black’s new movie, I was not immediately convinced.
First, there’s the physicality. I find it hard to imagine the Rock in disguise as an “ordinary person” and making it work. It’s hard to think of him as anything but big…when he walks into a room, that’s going to be the first impression. Famously, Doc doesn’t look big, until you realize how tall he is because of some item of scale. Yes, he’s tall. Yes, he’s muscled, but not broad like a bodybuilder. However, they may be able to work with that…I’m just concerned that casting someone who is that big suggests perhaps an inaccurate surface assessment of the character. I expect, though, that Shane Black has read all of the adventures, and he’s smart and a good screenwriter…I’d call it a yellow flag, rather than a red one.
Second, I tend to think of the Rock as comedic or intimidating, in most roles. Neither of those fit my image of Doc Savage, who is taciturn…an immovable object rather than an unstoppable force, perhaps.
That brings up a reason why this casting can work.
Some characters, like Sherlock Holmes, come to us largely fully formed. Outside of some practical elements, you can read any of the stories about them and it doesn’t matter much in which order you do it.
The Doc Savage stories are self-contained…it’s not that a story continues from one book to the next (although there are some callbacks to previous events). It’s that Doc in the first stories is different from Doc in the middle stories who is different from Doc in the last stories.
Maybe it was because Lester Dent, who wrote the vast majority of the stories, wrote them so quickly…in the beginning, it was roughly like writing a 100 page book with a complex plot, clever dialog, and distinctive characters…every month. I think he had to be very engaged with the character…and if Dent evolved, Doc would evolve as well. Not that they held the same attitudes at the same time, but that Dent’s philosophy and emotional state would influence how he wrote Doc Savage.
Let’s take a look at some things Doc Savage fans would tell a non-fan in describing the character and the books:
- Doc is a physical and mental marvel. He isn’t just unusually strong as well as being fast and skilled athletically. He is literally a brain surgeon. He is an inventor. It doesn’t matter much what the scientific discipline is: Doc is at the level of the best in the world. That doesn’t change much during the books
- Doc never kills. He would rather die than kill someone else, even a villain. This was a radical change in the books: in the beginning, it’s not unreasonable to describe Doc as bloodthirsty. He kills right and left, and kills for vengeance. He rethinks this (Doc is always thinking, and examining his own behavior), and comes to believe that killing is wrong. He develops special non-lethal weapons (guns that fire “mercy bullets” that only knock people out, anesthetic gas glass globes…). Because his associates respect him so much, they adopt the same policy…at least officially. Monk, one of Doc’s aides, never really seems to get on board with this…he doesn’t kill because Doc doesn’t like it, not because the rule is part of his moral core
- Doc has gadgets…he even wears a “utility vest”, the forerunner of Batman’s “utility belt”. The pockets are full of all kinds of things, including underwater breathing apparatus, the aforementioned gas globes, a grappling hook, and so on. In later books, though, he eschews these, believing he has come to rely on them too much (again, being introspective). The “gadgets” extend to vehicles: a submarine, an autogyro (sort of like a helicopter), cars, planes…and a high-speed elevator in the skyscraper headquarters
- There are five “aides” who accompany Doc on his adventures: Monk, a chemist who looks so much like an ape he is sometimes mistaken for one; Ham, a Harvard lawyer, and Monk’s “odd couple” verbal sparring partner; Long Tom, an electrical engineer; Renny, a civil engineer who, unlike Doc, is immediately noted for how big he is (especially his fists); and Johnny, a geologist and archaeologist noted for his use of big words. Outsiders might think of this as being a team, like the Justice League or the Avengers, but that’s not the case. They are friends, and Doc is the leader in their group…but being a Doc Savage aide is not a full-time job. Any of them may be too busy to join an adventure (and we usually hear what they are doing instead)…think of it more like buddies going on a road trip than an organization of crimefighters. Doc might even have an adventure with none of them around
- Doc is disciplined. He does two hours of self-improvement every day, regardless of the circumstances. These are often described as “exercises”, but it’s important to note that this is not just a physical workout. Doc does math problems in his head, practices identifying smells, hones his sense of hearing
I think that discipline is key to the character. Doc is always trying to make himself better…and that doesn’t just mean new personal records. It also means being a better person, for the benefit of society at large. Doc, like Mr. Spock on Star Trek and Kwai Chang Caine on Kung Fu, believes he is imperfect morally…a failure, in a sense. Rationally, he knows he is superior to most people physically and intellectually…but that doesn’t mean he thinks he always does the right thing. Doc repeatedly ignores questions when his aides ask them…it’s not because he doesn’t respect the aides, it’s because he thinks he could be wrong.
That part of the character is where Shane Black and Dwayne Johnson will have to convince me yet. There’s a real temptation with an iconic character like this, who has every reason to believe he is the best in the world, to play him as supremely confident. Doc doesn’t need to have angst on screen…he doesn’t have to doubt his cause to do good in the world, he never questions that. He has to doubt that he is morally strong enough, and to always think he can be better.
I am looking forward to the movie, and there is no question that casting Dwayne Johnson has called a lot more attention to it than it would have had as this stage. I like Shane Black. I like Dwayne Johnson. I like Doc Savage. I just hope I like them all together.
Join thousands of readers and try the free The Measured Circle magazine at Flipboard
All aboard our new The Measured Circle’s Geek Time Trip at The History Project!
This post by Bufo Calvin originally appeared in the The Measured Circle blog. To support this or other blogs/organizations, buy Amazon Gift Cards from a link on the site, then use those to buy your items. There will be no cost to you, and a benefit to them.