Although recent adaptations of The Shadow, The Phantom, and now John Carter would seem to suggest that modern audiences aren’t particularly interested in early-20th-century pulp heroes, thanks, Warner Bros. is clearly feeling cocky today—so cocky that they’ve just begun developing an adaptation of Lee Falk’s classic 1930s comic strip Mandrake The Magician. Numerous filmmakers have tried for decades to do something with the illusionist who can hypnotize at super speed with a simple flick of the wrist—a talent that led him to be branded by some historians as comics’ “first superhero,” which should look good on a poster—as directors as varied as Federico Fellini and Mimi Leder and stars such as Jonathan Rhys Meyers and Hayden Christensen all made various failed attempts. (Though Fellini, at least, managed to sort of work him into Intervista.)
In all that time, only a 1939 serial, a 1979 TV movie, and an abandoned 1950s TV pilot actually made it front of the cameras—a history of failure that would seem to suggest there’s something inherently difficult about translating the character to the screen, besides its increasing obscurity, all those endless, potentially silly illusions, and the fact that Mandrake is followed everywhere by an “African strongman” named Lothar, an element that only gets more uncomfortable with each passing year. Then again, none of those many abandoned projects over the decades had the heavily stylized, retro-futuristic Sherlock Holmes model that Warner Bros. is using as its template, naturally. Nor did they have its determination to will a supernatural franchise to replace Harry Potter into being by similarly gesturing hypnotically, and creating the illusion that this is suddenly a viable idea.