In recent years Marvel and DC have been the more prominent comic companies to have their stories and heroes adapted to the big screen. There have been some alternative comic book movie adaptions such as Kick Ass, Watchmen, Sin City and so on, that gave comic book films a different style. Some are great, some are terrible, and some are just for the fans of that comic. This was all more recent though, as the only superheroes to really get their own films earlier on were the top stars like Superman, Batman, Spider-man, the Incredible Hulk, and the X-men. Not many film studios would have given the chance for a lesser known comic book to get a shot at having its own film because studios usually think that a comic is not well known enough, isn’t with the times, or some other reason that fanboys usually disagree with. Even when studios did make films adapted from less popular comics, the results were usually horrible. Watch the 1994 version of The Fantastic Four if you need a good example of comic book movie disaster.
This brings me to The Shadow, a vigilante from the early pulp comics days, whose true identity was Lamont Cranston. The Shadow had psychic powers that could cloud the minds of many men, letting him manipulate them and also become invisible to them, only letting them see his shadow. The comics spawned radio dramas with Orson Welles as the main character, film serials, and finally the major motion picture released in 1994.
“Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows…”
Directed by Russell Mulcahy (Yes… the one who did that unspeakable sequel which I shall not name here.) and written by David Koepp who has worked on films such as Spider-Man, Jurassic Park and more recently, Angels and Demons. It stars Alec Baldwin as Lamont Cranston, Penelope Ann Miller as Margo Lane, the love interest who also has a psychic ability she isn’t fully aware of yet, and Ian McKellen as her father, a bumbling old scientist. John Lone plays Shiwan Khan, possibly one of my favorite comic book movie villains, the last surviving descendant of Genghis Khan. Shiwan has psychic powers that are more powerful than even those of the Shadow, both of them having been trained by the Tulku, a mysterious tibetan holy man with powers beyond understanding. Also in the film is Peter Boyle and Tim Curry, playing The Shadow’s personal driver and Shiwan Khan’s right hand man, respectively. They both offer some nice comic relief and seeing Curry play a slimy wannabe mad scientist with delusions of grandeur is fun.
The story is set in the early 20th century New York, with the typical plot of an old fashioned villain wanting to take over the world. In this case, Shiwan Khan plans to use a device similar to an atomic bomb to destroy New York and then conquer the rest of the world, just as Genghis Khan conquered most of the world long before him. Shiwan tries to get the Lamont Cranston to join him, knowing of Cranston’s dark past in Tibet where Cranston was known as Ying Ko, a cruel and powerful man who controlled the opium trade and savagely took over villages with his men. Cranston, who was turned from evil by The Tulku, rejects his offer and instead sets out to stop Shiwan for good. Earlier on in the film, Cranston meets Margo Lane and as he gets to know her he discovers her ability to read minds, although she does it obliviously and accidentally at first. He distances himself from her in fear of her finding out his true identity and more importantly his past. Eventually Margo joins Cranston and aids him in trying to stop Shiwan Khan.
The Shadow has his own headquarters, similar to the old school Batcave, known as “The Sanctum”
I really enjoy the look and style of The Shadow. It looks old fashioned and has some old fashioned dialogue which can be corny but I think is great. For example, when Cranston and Shiwan meet for the first time there is a great throwback to the product placements of the early radio dramas that the broadcasters would slip into the the character’s dialogue. Shiwan is boasting about how he wants to conquer the world, when he suddenly stops and compliments Cranston’s tie, asking where it was acquired. “Brooks Brothers” “Is that Midtown?” “45th and Madison-You… are a barbarian”. It’s fun seeing this sort of old fashioned comic book character interaction, and it doesn’t bash you over the head with it like in other old fashioned comic book films. The action isn’t too heavy but it’s spread around nicely and ends with a final confrontation very reminiscent of Bruce Lee’s fight in the mirrored room in Enter The Dragon. The music is another thing I also enjoyed, and it’s left me searching for somewhere I can buy a CD of the official soundtrack.
The special effects, for the time it was made, were done well and not overused. That’s another reason I really enjoy the film. Superhero films today usually have full CGI versions of the actor in action scenes and such, and that really puts a dent in my suspension of disbelief. It’s one of the reasons I’ll always love older comic book films, because the crew would have to be creative and imaginative, instead of just sitting behind a computer and just scanning actors into it to get CGI counterparts. The effect of Cranston’s transformation into the Shadow (his eyes change color, face gets creepier and nose gets larger), while cheaply done, is done in a way that reminds me of old horror films when Jekyll would turn into Hyde, or a man would become werewolf.
Aside from his psychic power, the Shadow was skilled at fighting and also wielded some very nice looking silver Colt handguns.
In the end, I find the movie to be fun and enjoyable. It’s a good film to just put in and watch when you’re in the mood for good old fashioned superhero stuff, and not the high tech CGI fests of today. It’s not The Dark Knight and it’s not Sin City, it’s its own thing and if you’re a fan of Tim Burton’s Batman, or Sam Raimi’s Darkman then you’ll most likely enjoy this.
Bit of Trivia: Sam Raimi wanted to make The Shadow, but they wouldn’t let him, so he came up with Darkman instead, and is it just me or does Cranston in his Shadow form look a lot like Liam Neeson behind the scarf?
Alton loves film. He is founder and Editor In Chief of BRWC. Some of the films he loves are Rear Window, Superman 2, The Man With The Two Brains, Clockwise, Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind, Trading Places, Stir Crazy and Punch-Drunk Love.