East of Constantinople, West of Shanghai

Raiders of the Lost Franchise: The Shadow (1994)


This is one of the two movies that really got us all excited when we learned they were in the making, one that we expected with increasing trepidation. And it is really one of the great missed opportunities of franchise-making cinema – in a parallel universe somewhere, the Marvel Cinematic Universe doesn’t exist, and kids go crazy about the Shadowverse.
Or something.
But this is not that universe.

And if I have to explain to you who and what The Shadow is, you are on the wrong blog. One of the most iconic and long-lived pulp characters, The Shadow has been a radio drama host/character, the hero of 325 novels, and has appeared in comics and films for almost a century.
When the 1994 movie was announced, the fans went in overdrive.

What makes The Shadow different from other movies in this series of posts is the fact that we are dealing with an A-list production.
The cast alone is staggering: Alec Baldwin, John Lone, Penelope Ann Miller, Ian McKellen, Jonathan Winters, Peter Boyle, Tim Curry…
Director Russell Mulcahy had directed the cult classic Razorback and the smash hit Highlander, and was given a 40-million dollar budget to bring to the screen the exploits of the character.

And the movie bombed. The film was supposed to launch a franchise complete with toys, games and even a fashion line (that would have been something), and instead killed the thing dead.

Fans still sit long nights in bars, listening to smoky jazz and drinking, and discussed how this was possible.
The three arguments I heard the most, and that to me sound more convincing are these:

  • The Shadow was not a straight superhero movie – nor could it be, as the character was not a superhero in the comic book sense. And let’s not forget at the time “superhero movie” meant the Superman films or Tim Burton’s Batman.
  • The Shadow suffered from an abundance of riches. The cast is spectacular, the sets and costumes are a wonder to behold, the effects are good, the music by Gerry Goldsmith is rousing and spot on… but the pieces do not click together, and the film is inferior to the sum of its parts.
  • The Shadow had to go up against The Lion King and The Mask, that were a lot more accessible.

To these, I usually add the fact that often the movie doesn’t know if it’s a straight pulp adventure or a parody of the same. Certain scenes are probably supposed to be comedy relief, but they are not funny, and “relief” is not what one feels.

And yet the movie looks like a million dollars, Penelope Ann Miller is absolutely perfect, and fans of The Shadow can pick up a lot of bits and pieces taken from various novels. The opening sequence in the Hymalayan poppy fields where Kent Allard plies his trade are one of the best starts of an adventure movie ever.
It is not a bad movie at all, it’s only strangely uncertain.
A different director could have probably made a difference – Sam Raimi was at one time interested in the project (and in the end did Darkman).

The Shadow made 48 million dollars, barely recapping the costs, and then faded from memory.

I went to see it with a date, at the time. She did not share my enthusiasm for the pulps or for the movie, and when we got out of the cinema I received a scathing tongue-lashing.
I suffered it stoically, and was able to keep my disappointment with the movie under control thanks to the knowledge that, anyway, there was a second chance coming – a Phantom movie was in the works.

(to be continued)

Author: Davide Mana

Paleontologist. By day, researcher, teacher and ecological statistics guru. By night, pulp fantasy author-publisher, translator and blogger. In the spare time, Orientalist Anonymous, guerilla cook.

10 thoughts on “Raiders of the Lost Franchise: The Shadow (1994)

  1. For me, Alec Baldwin was the problem. I never thought he was that good an actor (IMO) . On the positive side though, I will readily admit that he really does have “the look” that translates over well to a 1930’/40’s period piece. A lot of actors, regardless of the haircut and clothes, just don’t look right in those parts.

    And with both Jonathan Winters AND Tim Curry in a movie, you just have to know there are going to be some over the top performances happening.


  2. Well, I liked that movie. More or less. If you forget the real character and lose yourself in the lavish details, maybe it could be even a pleasant experience. I don’t know what went south, nor I understand why the final result was so disappointing. It looks like one of the movies done to pay the rent for some actors.
    By the way, this kind of franchise will be excellent for a Netflix-style serial. Amazon, Hulu or any other pro service will be fine, too.


  3. “The Shadow was not a straight superhero movie – nor could it be, as the character was not a superhero in the comic book sense. And let’s not forget at the time “superhero movie” meant the Superman films or Tim Burton’s Batman. ”
    You’re right. The Shadow isn’t a super hero (they wear costumes, not coats and hats) and should not be treated like one.


    • I also think back in ’92 pulp heroes and the pulp tradition was not as popular as it is today.
      A lot of people went to see the movie and had no idea who this guy was and what it was all about.


  4. I actually really love this movie. You’re right that it’s strange, but that out-of-The-boxness is what I like about it. Plus, Tim Curry… how can you go wrong?


  5. Thank you for your post – I’ve waited a long time for an analysis of this specific Lost Franchise. I’d like to add some considerations about The Shadow, having rewatched it recently with a friend.

    1) Behind this movie there is a writing that is brilliant and “dumb” at the same time. There are a lot of great lines and funny dialogues (“You speak Chinese!” “Only Mandarin”), but sometimes they are too…pulp. From a certain point of view, Mulcahy has been too loyal to the original material, and some of the movie characters looks like living stereotypes. Well, we’re talking about something that derives from popular literature, and I like the recognizable topoi behind every character, but I can understand why The Shadow bombed. It was something too respectful of the original source (apart from the funny Hollywood-style dialogues) to have success among the public of the 90’s.

    2) I needed to re-watch The Shadow to realize that Marvel’s Doctor Strange (the movie, not the character) is essentially a clone of this movie (the hero with the cape and psychic powers, the Himalayan training, Tilda Swinton as the Tulku).

    3) I agree with the others, Alec Baldwin was not the right choice to play the protagonist – and this could have been influenced this movie’s failure.

    4) A movie that shows a Mongol warrior that walks around New York, and nobody notices him. A movie that shows a Mongol sidecar (with Mongol-like insignia on it). Etc.
    A movie that gives you tons of fun, voluntary or not.

    5) The misuse of Ian McKellen (that will play under mind control for the 90% of his screentime) is almost criminal. The same for Tim Curry’s short play time.

    6) Phurba was great, and impressive for such a use of CGI in the first part of the 90’s.

    In the end, I’ve enjoyed it a lot, and my friend too. At the same time, we both noticed the fatal flaws that condemned The Shadow to oblivion. It was Hollywood’s second failed attempt after The Rocketeer (that was better than Mulcahy’s movie, in my opinion). It’s time to re-watch The Phantom, now.


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