For Universal Studios, The Shadow was intended to be the beginning of a new cinematic franchise – the marketing machine was put into overdrive, hyping this 1994 flick through merchandising and trailers. Unfortunately, it landed with a thud, receiving unflattering reviews and utterly flopping at the box office. Yet, it has deservedly gathered something of a cult following on home video, though it still remains a painfully underrated superhero endeavour which deserves a lot more credit than it gets. The Shadow is best described as a hybrid of Indiana Jones and Tim Burton’s Batman, and it’s every bit as awesome as that description implies. A slice of pure matinee fun, The Shadow is utterly delightful, a tongue-in-cheek comic book adventure which embraces its silliness, with one-liners, over-the-top villains, hammy plotting and gaudy characters. It’s easily in the same league as similar productions like Dick Tracy and The Phantom.
A former American soldier during World War I, Lamont Cranston (Alec Baldwin) has given over to madness, residing in Tibet where he has established himself as a ruthless crime lord. However, he is offered the chance to redeem himself by becoming The Shadow, a telepathic hero who can cloud minds and exert incredible psychic influence over his victims. Returning to New York City, Cranston seeks to use his newfound gifts to clean up the streets, along the way developing an ever-expanding society of sidekicks and allies, including his loyal driver Moe (Peter Boyle). The Shadow is presented with a unique challenge, though, with the arrival of powerful psychic warrior Shiwan Khan (John Lone), who’s determined to destroy the Big Apple unless the city bows to his rule. As Cranston sets out to stop Khan, he also meets a strong burgeoning telepath named Margot Lane (Penelope Ann Miller), whose scientist father (Ian McKellen) is under Khan’s control.
The Shadow started life in the pages of pulp magazines back in the 1930s, and later in a radio serial with Orson Welles. The character predates Batman, and it would seem that he influenced the Caped Crusader in a number of aspects. The source material never revealed The Shadow’s origins, compelling screenwriter David Koepp (Jurassic Park) to construct a former life for Cranston before he donned the cape. Without weighing down the narrative too much, Koepp’s brisk exploration of Cranston’s origins is spot-on, finding him as a brutal warlord and opium kingpin in post-WWI Tibet. It deepens Cranston’s character by giving him a villainous back-story, as he is repenting for his sins by acting as a vigilante and working to remove the criminal element of NYC. There’s a rich, detailed world at play here, and the movie takes advantage of the characteristics which make The Shadow a unique hero. The movie also maintains the character’s dark edge, as he does not baulk from killing.
With the 21st Century begetting comic book movies like Spider-Man and Iron Man, it’s refreshing to witness a superhero movie which differs from the “origins story” template. Although Cranston’s dark past is established in the story’s early stages, Mulcahy subsequently flashes forward a number of years to find Cranston fully established as The Shadow. Origin tales are usually the least fun, as such franchises never really take off until the second instalment, hence The Shadow gets credit for diving straight into the fun stuff. More recent comic book movies are either too soft or too “dark and gritty,” but The Shadow is a reminder of a different era, when filmmakers simply took the material with the sincerity it deserved (see also: The Crow). Mulcahy’s old-school approach is to be admired, and there’s plenty of atmosphere, not to mention the film noir disposition renders it a unique beast in this day and age. Koepp’s script is also peppered with amusing dialogue, setting out to recreate the witty, razor-sharp bantering of old screwball comedies.
The Shadow is a visually spectacular motion picture, supported by elegant production design and gorgeous period-specific costumes. Jerry Goldsmith’s flavoursome score is a superlative accompaniment; it’s one of his most overlooked works, and now the soundtrack recording is a hot commodity among nerds and collectors. Prior to The Shadow, Australian director Mulcahy was recognised for films like Razorback and Highlander, and this project had the potential to establish him as a blockbuster filmmaker. Although its failure has led to an uneven career for Mulcahy, his handling of Koepp’s script is spectacular, as the production is full of exciting action set-pieces, and the cinematography by Stephen H. Burum is both effective and artful. Admittedly, some of the special effects look comparatively dated, but there is a certain charm to seeing matte paintings and optical effects which were executed on the very brink of the digital revolution. The Shadow is an enjoyable sit, and the competent craftsmanship is one of its many benefits. It may seem a tad on the cheesy side, but such cheesiness is endearing, not to mention accurate to the source material.
There is a genuinely impressive cast driving The Shadow, led by Baldwin who’s ideally suited for the role of the titular superhero. His scowl and gravelly voice is a natural fit for The Shadow, while his tremendous movie star charisma makes him believable as the wealthy playboy Lamont Cranston. Penelope Ann Miller provides the requisite eye candy as Cranston’s love interest, while the rest of the roles are filled by such great actors as Peter Boyle, Ian McKellen, Tim Curry and John Lone. The late great Boyle is particularly good (he has always been adept with comedy), while Lone makes for an excellent villain.
Unfairly maligned and overlooked, The Shadow remains a top-notch example of a superhero flick which does justice to the dense source material while also having fun along the way. And, unlike all of today’s numerous comic book movies, it exists to tell a standalone story and establish this universe, rather than leaving tonnes of loose ends to set up sequels. On top of being flat-out fun, it is also a well-made blockbuster which tells a coherent story and contains a solid amount of character development. It’s a shame that things didn’t work out for the film, as further adventures of The Shadow would be an enticing prospect indeed. There might be a few storytelling and pacing issues, but The Shadow is pure popcorn entertainment which is often enjoyable and features a kaleidoscope of colourful supporting characters.