Home Video Hovel- The Shadow, by Tyler Smith
The 1990s was a fascinating time for superhero movies. Kicked off by Tim Burton’s wildly successful Batman, Hollywood set about trying to replicate that success. This meant not only with the way the stories were told, but the style in which the directors told them. Burton’s film relied heavily on Expressionistic art direction and moody music, and Hollywood followed suit. So we ended up with unlikely movies like The Rocketeer and Dick Tracy (not technically a “superhero”, but who’s going to argue, with a rogue’s gallery like that?). And, in 1994, director Russell Mulcahy gave us The Shadow.
The film was something of a flop, unfortunately, which meant that not only would most audiences not be aware of the film, but of the character in general. The Shadow had been around for decades at that point, appearing in comic books and radio. He was an interesting character that deserved a second life in film. Perhaps, had the film done well, The Shadow would have spawned a sequel and the character could have become more of a household name.
As for me, I first saw this film in theaters when I was young and absolutely loved it. The opulent style, the mysticism, the humor; it was everything I wanted in a superhero movie. And, upon rewatching it, I feel like it holds up. Certainly, compared with the scope and flashiness of modern superhero films, it seems to move pretty slowly. However, in doing so, it actually makes me wish that more comic book movies made today would take their cues from The Shadow. While it may not move at breakneck speed, it tries to make up for that in character interaction and world building. This is exactly why most people, when pressed, will say that their favorite part of Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight isn’t the chase scene, but the first real conversation between Batman and the Joker.
Because, as fun as the action is, these are movies about personalities clashing. The better the character, the more invested we’ll be. And The Shadow is overflowing with fun and interesting characters, played by a solid cast of character actors. At a time when Alec Baldwin was viewed primarily as a good-looking leading man, the over-the-top style of the film allowed him to play up his humor and gravitas, making our hero both charming and dark. And while Lamont Cranston’s backstory is a little melodramatic, it cements the Shadow as a sort of anti-hero, driven not merely by a desire to do good, but by an overriding personal guilt.
The rest of the cast, from John Lone to Peter Boyle to Tim Curry, is top-notch, each actor displaying an understanding of both their character and their genre. They help set the general tone of camp, humor, treachery, and mystery. Lone is especially notable as the villain, whose claim to fame is being the last descendant of Genghis Khan. His scenes with Baldwin have a playful quality, as the two are constantly sizing each other up while trying not to telegraph too much.
Helping to set the mood is Jerry Goldsmith’s wonderful score, which further enhances the bombast that you could always find in 1990s superhero movies; as if the directors really felt like they had to sell that these characters were a big deal. However, there is also an other-worldly quality to the music, meant to evoke not just the Asian mysticism of the Khan character, but to the spiritual nature of the Shadow’s powers. It is, I think, one of the best superhero themes of all time, more than holding its own against the work of Danny Elfman.
The Shadow is not a perfect film, but it is, to me, incredibly fun. And, as many modern films in the superhero genre attempt to explore just how dark their world can get (not necessarily a bad goal), it never hurts to remember that these stories start from a place of enjoyment. They’re not necessarily children’s films, but they are the kind of movies that kids can enjoy with adults. This explains why I enjoyed the movie at age twelve and now, twenty years later, I still love it.