Who Is the Rock’s New Character, Doc Savage? Allow Us to Explain

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Johnson and Savage. Photo: Getty Images, Street & Smith

This just in: Dwayne Johnson is playing Doc Savage! Wait, you may be asking yourself, Doc who? Am I supposed to know who this guy is? Is he some kind of superhero? Don’t worry — you’re not alone in being confused about this news. The upcoming Shane Black-helmed movie will follow the adventures of a character who’s been around since the early 1930s, but who flies low on the radar these days. We have answers to all your burning questions below.

Overall, what’s Doc Savage’s deal? How would you summarize him?
He’s an incredibly strong, terribly handsome scientist/inventor/physician who also happens to be a martial artist. He goes out on adventures and fights bad guys while looking sexy.

So he’s an actual doctor?
Sure is. What, you think you can just go around calling yourself “Doc” without backing that shit up with a degree? I suppose you could if it was your first name, but the character’s true moniker is Clark Savage Jr. — “Doc” is just a nickname. There’s no evidence that Emmett Brown got the idea from him.

Is he a superhero?
That’s a great and somewhat controversial question! He’s certainly being marketed as such right now: Johnson is trying to get a “#WorldsFirstSuperhero” hashtag going, and that tagline will almost certainly persist. In his initial appearances, he had strength that was depicted as superhuman, though later he was just said to be very strong. Throughout his various incarnations, he’s certainly had many of the traits we associate with superheroes, especially Batman: He’s trained himself to be in peak physical and mental condition and he has pugilistic encounters with sinister baddies.

That said, he doesn’t wear a costume or have an alter ego — things that are arguably definitional for the superhero archetype. Traditionally, Superman is identified as the first superhero, but while Supes first appeared in the pages of Action Comics No. 1 in 1938, the noble Doc hit stands in 1933. Geeks love arguing almost as much as they love sweaty convention halls, so there has been much debate about this topic, and this movie will certainly spark more.

Who came up with this guy and what was his historical milieu?
Savage was the brainchild of guys who worked in the massively popular pulp-fiction industry back in the 1930s. Before the dawn of the superhero comic, pulp magazines (so named because they were printed on inexpensive wood-pulp paper) were the premiere medium for two-fisted tales of adventure. Their stories consisted of blunt prose and accompanying illustrations.

As of 1933, one of the biggest stars in the pulp industry was the Shadow, a proto-Batman who stalked the night and used mystical powers to cloud men’s minds. Looking to capitalize on the Shadow craze, the higher-ups at publisher Street & Smith wanted their own pulp hero. So publisher Henry W. Ralston, editor John L. Nanovic, and writer Lester Dent created Doc Savage and plunked him in Doc Savage Magazine No. 1 in early 1933. He was a sensational hit and was soon in radio dramas and the then-new medium of comic books. By the late '40s, however, his popularity waned; Doc's magazine was canceled in 1949. In the '60s, Bantam started reprinting his stories in book form, giving him a second burst of popularity.

How important is Doc Savage in pop culture? Am I stupid for not knowing about him?
You’re definitely not stupid for not knowing about him, as his significance has massively decreased since his mid-'30s heyday. He was eclipsed by the emergence of the superhero genre in the late '30s and early '40s, which tapped into audiences’ power fantasies even more effectively than pulp action had. Plus, his intellectual-property rights have been tangled, making big- and small-screen adaptations hard to pull off. Though he’s appeared in comic-book reboots here and there, he’s never had anything resembling the prominence he had in his early years.

Has he been in a movie before?
Yes, though somewhat disastrously. In 1975, Warner Bros. put out a Michael Anderson-directed, George Pal-produced, and Ron Ely-starring movie called Doc Savage: The Man of Bronze. It was a bomb and critics generally hated it. There have been some aborted attempts at movies since then, making a Doc Savage reboot seem near-impossible for a while. But now, the Doctor is in!

Is Dwayne Johnson a good choice to play him?
He’s kind of a weird choice, as the erstwhile Rock doesn’t generally play geniuses. He’s certainly got the physique, though, and it’s always nice to see a white character get race-bent to be a person of color.

If I wanted to get into Doc Savage, where should I start?
You can snag this compilation of his pulp stories or read these recent comic-book tales about him. Or, if you want a sweet tribute to the stuff that made him great, you can read this single issue of Warren Ellis and John Cassaday’s Planetary, in which we meet a Savage pastiche named Doc Brass. Though one wouldn't generally describe Savage as tender, that story certainly is.