Monday, March 10, 2014

The Shadow, a Superzero

The pop-up matchbook.  Wild.
The man with mystical powers to make himself unseen, able to see into the hearts of men and darkly do good in the spiraling world of the 1930s: its quite a concept.

How apropos that our question-creating machine spit this one forth today, replete with the picture of 1994's The ShadowThis was a movie that I drooled over ahead of its release; I had the teaser poster, with its "who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men" poster on my wall; I savored every tv commercial for it (including a great one that I remember running during the M.A.N.T.I.S pilot).

Why was I so eager to see this movie?  In the year previous, I had discovered old time radio shows (then available on cassette tape by a few vendors).  The Shadow in its original radio form was a bit crude, as it was produced in the mid 1930s; the golden age for radio production being, in my estimation, from 1945 until the end of the 1950s.  Nonetheless, it was enjoyable, with a pre-Citizen Kane Orson Welles and Agnes Moorehead and the strange, almost otherworldly commercials for Blue Coal. 

I distinctly remember seeing the Alec Baldwin starrer with my brother and uncle, in a theater which is now an IHOP.  It had the pedigree of a winner: July 1 release, ample marketing campaign, Alec Baldwin 4 years removed from Red October and two years removed from Glengarry Glen Ross, a Jerry Goldsmith score, and supporting roles filled by Jonathan Winters, Peter Boyle, and Tim Curry.  Oh, and did I mention that Ian freakin McKellan is in it too?  All of that mixed with the luxurious production design and Russell Mulcahy's impressive action resume and care for a throwback, 1930s sensibility was sure to make this film a winner.


You know that sinking feeling that you can get watching a movie when you see that it simply is not working?  The one that is a result of a fundamental lack of the parts jelling?  That was watching The Shadow

It starts with a mumbo-jumbo backstory of Baldwin's Lamont Cranston in Tibet, where he learns to cloud men's minds.  So where does the bad guy come from?  The same school of thought-blocking, of course.  And its with that baddie, Shiwan Khan, that the movie creaks with its "Ah-so, meeestah Shahdow-san" use of an Asian baddie.  The Peter Boyle character, a cabbie named Moe Shrevnitz added to the radio series later in the run, feels shoe-horned in and the Jerry Goldsmith score quickly turns "craaaaazy' with its ethereal, zither-esque motif.  The production design falters under its own weight, turning from epic to feeling patently inauthentic--like they've updated the storefronts on the Universal backlot.  Fun fact: they did.  I also remember being very struck that the Shadow seems to be connected to everyone, in party by a system pneumatic tubes by which he can communicate with his agents.  It's almost a metaphor for the film: large, but not quite logical.

It's like a bat... man.
So what was the impact of The Shadow on geek culture?  I'd say for one it set back the cause of that sort of film.  It desperately wanted to be the next Batman franchise.  Look at the fingerprints: 1930s property that has been dormant; charismatic playboy by day, masked dark hero by night; lead actor played by the comic-resume-but-turning-dramatic male lead;  blonde female lead; a familiar-yet-unfamiliar city, and the Jewish comic relief (Batman's Robert Wuhl versus The Shadow's Boyle).  At this point, the Batman franchise wasn't even the Batman franchise.  We were entering the glut of excess, where studio executives envisioned the film/toy/bedspread/cereal box empire... with no care to the movie in the middle.

When it came to geek movies of the 1990s, studios needed their bacchanalia of Batman codpieces, zany Phantoms, and yes, lousy Shadows.  They needed to swear off the fat of pulp stories, so that, six years later, the same pulp sources would start to be treated earnestly and seriously.  It started with Bryan Singer's X-Men starring, ironically, the very same Ian McKellan who had moved from comic boob in The Shadow to a metaphorical Malcom X.

Thus is the legacy of The Shadow: necessary tomfoolery before the serious work began.

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