Passionate About Pulp: Revisiting The Shadow

THE SUBGENRE: Comic adaptation.
THE HERO: Playboy millionaire Lamont Cranston, also known as the vigilante superhero, The Shadow.
THE LOVE INTEREST: Socialite Margo Lane.
THE VILLAIN: Shiwan Khan, a descendant of Genghis Khan bent on global domination.
THE SETTING: 1930’s New York.

Sometimes passion can lead you into the bad parts of town. Case in point: 1994’s The Shadow.

You’d think a beloved character like The Shadow would be easy to adapt for the big screen. The comics, pulp novels, and radio program were extremely popular for decades. We’ve seen so many of the character’s elements elsewhere (see: Batman, which was heavily influenced by the series). “Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows!” has been a part of the pop culture lexicon for 70 years.

Unfortunately, what we got was pretty much a hot mess.

From the very first scene, it’s clear we’re in for a bumpy ride. It’s the early 1930s, and Lamont Cranston (Alec Baldwin) is an opium lord in Tibet living under the name Yin-Ko. He’s got bad hair, super nasty fingernails, and doesn’t hesitate to have an underling killed when he’s held hostage. 

Cranston is snatched from his drug palace and taken to a temple where a stereotypically mystical Tulku with a flying devil knife tells him he has to redeem himself and become a warrior for good.

If the clichéd “white man is taught secret Asian ways by a magical monk” setup isn’t cringey enough, the terrible CGI of the flying devil knife really seals the deal. 

Flash-forward a few years, and we’re in New York, where Cranston has gotten a haircut and put his whole opium lord schtick behind him to be a wealthy playboy by day, costumed vigilante by night. 

You know, that old chestnut. 

His path crosses with socialite Margo Lane (Penelope Ann Miller), a lady with telepathic skills of her own and an absent-minded professor of a father (Ian McKellen) who just happens to be building an atomic bomb.

The number of geniuses building cataclysmic bombs in pulp stories is more than a little disquieting.

John Lone as Shiwan Khan.

Enter Shiwan Khan (John Lone), a descendant of Genghis Khan who was also trained by the Tulku but skipped the final class on moral redemption. Shiwan wants to pick up where his illustrious ancestor left off, so he promptly bewitches Dr. Lane to gain an explosive ace in the game of world domination; he’s also aided by Lane’s cretin of an assistant, Farley Claymore (Tim Curry).

Luckily, Cranston has help in the form of a network of assistants, including on-call cabbie Moe Shrevnitz (Peter Boyle). Besides his telepathic powers of persuasion, telekinesis, and the ability to make himself invisible, The Shadow is also armed with a sweet pair of Browning .45 pistols. 

The Shadow isn’t entirely terrible. But it’s a movie that makes you feel like a prospector panning for flakes of gold in a muddy stream. 

The soundtrack by Jerry Goldsmith is fun, with some nicely distinctive riffs. Tim Curry plays the sniveling, selfish Farley with foam-mouthed flair—his final scene against The Shadow is particularly entertaining. 

Penelope Ann Miller as Margo Lane.

The costumes are great, from Margo’s fancy gowns to Shiwan’s fancier brocaded robes. The look of The Shadow himself is memorable, with a long black coat, flowing cape, slouch fedora, and red scarf. Having Cranston’s face change when he’s The Shadow, with a much larger nose and squinting, steely eyes surrounded by wrinkles, is a fabulous touch, making it much more believable as to why people never identify playboy Cranston as the vigilante. 

Cranston’s helpful network—full of police officers, doctors, scientists, reporters, and cabbies—is the superhero equivalent of Sherlock Holmes’s Irregulars. Always a good touch for a singular hero protecting a big city like New York. 

And there are some darker touches to The Shadow than you usually see in these sorts of adventures. There’s Cranston’s past as a merciless opium warlord, of course, but then he also makes an enemy commit suicide by convincing him a window is an exit. In the climax, he has his archenemy lobotomized and institutionalized.

That feels even grittier than simply killing the dude. It’s rather gruesome poetic justice.

Unfortunately, the few positives don’t outweigh the negatives. The CGI effects are laughably awful. There are two too many scenes with a flying devil knife that snarls and shrieks. Ian McKellen, usually a boon in any film, isn’t given enough to do and barely makes an imprint. There’s no tangible chemistry between Baldwin and Miller. The performances as a whole feel lackluster. 

And, ultimately, the film lacks cohesiveness and that necessary sizzle for a genuinely fun adventure. You never get the sense that there’s real excitement or danger or that the actors/characters are enjoying themselves. 

If only there’d been a bit more world- or character-building. If only there had been different actors in the lead roles. If only there had been a better script. If only, if only…

Given the iconic, influential aspect of The Shadow—and Hollywood’s love of rebooting everything—there’s always hope that there will be another, better adaptation in the future. Sam Raimi got his hands on the rights to the property in the early 2000s but, sadly, nothing came of it. 

Still, there’s always hope that this pulp fiction pioneer will get another day in the sun—or the shadows, if you will. Only The Shadow himself knows when…

See also: Passionate About Pulp: A Conan Double-Feature (Is What Is Best in Life)


Angie Barry wrote her thesis on the socio-political commentary in zombie films. Meeting George Romero is high on her bucket list, and she has spent hours putting together her zombie apocalypse survival plan. She also writes horror and fantasy in her spare time, and watches far too much Doctor Who. Come find the angie bee at Tumblr.

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