Tuesday, July 2, 2019

The Pitch: Mandrake

When I started "The Pitch" this was what I really wanted to do, a Defenders of the Earth "Expanded Universe" film franchise. I kept pushing it back because it felt like a big commitment, so Atomic Robo hit first, then I felt there was more time-pressure on Thunderbolts and Batman. Let's face it, I'm not so much committing to one "Pitch" here, rather four; Mandrake, Flash Gordon, The Phantom and Defenders of the Earth, that's a lot of work to do, so don't expect them all done promptly. 
Why start with Mandrake, as opposed to Flash or the Phantom? Well, for much the same reason Marvel Studios started with Iron Man; the character is pretty new to most audiences, not having had a film release since the 1950s, reducing any fatigue that may erupt from a "reboot" of Flash or the Ghost Who Walks. Also, again like Iron Man, if the film bombs, that's it, we're done, wait a few years and try again with Prince Valiant or something. 

Leon Mandrake is veteran stage magician with a devoted following and worldwide fame, blending traditional illusions with modern technology and a little something... "extra". Known only to Mandrake and his technician, Lothar, Mandrake can use mystical powers developed training in Asia, mostly his "fast hypnotism", enabling him to create elaborate illusions in seconds. When his assistant, Narda, is revealed to be European nobility on the run from the Singh Brotherhood, an international criminal cartel, Mandrake is forced to use his abilities to fight crime and discovers a new purpose in his life.

We don't need to reinvent the wheel on this one, we have Iron Man, Batman Begins and The Prestige to work from and give us the bare bones. Mandrake starts out as a celebrity cad with some extraordinary abilities, selfish, but good deep down. Crisis forces Mandrake to confront who he is and how he lives his life, eventually he makes the right choice and saves the day. 
I'd like to stay away from the "love interest kidnapping as inciting incident" trope, so this will come down to more of a chase narrative, with plenty of globetrotting and exotic locations, Mandrake is a celebrity after all. It all builds to a big showdown somewhere really cool looking, like Monaco, where Mandrake, Lothar and Narda concoct an elaborate illusion to trap the Singh leader and escape before the authorities and media arrive.

See above, Iron Man meets Ocean's Eleven with a bit of The Prestige mixed in. Fun, breezy and mostly light, no one needs to see a Frank Miller-esque take on Mandrake of all things. The next few films in the series will have increasing stakes, so this one gets to be pretty straightforward. We're introducing the characters, the world and a recurring antagonist in the Singh Brotherhood, so no need to bog the audience down with heavy-handed plot. Light is good. 

This is always trickier than most people think it is; it's not just a matter of picking actors I like, or look like the character. For a franchise especially, it needs to be someone with a solid career but not so much in demand that they can't commit to a series of films. Think about RDJ as Iron Man, that was a good cast, decent actor, not much on his plate at the time, same deal here, after all, we're hoping for at least four films in this series. 

Mandrake: After thinking about this for a while, I just couldn't go past my original pick for Doctor Strange, Guy Pearce: 
A seasoned actor with a great filmography who's demonstrated that he can say patently ridiculous things with a straight face, I can't think of anyone better. Pearce is getting "old" in Hollywood leading man terms (he's only 50), but Mandrake doesn't need to punch a lot of people or strut around with his shirt off. Pearce has the charisma and chops to play the defacto "leader" of the Defenders of the Earth for a handful of films, letting the younger guys take over later, just like in the cartoon. 

Lothar: Let's face it, Lothar needs to change, the "jungle savage" was racist, the buff engineer was a bit camp, how about a Jonathan Creek-esque magical technician? Played by none other than Richard Ayoade: 
These days, technicians for illusionists are highly-competent engineers and designers, not teamsters, so a big, buff, Lothar would look a little silly. Think of the version in this film as like Oracle to Batman or Micro to the Punisher, the "guy in the chair", making gadgets, watching cameras and planning tactics. Plus there's always room for a couple of fun Moss/Mighty Boosh references. 

Narda: If things go well with this franchise, we'll need actors to step up into the hero roles and become the new Defenders of the Earth, so our Narda needs to be a bit younger than Mandrake, but still an accomplished actor, someone like Olivia Wilde: 
Wilde has had a couple of meaty roles, but has never really seemed to be able to "breakout", something like Mandrake could be her chance. Popular genre, franchise opportunity and being able to play opposite a veteran talent have made more than one career in the past. I get the feeling Wilde is better than she's had the chance to be yet.

Singh Boss: I've got this thing about hiring any Asian actor to play any nationality, probably due to having had Asian family members since childhood. Thankfully, I'm also a fan of Asian cinema and always happy to do a bit of research. The antagonist for this film would be played by Byung-hun Lee: 
Lee has already broken through to Hollywood thanks to GI-Joe Retaliation and The Magnificent Seven (2016), but for this film, we're basically asking him to replay his character from The Good The Bad The Weird. A crazed gang boss with big aspirations and an absolute ruthlessness, the "Singh Boss" will probably carry across a couple of films, so having someone fun and memorable is a real must; think of him as the DOE Loki if that helps. 

This is a little tricky because of the balance that needs to be struck, but I think Edgar Wright needs another shot at a superhero title. Ideally, Mandrake would be slick, polished and funny, which Wright has shown himself adept and filming before, just think more Baby Driver than Scott Pilgrim vs. the World

What next? 
So Mandrake ends with our hero triumphant, most of the Singh in gaol and everything tied up nicely, but let's not forget the post-credits sting! 

Mandrake is walking through a stately office building talking to "Mr Walker" about the problem represented by the Singh Brotherhood. They discuss the need to deal with the Brotherhood, but how they lack the manpower. Mr Walker suggests another recruit and a young woman walks in introduced as his daughter, Jedda Walker. 

That's right, the next film is The Phantom, both to save the crazy space stuff for the third film and to continue the through-line of the Singh Brotherhood as antagonists. Probably a while before I get to that one sorry, but it is coming! 

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