In 1995, Marvel Comics created “National Superhero Day” and, in the process, provided comics and superhero fans the world over with a great excuse to celebrate their favourite characters and publications.
Released: 1 July 1994
Director: Russell Mulcahy
Distributor: Universal Pictures
Budget: $40 million
Stars: Alec Baldwin, John Lone, Penelope Ann Miller, Tim Curry, Peter Boyle, and Ian McKellen
Having terrorised Tibet as a ruthless kingpin, wealthy aristocrat Lamont Cranston (Baldwin) is given the chance at redemption and learns the ancient art of clouding men’s minds to operate as a mysterious, duel-pistol-wielding vigilante known as “The Shadow”. However, the Shadow must use all of his skills and vast network of allies and informants to oppose Shiwan Khan (Lone), the last descendant of Genghis Khan and Cranston’s equal in the art darks, when he awakens and sets about threatening New York City with an atomic bomb.
One of the original pulp vigilantes of the 1930, and the inspiration for one of comic book’s most popular characters, the Shadow first appeared as the mysterious narrator of the Detective Story Hour before graduating to a series of self-titled pulp novels in 1931, which were written by Walter B. Gibson. Over the years, the Shadow’s abilities were changed many times and he assumed a number of different identities, as well as irregularly appearing in both Marvel and DC Comics. Still, the pulp hero is pretty obscure compared to his successors and yet, in 1982, producer Martin Bregman bought the rights to the character and David Koepp was hired to pen the script. Working hard to craft a story about guilt and atonement, Koepp wrote with star Alec Baldwin specifically in mind for the character and, though the film would naturally employ both practical and computer-generated effects to bring the pulp character to life, director Russell Mulcahy stressed that it was to remain very much a character-driven production. Considering the success of Tim Burton’s Batman movies (ibid, 1989; 1992), Universal Pictures were banking on The Shadow being a big success; unfortunately, it grossed a measly $48 million at the box office and was (unfairly, in my opinion) torn apart by critics and reviewers.
One thing that separates the Shadow from his more well-known counterpart is the fact that Lamont Cranston begins his film as a vile and despicable drug baron; having lost himself completely to the darkness and taken the name Yin Ko, Cranston resembles little more than a twisted, merciless warlord who kills friend and foe alike to maintain his untouchable position of power. His fortunes change, however, when the Tulku (Brady Tsurutani) has him brought to his grandiose temple and, sensing that a good man dwells deep beneath Cranston’s darkness, offers him the chance at redemption under his tutelage. Cranston, of course, angrily refuses but the Tulku basically forces him to turn the evil he has done against those who would harm others and, impressed by the Tulku’s ability to shield his palace from “clouded minds” and control a vicious little knife called Phurba (Frank Welker), Cranston submits to the Tulku’s teachings.
Rather than see Cranston learning how to cloud the minds of men (and thus leave behind the one thing he cannot hide, this shadow) over the course of a montage, the film gives us the short story through some scrolling text and jumps ahead seven years, and halfway around the world, to Cranston’s home, New York City. There, he saves Doctor Roy Tam (Sab Shimono) from a group of mobsters in his guise as the cloaked and shrouded “Shadow”. Thanks to the Tulko’s teaching, Cranston is able to appear completely invisible and omnipresent to those around him through sheer force of will and this, as well as his impressive hand-to-hand combat abilities and dual pistols, allows him to strike fear into the hearts of even the most hardened criminals. Those he saves, such as Tam and his faithful driver, Moses “Moe” Shrevnitz (Boyle), become his agents and help him by feeding him information or providing him with resources and tools to fight crime more efficiently, effectively allowing him to know, through and through, what is happening all over town.
When he’s not strong-arming criminals into confessing to their evil deeds, the Shadow operates as a distracted and nonchalant wealthy socialite. Much to the chagrin of his uncle, police commissioner Wainwright Barth (Jonathan Winters), Cranston is constantly late for every little engagement and seems to have no hobbies or interests. Wainwright is kept from suspecting his nephew of his double life, and from assigning a task force to hunting down the Shadow, by Cranston’s ability to convince (basically hypnotise) him to ignore all reports of the Shadow. Cranston’s attentions are aroused (as is the rest of him…) when he spots Margot Lane (Miller) in his favourite social spot, the Cobalt Club, and the two immediately hit it off through their shared psychic abilities. Cranston is perturbed, however, when Margot picks up vague hints of his past purely by accident and even further concerned when she proves to be completely immune to his hypnotic powers.
When Shiwan Khan has himself transported to America, he immediately sets about using his powers of manipulation to continue the conquest begun by his ancestor; maniacal in his ambition, Khan desires nothing more than to rule the entire world and, quickly acclimatising himself to American society, sees the perfect means to achieve this goal by mesmerising Margot’s father, eccentric scientist Doctor Reinhardt Lane (McKellen), into twisting his peaceful energy research towards the construction of an atomic bomb. Khan is, in essence, the manifestation of Cranston’s dark past; full of ego, self-entitlement, and bloodlust, Khan delights in using his powers to force others to sacrifice themselves to his power or to do his bidding as little more than mindless puppets (such as Reinhardt’s assistant, the slimy and detestable Farley Claymore (Curry)).
Admiring Cranston’s path of destruction as Yin Ko, Shiwan Khan initially proposes an alliance between the two; however, having committed himself to the fight against evil thanks to the Tulku’s teachings, Cranston vows to oppose him with all his power and is only further motivated when Khan reveals that he murdered the Tulku (and claimed Phurba as his own) after rejecting his attempts to turn him. What follows is an intricate game of cat and mouse as Cranston uses all of his resources to try and track Khan down, discovering that he has hypnotised the entire city in the process, while Khan uses his powers to hypnotise Margot into trying to kill the Shadow. This, of course, causes her to try and kill Cranston, thereby revealing his dual identity to her but, rather than forget about him as he initially demands, she stubbornly refuses to leave her father to be used by such a madman and proves an invaluable resource in Cranston’s efforts to locate the would-be-dictator’s fortress (to say nothing of saving him from drowning to death).
One thing that’s always stuck with me about The Shadow is Jerry Goldsmith’s haunting and rousing score, which, to me, is just as fitting, memorable, and haunting as Danny Elfman’s Batman theme. Additionally, Alec Baldwin is completely transformed by the Shadow’s ominous hat and cloak; hiding his identity behind a thick red scarf and sporting a glistening, metallic tint in his eyes whenever he uses his psychic powers, the Shadow cuts a formidable figure, especially when he appears to emerge from the shadows and be little more than a monstrous blur of mist and darkness. Furthermore, his voice takes on a dark, gravelly, haunting whisper and he often announces his presence with a cackling, demonic laughter, all of which only add to the mystique of “The Shadow”.
While he has successfully turned his life around and devoted himself to combatting evil, Cranston is constantly ashamed and haunted by memories of his past misdeeds; these take the form of horrifying nightmares that depict him as a blood-thirsty tyrant and he laments to Margot that his past is far too bloody to simply be forgotten about. Shiwan Khan embodies the very worst of his past; not only does he have all of Cranston’s abilities, he isn’t handicapped by notions of morality and is far more adept at controlling others as a result. Thus, for Cranston, fighting Khan is like fighting his own dark reflection and nowhere is this better emphasised than in a fantastically horrifying scene in which Cranston has a nightmare where he rips his face off to show Khan’s underneath! Another thing I always enjoyed about The Shadow is its period-based setting, which lends it a real charm and unique presentation amongst most other superhero films from that era (and even now). I also enjoy how Cranston has agents all of the city (and, he claims, the world), in addition to a vast communications network, and the film builds in a perfect explanation for how he would have been able to build all of that and acquire his resources: he either acquired agents with those resources or “convinced” others to assist him with his powers. As incredible as the Shadow’s powers and abilities are, however, he is far from superhuman; he can be hurt, injured, and is placed in vulnerable positions throughout the film, especially when his concentration is broken or his powers are muted by people like Margot and Khan.
This means that the finale contains a fair amount of tension for, while the Shadow is easily able to overcome Khan’s Mongol warriors and send Claymore to his death, he struggles to match Khan in a physical and mental battle as he is on enemy territory and his distracted by the ferocious little dagger. It is thus a triumphant achievement when Cranston summons all his mental facilities to finally earn the respect and command of Phurba and turn it against Khan. Wounded, Khan escapes into a hall of mirrors where Cranston shatters the glass all round them and ends his rival’s threat once and for all not by killing him but by driving a shard of glass into Khan’s frontal lobe, thereby removing his telepathic and psychic powers and confining him to a mental institution. Cranston thus ends the film having quelled some of the tumult and pain of his past and, fully supported by Margot and his network of allies, in a much better position to continue his fight against the evil and unjust.
When I first saw The Shadow as a kid, I had no idea who the character was; he was way before my time and I don’t think his radio show, novels, and comic books were that readily available in the United Kingdom back then. I was, however, a big fan of Bruce Wayne/Batman and the 1989 Batman movie so, when I saw The Shadow, I was immediately intrigued by the parallels between the two characters. I didn’t even consider The Shadow to be a rip-off of Batman as Cranston is such a different character to Bruce (realistically all they have in common is their wealth, dual identities, and penchant for the theatrical) and not only are his abilities very different, but the film is presented very differently, being much more of a period piece and thus being visually distinctive and exciting like other, similar films, I enjoyed at the time like Raiders of the Lost Ark (Spielberg 1981) and The Rocketeer (Johnston, 1991). I still don’t really get why people didn’t like The Shadow when it first came out; I guess there was quite a bit of competition back then, in general, but the superhero genre wasn’t anywhere near as inflated as it is today and I definitely think there’s enough here to make the film stand out against its competitors. I’m thus very happy to see that, in certain circles, The Shadow is regarded as an under-rated gem and I’d absolutely say that it deserves that distinction. With a slick presentation, a unique hero with both a visually interesting power and appearance, a evocative and stirring score, a great balance of action, humour, and intrigue, and some solid performances, The Shadow totally deserves more time in the spotlight as even now, after all the superhero films I’ve seen, it still manages to entertain from start to finish and I am very hard pressed to find much fault with it.
Have you ever seen The Shadow? If so, what did you think to it? If you’re a fan of the character, did you enjoy the film as an adaptation or did it change too much for you? What did you think to the Shadow’s powers and representation? Did you enjoy the score the performances from the actors? Would you like to see another Shadow film made someday, or perhaps a Netflix series? How are you celebrating National Superhero Day today? Whatever your thoughts, leave a comment below and be sure to stick around for more superhero and comic book content throughout the year.