Before Batman, there was The Shadow. Has Russell Mulcahy’s period superhero romp stood the test of time?
Before Batman picked up his cape and cowl, The Shadow was the ultimate vigilante. Originally appearing in pulp 30s magazines and later a radio serial starring Orson Welles, the character would become an undeniable influence on the Caped Crusader, yet he largely fell into obscurity himself when DC and Marvel went on to dominate the market. He has appeared in several comic books over the last few decades, including a 2012 revamp by Garth Ennis, but most will remember him best – if they remember him at all – from this 1994 motion picture. It was critically panned by many at the time and didn’t become a hit for Universal, but I find The Shadow to be one of the most underrated superhero films out there, and one of the finer entries in what is now a subgenre of period-specific comic book flicks.
The wealthy Lamont Cranston (Alec Baldwin) is a man with a shady past. Somewhere in Tibet after the First World War, Cranston has fallen into the darker recesses of his soul and becomes a barbaric warlord. After being abducted by priests of the powerful Tulku, he is shown the error of his ways and learns how to “cloud men’s minds,” a form of hypnosis that allows him to control people’s thoughts and perceptions. Seven years later, he returns to his native New York to right wrongs as The Shadow. But his skills are put to the test when the villainous Shiwan Khan (John Lone) arrives in a coffin at the city museum. Shiwan also has the ability to control people’s minds, and plans to destroy Manhattan with an atomic bomb. What’s an anti-hero to do?
It occurs to me that the world wasn’t ready for The Shadow when it was released. Now we have hits like X-Men: First Class and Captain America: The First Avenger, the period comic book film seems like a sure bet. The Shadow was one of three such projects in the 90s that failed to interest audiences, including The Rocketeer (1993) and The Phantom (1996). I enjoy all three quite shamelessly, although the latter is without a doubt a guilty pleasure. The Shadow is second best to Joe Johnston’s Rocketeer (a film that got him the job directing the aforementioned First Avenger), but that isn’t a knock against Cranston’s first (and so far last) screen appearance. This film plays like a weird hybrid of Raiders of the Lost Ark and Tim Burton’s Batman. I don’t know about you, but that’s my kind of movie.
As directed by Highlander‘s Russell Mulcahy, The Shadow really revels in its throwback universe. What I love about these pulp settings is the fact that it allows for all the hyperbolic gunplay, explosions and vast cityscapes you expect from this stuff, but is also set so far back in history that it takes on a level of fantasy that is really appealing. Plus, I totally dig old-school detective stories and Film Noir; you almost need a love of these tropes to fully appreciate it. Mulcahy shakes the elements around and pours them into an intoxicating blend of top-level cinematography and enjoyable plot twists. Some call it cheesy, but I call it accurate to the source material.
What was most surprising on my revisit, however, is how much this movie mirrors Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins (2005). Cranston learns the rules of the game via an Oriental master before returning home to fight crime in New York – the prototypical Gotham – as a rich crusader. The Shadow’s reveal is also similar to the Dark Knight’s in that movie. On the Brooklyn Bridge, Cranston interrupts some mobsters trying to dispose of a timid doctor. His booming voice surrounds them, intimidating the crooks and raising the tension until he moves in to attack. His visage is also uncannily close to the magazine covers that created him, although, humorously, the facial prosthetics make Alec Baldwin look more like William Baldwin. If there’s one thing that separates The Shadow from Batman here, it’s the fact that he begins his intimidation with a maniacal laugh. There’s a touch of The Joker about this most intriguing of crime-fighters.
Mulcahy has great confidence in peeling back the layers of The Shadow’s world, which feels satisfyingly complete. He works in tandem with hundreds of agents across the city – many of whom owe him their lives – including his personal taxi service, Moe (the late and sorely missed Peter Boyle). Cranston even has a secret hideout with a delightfully intricate entrance that brings to mind Bruce Wayne’s wonderful toys. Even if you don’t buy into the character himself, you buy into the world Mulcahy has painstakingly built. If you’re a fan of cinematic style, and I most certainly am, The Shadow will scratch your itch. Production design, lighting and CGI effects are fantastic for a film of its age and budget (a relatively modest $40 million). If all that wasn’t enough, it has a typically majestic score by Jerry Goldsmith, which must rank among his most overlooked works.
The characterisation is also fantastic. It goes without saying that Baldwin is a fine actor, and his increasingly rare lead performance here is perhaps as unappreciated as the film. As the millionaire, he is effortlessly debonair. As the haunting Shadow, he treads the line wonderfully between hammy and creepy, fully embracing the character’s pulpy roots and darker undercurrents. This is a man who slaughtered people on the battlefield to sate his own blood-lust, and behind Baldwin’s charm is something quietly sinister. Screenwriter David Koepp (Jurassic Park) wisely parallels the anti-hero with the villain. Lone overacts to an appreciable degree as Khan, but Mulcahy makes the most of the contrasting stars, summed up elegantly in a nightmare sequence where Cranston rips off his own flesh to reveal Shiwan’s face beneath. The antagonist keeps our hero on his toes throughout, even breaking into Shadow HQ mere moments after entering the picture. The two adversaries are perfectly matched, and how often can you say that in a superhero film?
Performances are fair to great across the board. There’s some obligatory eye candy from Penelope Ann Miller as the telepathic Margot Lane, some well-played comedy by Ian McKellen as her scientist father, and Tim Curry showing us what he might have done with The Joker in Batman: The Animated Series as the cackling Farley Claymore. Film buffs will be in heaven with this ensemble.
Ultimately, however, The Shadow stands as the greatest work from the underrated music video prodigy Mulcahy. The Australian started out with killer-pig-in-Oz thriller Razorback before reaching fame with Highlander. The latter is his most famous work but unjustly so in my opinion. If The Shadow hadn’t underperformed, his career might have turned out very differently, depriving him of the chance to work on more prestigious projects. His muted return to bigger budget filmmaking with the disagreeable Resident Evil: Extinction (2007) at least gives us the hope that he lands another gem soon. Based on this twenty-two-year effort, he certainly deserves the opportunity.
I saw The Shadow at the cinema when I was nine-years-old, and to this day I have no idea why it is so frowned upon. The film’s 5.7 score on IMDb is an absolute travesty. This is a sumptuously-shot superhero outing that does justice to the character’s sizeable legacy whilst having some fun with the genre. In an era when these films dominate the box office, Mulcahy’s picture happens to be greater than many of them… it just might not be your particular cup of tea. Although “the weed of crime bears bitter fruit,” as Cranston tells us, some of it wouldn’t hurt when watching this. Fingers crossed that Sam Raimi can get his long-touted reboot going so that, one day, The Shadow can rise again…
- The Shadow (originally played by James La Curto, and then famously by Frank Readick) made his debut on radio in 1931, as the third-person narrator of mystery stories on Street & Smith’s Detective Story Hour. When fans of the show wrote in asking for adventures starring The Shadow himself, Street & Smith hired Walter Gibson, a magician and former ghost writer for Harry Houdini, to write a monthly series of pulp mystery novels. The Shadow Magazine ran until 1949, and was the most successful pulp series ever. Beginning in 1937, The Shadow starred in his own radio show, originally featuring Orson Welles as Lamont Cranston and Agnes Moorehead as Margo Lane. Other actors later played The Shadow on the radio show, which ran until 1955.
- The movie Shadow character is a combination of the radio show and the pulp magazine versions. The elements from the radio show are his ability to be become invisible, the appearance of Margo Lane and the establishment of Lamont Cranston as the Shadow’s actual civilian identity. The pulp magazine elements include his costume, his network of agents at his disposal and his twin automatic pistols.
- During the mid-1970s, DC Comics published an “atmospheric interpretation” of the character by writer Dennis O’Neil and artist Michael Kaluta in a 12-issue series. The Shadow also appeared in Batman #253 (Nov. 1973), in which the Dark Knight teams with an aging Shadow and calls the famous crime fighter his “greatest inspiration.”
- The scene in which The Shadow rescues Dr. Roy Tam on the bridge is taken from the opening of The Living Shadow, the very first Shadow novel, in which The Shadow saves a man from suicide on the Brooklyn Bridge.
- The silver coffin of Temujin is from The Masters of Death, the fourth Shadow pulp story to deal with Shiwan Khan, while the cigarette billboard that broadcasts Khan’s commands comes from The Golden Master.