The Shadow

(Russell Mulcahy, USA, 1994)


The flood of films about comic book heroes or superheroes that began in the mid '90s shows few signs of ever abating. Early on in this wave, The Shadow followed Batman (Tim Burton, 1989) and Dick Tracy (Warren Beatty, 1990). Alongside these movies, which adapt particular classic comic book characters, there are other movies that borrow a heightened, cartoonish style and invent their own mythic heroes, like Sam Raimi's very influential Darkman (1990).

Trying to map all these films and their diverse pop culture influences can quickly lead to total delirium. In this trend, all the familiar genres – fantasy, action, horror, comedy, science fiction – melt together, creating hybrids like the Robocop series, or mind-boggling spectaculars from Hong Kong like the Chinese Ghost Story films.

There are a few problems involved in taking a pre-existing comic strip or pulp fiction character and putting him/her on the screen. One big problem is how much of a sometimes vast pre-existing story you can afford to squash into one film. I remember being a Marvel Comics freak when I was a kid, with a particular penchant for Spiderman (which had to wait for Sam Raimi to bring it to the screen successfully). Over the years, across many different, separate stories, a fan would be fed bits and pieces of the legend of Spiderman – how he became what he is, flashbacks of his early life, and so on.

The movie version of The Shadow crams such background info on the amazing origin of its hero into a single, frenetic opening sequence. At this point, Alec Baldwin is Ying Ko, an evil, tyrannical crime lord in Tibet. After a lightning demonstration of his violent amorality, Ying Ko is suddenly being taught humility by a holy man, who makes him do battle with a vicious, living knife. And then a text rolls up the screen, telling us that Ying Ko reformed himself as the magical Shadow, and headed off to New York to do good deeds.

Finally, the audience can get its bearings, as the film establishes the typical activities of The Shadow. When he is not fighting crime, he is living the high life as socialite Lamont Cranston – a great character name. We learn that The Shadow's principal mystical gift is the power to "cloud men's minds" – whatever that exactly means. In effect, this power makes him invisible. And when Lamont turns into The Shadow, his face re-shapes, hardens, gets a lot less pretty.

We keep hearing, all through the film, that The Shadow is like humankind's dark side, beastly, perhaps even evil. Lamont seems a little worried about this possibility himself, particularly when revealing his identity to Penelope Ann Miller, his pale leading lady. This is a twist that superhero stories often explore with great relish. In the television series Lois and Clark, Superman was cloned into an evil twin for an episode. In Tim Burton's Batman movies with Michael Keaton, Batman is one very disturbed and neurotic soul.

But The Shadow, at least in this telling of his tale, never really seems in danger of losing self-control and acting bad. In fact, he's more a priestly superhero, one who has utterly renounced his evil ways, like the Forever Knight from late night television – a Canadian vampire who reformed into a law-abiding cop.

The plot of the film revolves around The Shadow's struggle with an enemy with powers to rival his – Shiwan Khan (John Lone), who proudly strides through the crowded streets of New York with his band of Mongol warriors. It is when he has to show things like this that the director, Australian expatriate Russell Mulcahy, really faces his own trial. What do you do with this material – play it straight or serve it up, in the knowing modern style, as high camp? There are certainly camp elements in the film, particularly Tim Curry's performance. But what I like most about The Shadow is its straight-faced presentation of the most outlandish events and ideas.

Mulcahy has found his way into the true poetry of fantastic comic book narratives. It's the kind of film that can send you off into a reverie; I found myself more lost in the intricacies of its imaginary world than absorbed in the moves of its plot. There's a lot of beautiful physical stuff in it: the textures of moving carpets; the plunging facades of skyscrapers; the passage of a secret note along pneumatic tubes; a handwritten message in invisible ink fading in and out on a piece of paper.

This may sound a little like the kind of detail that the Surrealist artists and writers of the 1920s found so pleasurable in the popular movies (from trashy serials to Fritz Lang's Spione [1928]) that they loved. This is no accident. The Shadow, like Neil Jordan's excellent and somewhat underrated film of Interview with the Vampire (1994), revisits a golden period in popular art, an era of dime novels, silent movie serials, Grand Guignol theatre and comic books. In this era, fantasy sometimes spoke very freely, without the self-conscious burden of irony.

Any modern film that can recreate that impulse, even if only for a moment or a scene, is surely worth a look.

MORE Mulcahy: Resurrection

© Adrian Martin January 1995

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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