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‘The Shadow’ 25 Years Later, or What the MCU Could Learn from a Box Office Flop

The Shadow
Universal Pictures

Thirty years ago, Tim Burton’s Batman entered theaters, absolutely dominating the box office of 1989 and creating Batmania, a jubilee year dedicated to all things Batman. I’m pretty sure this was enshrined in law. Burton’s Batman was more than just a movie; it was a cultural powerhouse that’s nearly impossible to recreate in our culturally fragmented world of the twenty-first century. You couldn’t throw a rock into a crowd that year without hitting someone wearing a t-shirt with the Batman symbol. Better Batman movies have been made, but it’s safe to say that none have had the same sort of cultural heft as Burton’s.

But this article isn’t about Tim Burton’s Batman. This article is about The Shadow. Released five years after Batman, The Shadow is one of several movies released in the 90s based off or directly inspired by pulp heroes of the 1930s (see: Dick Tracy, The Rocketeer, and The Phantom). With the exception of Dick Tracy, which was in production before Batman was unleashed on the world, these films seem like attempts to tap into the excitement and box office of the Dark Knight. And again with the exception of Dick Tracy, they struggled at the box office. (The trend of attempting and failing to revive pulp heroes of yore continued into the 21st century with John Carter and The Lone Ranger, both of which are far better than their reputations would have you believe).

Of these four movies, The Shadow seems like it had the best shot at riding the Bat’s cape to box office success, but it barely made more than its production costs at the box office, and I can’t imagine the toys were all that successful either. And while today the character and film struggle to maintain a grip on the public consciousness, in our superhero saturated world, I still think it’s worth revisiting The Shadow to see a different model of the superhero genre, one that’s a little old fashioned and a bit odd. 

Who Knows What Evil Lurks in the Hearts of Men?

The Shadow was a superhero before there were superheroes. 

The Shadow actually predates Batman by a number of years. Where Batman jumped onto the pages of Detective Comics in 1939, The Shadow got his start in radio in the year 1930 as the mysterious narrator of the show Detective Story Hour, so basically he was a less punny Crypt Keeper. By 1931, the Shadow became popular enough to star in a series of pulp novels written by Walter B. Gibson who would go on to pen hundreds of such adventures. 

But the most famous iteration of the Shadow is likely the version that starred in his own radio show towards the end of the decade. Voiced by none other than a talented young twenty-two old upstart by the name of Orson Welles, the Shadow solved mysteries with his Platonic partner, Margo Lane (initially voiced by Agnes Moorehead who would go on to act in both Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Andersons). Welles starred as the Shadow for a little over a year, but it’s a wonderful performance that any Wellesiac should check out if only to see how this master of so many trades seamlessly slid between high and low art. Although the character of the Shadow is mostly presented as a good guy unambiguously fighting evildoers, Welles’s performance gives him layers of darkness that not all subsequent voice actors were capable of matching. 

Like a lot of pulp heroes, the Shadow didn’t emerge fully formed. He’s a collaborative creation — the pulp novels gave him a look and some background information while the radio stories gave him a sidekick in the form of Margo Lane and the ability to turn invisible. The radio program would pump out new episodes until the mid-fifties. It seems even the Shadow couldn’t stand up to the medium of television.

1994’s The Shadow wasn’t even the first time the character made it to the big screen. He showed up in a couple of movies and a serial in the thirties and forties. He’s appeared in comic strips and comic books. There was a time when the Shadow could sneak his way into just about any medium. 

But I don’t think that the Shadow was a hot commodity in the mid-nineties, and I can only imagine that the idea of making a film based on the character arose from some older Hollywood executive’s nostalgia. Even screenwriter David Koepp knew the character, not from its original heyday, but because he listened to reruns as a kid long after they stopped making new episodes. Before The Shadow Koepp was coming off an impressive winning streak with Death Becomes Her, Jurassic Park, Carlito’s Way, and The Paper. I’m sure the box office of The Shadow must have been disappointing, even if the actual film has plenty to offer fans of movies, superheroes, and art deco set designs.

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The Weed of Crime Bears Bitter Fruit

When The Shadow opens we don’t begin in Gotham, Metropolis, or New York City. We begin in the poppy fields of Mongolia where Lamont Cranston, played by Alec Baldwin with long hair and overgrown fingernails, oversees his crime empire from the heart of an opium den. Going by the name Yin-Ko, Lamont Cranston reveals himself as a pretty bad guy, haphazardly executing a rival opium dealer even as the man begs for his life. But despite, or perhaps because, Cranston’s so uncompromisingly vile, Tibetan Buddhists abduct Cranston and present him to the Tulku. The Tulku knows who Cranston really is and offers him redemption if he’s willing to train under his tutelage. At first, Cranston refuses, and the Tulku unleashes a Phurba, a mystical knife with a handle topped by a snarling, sharp-toothed demonic head that floats and stabs at Cranston.

Of course, Cranston relents and trains under the Tulka who teaches him how to “cloud men’s minds” and turn invisible. To fight evil and earn some redemption he returns to New York to fight crime as the Shadow. This entire origin story occurs in just under ten minutes, a refreshing change from more contemporary superhero films that take up their entire run-time trying to get the main character from Mr. Everyjoe to Mr. Fantastic. 

By the time we jump to New York City, The Shadow is a fully formed entity, stopping a couple of gangsters from tossing a scientist wearing a pair of cement shoes off a bridge. After quickly dispensing with the gangsters, The Shadow, in a delightfully pulpy detail, frees the victim by simply shooting the cement off his feet. 

Like many of those saved by The Shadow, the scientist, Dr. Roy Tam (Sab Shimono), now becomes an agent of The Shadow. And this recruitment practice — the belief that “I saved your life…It now belongs to me” — separates The Shadow from other superheroes. This network of eyes, ears, and allies feels like a throwback to pulp stories of yore, pulling from the Baker Street Irregulars, Sherlock’s army of street urchins. Each agent of The Shadow gets a secret call and response code to memorize and a special ring. You could imagine winning a facsimile of one of these rings from a radio contest or finding one in the bottom of a Crackerjack box.

Befitting a character who seems to perpetually exist in the decade before World War II, The Shadow gets around by cab, driven by his trusty agent Moe Shrevnitz, or Shrevvy, (Peter Boyle) who also was once saved by The Shadow and now knows the recruitment speech so well he can mouth the words as they’re said. 

The most important character besides The Shadow is of course Margo Lane (Penelope Ann Miller), who on the radio program served as both The Shadow’s Robin and Lois Lane. She was someone Lamont could bounce ideas off of and a credible hostage for the third act. The movie smartly makes her more active here, giving her telepathic abilities. Lamont is naturally drawn to her, but he’s also wary that her abilities could reveal his secret identity. 

Lane’s father, Reinhardt, is played by none other than a pre-Lord of the Rings Ian McKellan. The movie is cornucopia of “That guy!” character actors. In addition to McKellan and Boyle as Shrevvy, you’ve got Tim Curry, Jonathan Winters, James Hong, and Patrick Fischler. Even Alec Baldwin turned out to be a strong character actor who everyone mistook for a leading man for a few years.

For the villain, the screenwriters chose Shiwan Khan (John Lone), the great descendant of Genghis Khan, who plans to, of course, take over the world, starting with New York City. Shiwan Khan oversees a small army of Mongol warriors decked out in metal armor, which serves as a wonderful contrast with “modern” New York. Visually, the movie splits itself between clean lines of art deco and ornate oriental patterns. In a pretty cool overhead shot, we see an oriental rug that starts to move until it becomes clear that it’s actually Shiwan Khan whose clothing matches the pattern on the floor exactly.

Khan’s a fun villain who can both be ruthless and charming. He spends much of his time in New York causing havoc, forcing a museum guard to kill himself, making a cab driver drive into a tanker truck filled with petroleum, and convincing a sailor to dive off the Empire State Building. As villainous as he can be, Khan’s first encounter with Cranston is pure fun, playing off Lone’s charisma and Baldwin’s comedic timing. In the middle of his villainous speech, Khan compliments Cranston’s “lovely tie” and asks where he got it. 

“Brooks Brothers,” Cranston replies. 

“Is that Midtown?” 

“45th and Madison,” Cranston politely specifies before deadpanning, “You are a barbarian.” 

I’m pleased to report that when the two meet again, Khan is wearing a suit and Cranston compliments him on the tie. The two have a rapport, and it’s almost a shame that they really only have these two scenes where they bounce dialogue off one another, although almost to make it up to the audience the second encounter ends with Cranston and Khan shooting at each other only to have the bullets collide midair, both amazed at the coincidence. In my fantasy sequel, Kahn and Cranston must team up and take on an even greater threat. Call me, Hollywood.

The Shadow never takes itself too seriously and the dangers never seem all that dangerous. The action is of the running around and punching people variety, nothing that requires much of a stunt department. But the film has a style that few modern superhero films match. When the Shadow shoots villains with his handguns, they fly across the room, naturally. In an inspired scene, The Shadow emerges from his own shadow after being hit with a couple of arrows. Aside from the wonderful set design, the movie is filled with fog and billowing drapes, hinting at director Russell Mulcahy’s past experience making music videos in the 80s. He even uses a couple of split diopter shots. And the film ends in a variation on the Lady from Shanghai hall of mirrors sequence that doesn’t quite make geographical sense, but it looks cool.

Several times throughout the film, telepathy is symbolized by the camera speeding through the skyscrapers of 1930s New York. We see this same technique used in perhaps my favorite shot in the film: We follow a message barreling through a series of pneumatic tubes in and along New York buildings until it arrives at its final destination, which happens to be an agent of The Shadow surrounded by other tubes the lead to other parts of the city. If nothing else, The Shadow confirms my long-held belief that pneumatic tubes are the coolest means to convey information (sorry messages tucked into an old rum bottle). 

I wouldn’t call The Shadow a lost classic. It isn’t as good as say The Rocketeer, which managed to do the whole 30s pulp hero movie nearly perfectly a few years earlier. And it’s not as good as Dick Tracy, which played up the four-color world of comic strips beautifully, but the film has its own charm. At times the film is a bit creaky and the humor is occasionally cornball, but it also gets so much right that it deserves a second look.

What Today’s Superhero Movies Can Learn from The Shadow

Like Chet Baker, The Shadow is old-fashioned, which might account for its box office failure. The film cobbles together elements from yesteryear, but I’d argue that these pulp signifiers — esoteric mysticism, networks of intelligence agents, gangsters using the ol’ cement shoes trick — both make the film feel like a purposeful throwback and make the movie refreshing twenty-five years later. Superhero movies have largely abandoned these pulpy, and often goofy, elements, so it’s plenty of fun when they actually show up in the film.

The Shadow is also relatively short, especially compared to the current crop of superhero movies. Consider the fact the Avengers: Endgame runs three hours and is basically a direct continuation of the previous movie, which breaks two and a half hours. Compared to Thanos’s goal of exterminating half of the universe’s population, Shiwan Khan’s plan to simply blow up New York City seems quaint. 

While the MCU hasn’t completely given up on smaller-scale superheroing (which is why the Ant-Man and Spider-Man movies feel like breaths of fresh air), even these less grandiose movies could use some trimming and a third act that doesn’t threaten to topple the entire film, a perpetual problem with so many blockbusters in the 21st century. 

And would it kill for these movies to add a bit more visual panache? The restrictions of the MCU house style might have contributed to the popularity of those films, providing a base level of continuity, but they also straightjacket individual filmmakers. 

Rewatching The Shadow for the first time in a couple of decades, though, the score first caught my attention. Over the course of a decade, Marvel’s movies have struggled to develop memorable melodies, instead opting to use music as wallpaper. Outside of the pop music in Guardians of the Galaxy, the most instantly recognizable music cue in the MCU is likely the main theme to The Avengers. But Jerry Goldsmith’s score for The Shadow is big, creepy, and instantly recognizable. It sets the tone for the rest of the film, which splices mysticism into your traditional story of a millionaire dressing up at night to fight crime. 

I’m firmly of the opinion that the modern superhero film could learn a thing or two from its forebears, and there are lessons to take away from The Shadow. If nothing else, maybe the MCU can come up with a second film score half as good as Goldsmith’s theme for The Shadow.


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3 Responses

  1. brendans2911 says:

    Excellent blog! Brings to mind a similar theme Scorcese recently wrote about but your article is completely original, and makes me consider the state of the industry and also makes me want to see the film. Thank you.

  2. GREAT blog!!! As a boy, my dad introduced me to tapes of old radio shows, and the Shadow never disappointed. I was a big fan of this film, and really wish that it had been a bigger success! It’s a great character and like Batman, had the potential for sequels. What a shame it was a flop.

  3. Nick Kush says:

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