Magazine. The euphonious and literary versions of the character diverged; they were essentially two different
people who happened to share a lot of the same attributes. The 1994 film adaptation is founded on the radio and subsequent movie adaptations released at the character’s apex. (Cinematically, The Shadow had beforehand been relegated to low-budget serial adventures.) The character we see in the '90s feature, played by a winking Alec Baldwin, is Lamont Cranston, a decadent New York City playboy who moonlights as the title vigilante. He has extensive training in hand-to-hand combat; he can also hypnotize people and read their minds, and render himself invisible. Like a shark who smells blood from afar, the Shadow also seems to instinctively know when trouble is amok. In his disguise, he wears a visage-obscuring black hat and a vampiric cloak. His mouth is covered by a parrot-red handkerchief; a pointy fake nose hangs over it.
As The Shadow opens, Cranston has not yet become the enigmatic anti-hero. It’s a little after World War I, and Cranston has subversively taken on the role of a villain. He’s living in Tibet, and has established himself there, for reasons unclear, as an influential and ruthless drug kingpin. Wanting to look the part, he wears flowing silk robes, has long, purple-painted fingernails, and shoulder-length, greasy hair. It's a sharp, culturally appropriative contrast from the clean all-American toniness for which Cranston is otherwise known. Quickly into The Shadow, though, Cranston is pretty much mandatorily reformed by a holy man named Tulku, who implores Cranston to forgo his immoral alter ego for a more conventionally heroic one. Seven years pass. Then Cranston, reborn, moves back to his hometown, as if nothing has changed.
The narrative of the movie is simplistic, and is eventually
worn thin. The overlong film (at almost two hours) involves Cranston duking it out with a sly descendent of Genghis Khan named Shiwan (John Lone), who arrives in the city hellbent on the sort of world domination only sought after in comic strips. Shiwan and Cranston, though at odds, have a fascinating relationship — so respectful of the other person’s capabilities that an otherwise confrontational
exchange cannot pass without at least one earnest compliment of the other. Another knot is thrown into the plot when a romantic connection forms between Cranston and a Jean Harlow-looking socialite named Margo (Penelope Ann Miller), who, unbeknownst to either person until it’s too late, has psychic powers. (Margo, who says she’s only been able to read the thoughts of only one other person in her life, could discover the identity Cranston so laboriously works to hide.)
All this could be packaged economically, in the scope of one of the snack-sized Shadow-centric movie serials of the 1940s. But the film’s director, Russell Mulcahy, incongruously treats this all as if the stakes were higher than they are and warranted a lengthy, almost epic
treatment. The feature feels longer than it is because it’s working with a plot that would better fill up space on a standard-length two-part episode of a television procedural. The Shadow starts to feel fattish by the time it gets to its big stomach of a middle act. But on the plus side its visual splendor — a beautiful olio of ‘30s-style matte paintings, dazzlingly inflated art-deco design, high-glam costumes, noirish lighting — is limitless. The film’s look, which is at its peak during by a climactic homage to The Lady of Shanghai’s (1947) mirror sequence, is enough to my eye to help gloss over the film’s shortcomings. But I’m acutely aware that my love of its aesthetics might not be universally shared, and that for many a movie being prettier to look at than experience isn't all that appealing.
he Shadow character was born on the radio in the summer of 1930. Less than a year later, he would get his own print saga via “The Living Shadow,” a long-form pulp story published in, cheekily, The Shadow
budgeted comic-strip capers continued to be greenlit because of a stubborn commitment to a pleasurable idea on the part of nostalgic middle-aged executives. Finally, what they liked as children seemed viable to recreate in spades for a new generation. But it’s more probable, to borrow the positing of the writer Tom Breihan, who recently wrote an astute series of columns on the modern superhero film’s evolution, that that was a small component of a larger story. “The Indiana Jones movies had, of course, been huge hits, uniting generations in their giddy, exuberant old-school adventure yarns,” Breihan wrote. "And the Batman movies, both those from Tim Burton and Joel Schumacher, were big hits.” If studios continued to keep rejiggering a formula that had worked a few times before, millions of dollars notwithstanding, inevitably they’d have to strike gold at some point, right?
Gold, famously, was never exactly struck. Still, this unofficial series, which would have undoubtedly fared worse if released in the 21st century, is valuable for a couple of reasons. It was necessary, functioning basically as an experiment, to help get to where we are today with the superhero film, for better and for worse. And the movies encompassing this series also collectively work as an encapsulation of an arguably bygone period where would-be blockbuster films were so obsessed with their presentation that even if their storylines were lackluster, at least they were very fun to stare at and temporarily live inside.
Dick Tracy is a cartoonish, art deco masterpiece — one of the best-looking movies I’ve ever seen. The Rocketeer is an underappreciated love letter to the adventure yarns of the Hollywood Golden Age. Both opinions are fairly common.
But reception to the other features in the comic-strip succession, The Shadow and The Phantom, is not as streamlined. Their shoddy box-office grosses and ambivalent critical responses led to canceled pre-planned sequels and basically an asphyxiation of the comic-strip boom.
Given their cultural vilification, one expects them to be flagrantly bad. But like their spiritual forebears, The Shadow and The Phantom are unexpectedly worthwhile: photographic masterpieces in the first place; otherwise
amusing one-off adventures. Their most agitating characteristic is shared: vexing racial politics, which, not atypical for comic lore, embody the aggravating trope of an in-training white hero “immersing” himself in either an Asian or African culture, gathering what he needs from it (which is usually an informal education from an arcane
“master” of some sort), and then leaving it behind as easily as he would a rented jacket. The culture itself is fetishistically, stereotypically depicted; people of color in these adaptations are often though not always characterized with the same limitedness of a cartoon mystic. (This is more so a problem with The Shadow; The Phantom works to sidestep the issue.)
the successes of the retro-looking Batman films helmed by Tim Burton and Joel Schumacher, studio executives looked not at Batman’s immediate peers, from Superman to Aquaman, for material but rather at the mostly forgotten caped crusaders at the center of 1930s and '40s comic strips and radio shows. The trend began with Dick Tracy, Warren Beatty’s wonderful passion project from 1990 that did pretty well at the box office and with critics. Then it would continue with 1991’s The Rocketeer, 1994’s The Shadow, and then, finally, with 1996’s The Phantom. All were visually stunning pastiches, and, to varying degrees, also efficiently evoked the feelings one gets reading pulp fiction. Aside from Dick Tracy, though, none of these features made money or a lasting impression en masse.
A romantic might first infer that these big-
he comic-book movie is to the late-2000s and 2010s as the comic-strip movie is to the early-to-mid-1990s. Putatively trying to keep in stride with
On the two movies that put a halt to the comic-strip movie boom of the early-to-mid-1990s
The Shadow & The Phantom, Reviewed
April 14, 2020
Alec Baldwin in 1994's The Shadow.
budgeted imitation B movie. Unlike its progenitors, there are no moments, to my eye, where the feature especially sags; it sails by, just as if we were a child hungrily thumbing through a comic. Like The Shadow, The Phantom centers on a disguised fictional vigilante who was at his most culturally influential in the 1930s. (Before creator Lee Falk introduced the character in a 1936 strip, which still runs today, he had in mind figures like Tarzan, Zorro, and Mowgli from The Jungle Book; the white-dude-goes-to-Africa component of the original story is dropped in the feature.)
The movie’s storyline merges the plots of three original The Phantom entreés: “The Sky Band,” “The Belt,” and “The Singh Brotherhood.” In the film, the title character, who by day is unsurprisingly a playboy (we know him as Kit Walker when he's not donning a mask), is played by Billy Zane with a just-right combination of sincere all-American-styled
heroism and in-on-the-joke wit. (Certainly a departure from the character for which Zane is best known: the insufferably smug villain of 1997’s Titanic.)
Set in 1938, the film watches as Walker, with the help of his game-for-anything ex-girlfriend Diana (Kristy Swanson, before she really got in her Republican bag), works to stop the hyperbolically corrupt businessman Xander Drax (Treat Williams) from getting his hands on a trio of magical skulls that, when together, can give a person a superhero-movie sort of annihilative power. A lot of the action unfolds in the confines of a gorgeously rendered Rogers-and-Astaire-musical vision of New York City. More of it unfurls on an uncharted, Andaman Sea-surrounded island, known colloquially as the Devil’s Vortex. There, logistically insane action sequences take place. In one of them, Walker’s horse and pet wolf, apparently able to communicate through some unspecified animal language, shadow Walker’s plane through the jungles as it’s traveling opposite a gaggle of villains. Just before the aircraft crash-lands and explodes, Walker and the in-tow Diana safely leap onto the back of said horse.
Most of The Phantom is absurd, albeit in a comfortingly ridiculous, comic-strip way. Logic isn't a requirement in it.
Walker reveals that the Phantom persona is actually one passed from father to son; he is the 21st in line. The movie doesn’t mull over what would happen if an heir understandably preferred to pursue a different line of work, or whether a daughter is excluded from the selection process. Henchwoman character Sala, who is played by a delightfully hammy Catherine Zeta-Jones, spends most of the feature vamping it up and stirring up shit at Drax’s beck and call. Then, suddenly, she switches sides for no discernible reason. (We gather it either has to do with the fact that Diana at one point calls her mean, which then prompts a fit of overdue retrospection, or some pent up attachment to Walker the movie would prefer to not get into.) Walker often gets advice from the ghost of his father; when in public places, nobody questions why Walker is talking with himself. It’s OK that Drax is so exaggeratedly evil without any clear-cut motivations. Though I suppose his thin characterization is in line with the comic-strip ethos, and how it takes care of its bad guys: I look like this; therefore, I am this.
Of all the comic-strip-film ensembles, the motley crew of The Phantom seems to be having the most fun, which in turn boosts the movie’s ability to engage us. Zane’s line delivery and go-for-broke physicality assure us that he’s excited to be playing this generationally beloved character. Swanson tangibly relishes recreating the spunk of a Katharine Hepburn type; her enthusiasm makes up for the fact that someone more convincingly razor-edged would have likely been better in the role. You can especially detect the enjoyment in Zeta-Jones and Williams. The former is practically licking her lips in this Catwoman-like part; the latter, despite having a reedy, at-times thin voice that undermines the outsized malevolence key to this character, has the gusto of an actor who would say in an interview that he loves to play villains the most.
he Phantom failed more dramatically theatrically than its predecessors. Such isn't a reflection of quality: it’s the film that, of them all, best keeps intact the breezy, low-stakes splashiness required of an amply
imprint? What if their anachronistic approaches caught on? High-concept pulp fiction would not necessarily go away, or never see success in Hollywood — just look at the career of Robert Rodriguez, who, in 1996, was just years away from launching the Spy Kids and Sin City franchises. (This isn’t to say these franchises were holistically successful, though.)
Still, after the successive crescendoed fizzling of The Shadow and The Phantom, a movie-executive fascination with superheroes of yore would irrevocably peter out. This was probably for the better. If alternately successful and then produced at a rate the DC/Marvel movies are now, the novelty of these films would nearly immediately give way for fatigue. It is unfortunate, though, that the comic-strip blockbuster experiments of the 1990s be so impeded by their reputations. However ill-advised they were, they remain inspired and imaginative.
The Shadow: B-
The Phantom: B+
oth The Shadow and The Phantom were supposed to get follow-ups; this obviously didn’t happen. What might the then-incoming onslaught of superhero mania have looked like had these movies left a lasting