“There is no Shadow. If there were, I’d be Eleanor Roosevelt.”
That’s an actual thing Jonathan Winters says while under the influence of the Shadow’s Jedi mind powers. The line was likely improvised by the comedic legend in one of his tiny show-stealing moments of screen time.
Russell Mulcahy’s underappreciated 1994 masterpiece The Shadow is one of the best comic book movies of all time. Yes, I know—most people would not agree with that statement. The movie was a huge flop at the box office and has since been all but forgotten.
The day was Tuesday, July 5, 1994, and my friends and I were embarking on another one of our “Two-for-Tuesday” adventures. That’s where we would pay to see one movie, then hide in the bathroom afterward for a little while before sneaking back into the theater to see a second movie without paying. It wasn’t what you’d call legal, per se, and I guess not much of an adventure. The first movie we saw that night was Blown Away, starring Jeff Bridges and Tommy Lee Jones. I remember looking forward to that one because it was set in Boston, where I was going to school at the time. The truth is, I can’t remember one single thing about that movie. Wait, I think there was a part on a beach where Tommy Lee Jones pretends some crabs can talk. Anyway, the movie sucked. Meanwhile, I’ve watched The Shadow thousands of times since that day, and it keeps getting better every single time I see it.
I hate writing plot summaries, so I’m going to try to wrap this one up in three sentences: Alec Baldwin winds up in Tibet after WWII, where he becomes a bloodthirsty warlord for a while before being rehabilitated by a monk, who teaches him how to use his dark side to fight evil and become The Shadow, which he does once he returns to New York. At some point, John Lone, The Last Emperor, shows up in a sarcophagus with plans to take over the world by controlling Magneto’s mind and getting him to build a bomb with Tim Curry’s help. Magneto’s daughter, Penelope Anne Miller (the Naomi Watts of the 90’s) senses something’s wrong, so she tries to get Police Chief Jonathan Winters to look for him, but Winters doesn’t think it’s worth his time, so his nephew The Shadow helps her instead. Also, Peter Boyle’s in it. That was four sentences, but I felt it was important to mention Peter Boyle.
I’m not sure what it is about him, but Alec Baldwin makes for an ideal superhero. Maybe it’s the chest hair. Maybe it’s his line delivery—so over-the-top campy, he makes Bruce Campbell look like Anthony Hopkins. Maybe it’s his ability to make his nose grow and his eyes change color. All I know is, he really nailed this part. In fact, I think he should play every superhero from now on. He should play both Batman and Superman in the Batman vs. Superman remake, which I think he should also write and direct. Maybe Jack McBrayer can play Lex Luthor this time, and Tina Fey can play Wonder Woman. Why the hell not, right? Anyway, back to the Shadow…
Tim Curry is also brilliant in this film. I dare say this was his best performance in a villainous role since Annie—and no, I didn’t forget about Legend. My favorite Curry moment is when he falls under the Shadow’s Jedi mind spell and starts going crazy. He spins around in circles, firing a Tommy gun while laughing hysterically. Nevermind, you should just watch this scene for yourself. This unauthorized clip is pretty low-res, but it still sums up exactly what’s so brilliant about The Shadow.
In the event Youtube decides to take down that clip, just watch the whole fuckin’ movie.
The Shadow is what every Batman movie should inspire to be. It’s what Tim Burton kind of got right (his villains were great, but Michael Keaton was a little too dry for me). The Shadow’s powers are ambiguous and not entirely explained. His origin story doesn’t make a lot of sense. The dialogue is broad. The fight scenes are silly. It has overly stylized 1940’s art direction. It has a brilliantly melodramatic Jerry Goldsmith score. It’s pretty perfect.
A friend of mine (whose husband was with me that fateful day in July of 1994) recently sent me a link to an episode of the How Did This Get Made podcast where they discussed The Shadow. Although I’m a fan of Paul Scheer and co., I stopped listening 15 minutes into it because it was clear they just didn’t get it. They talked a little about the movie being so bad that it was kind of entertaining, but that’s pretty weak. The idea of liking a movie for ironic reasons is bullshit. The idea of wondering whether something is funny on purpose is bullshit. Hollywood movies pass through so many studio hands that, by the time they’re released, any single collaborator’s intentions are irrelevant. Snakes on a Plane tried to intentionally be accidentally bad, and that kind of insincerity caused the movie to totally suck. The Shadow just tried to stay true to the spirit of its source material, which lead to a more natural, genuine campiness. For that reason, I say The Shadow isn’t “so-bad-it’s-good.” It’s “so-good-it’s-awesome.”
Interesting side note: When I was trying to come up with domain names for this site, I considered The Shadow Nose. It was a play on words, referencing the character’s catchphrase, as well as the strange phenomenon of his nose growing when he puts on his hat and scarf to become The Shadow. Wouldn’t ya know it, theshadownose.com was already taken. Not only that, but the jerk who bought it is just sitting on it, not using it. Oh well. I like Skull Island Times better, anyway.
Just for shits n’ giggles, I’m attaching my favorite bit of The Shadow score. The scene itself would be kind of a spoiler, so this is just the music.