Friday, March 7, 2014

The Shadow (1994) v. The Phantom (1996)

I want to like The Shadow. I also want to like The Phantom. But I can’t. I don’t dislike them per se, they just disappoint me. They are indifferently made, squandered potential.

The Shadow is the story of Lamont Cranston (Alex Baldwin). Cranston set himself up as a brutal warlord in Tibet after the First World War. He is abducted by a holy man who wants to train him to become a force for good. This holy man trains Cranston for seven years in the power of hypnosis. Cranston then returns to New York City, where he lives as a wealthy playboy. What no one knows, is that Cranston is secretly “the Shadow,” a crime fighting superhero of sorts who has the ability to seem to vanish.
Cranston will be challenged by Shiwan Khan, another student of the holy man, who possesses even greater powers. Khan is, of course, the last descendant of Genghis Khan and has plans for world domination. Those plans include kidnapping the father (Ian McKellen) of Cranston’s fiancée so that he will build an atomic bomb Khan will detonate in New York City for reasons not well explained.

The Phantom, by comparison, is the story of Kit Walker (Billy Zane). Walker is a superhero called “the Phantom,” who lives on Bengalla Island. “The Phantom” is a position passed down from father to son and Walker is the 21st Phantom to hold the title. They apparently fight pirates. In this case, Walker finds himself fighting a mercenary named Quill (James Remar), who is a member of something called the Sengh Brotherhood (even though he’s white), and he’s searching for the Skulls of Touganda, which give the owner of the skulls a tremendous power which looks suspiciously like a laser.
Walker returns to New York City where he meets his ex-girlfriend, who happens to be a journalist. She’s investigating evil businessman Xander Drax (Treat Williams). Drax, of course, is the one really after the Skulls. He kidnaps the ex-girlfriend and takes her to Begalla Island, where Walker chases Drax and his men through the jungle until their final confrontation. And there are pirates.


The potential of these two films is really rather high. The 1930’s is a cool period and can make for an excellent setting. Look at films like Raiders of the Lost Ark and Hudsucker Proxy as prime examples where the period itself drives much of the film and pulls you into the film. Superhero films often rock as well. Noir films are great too. So a film noir, superhero film set in the 1930’s should have major potential. But neither film comes close to exploiting that potential.

The first problem that both films succumb to is that neither ever makes you feel like you’re in the 1930’s. Raiders, Hudsucker and L.A. Confidential all transported you to the era in which those films took place by immersing you in the eras. The clothes, the buildings, the cars and all the little props all fit the era. The eras were meticulously researched and they wanted you to know that.
The Shadow and The Phantom, on the other hand, feel like the 1930’s era is just a veneer. For starters, neither does much more than show you a couple sets. They fill the sets with the same old cars you see every time they make a film like this. And even then, they are shown in such a tight angle that you never see more than a couple vehicles. The main characters are given fancy 1930’s clothes, but there’s no variety of costumes. The result is that unlike the better films where you get a glimpse into an entire world, here it feels like you are seeing a small soundstage that includes only a few props from the era. There is no sense that any of this is real.

Moreover, the characters are era clichés. Both of these films are populated with only a handful of standard characters you see in every 1930’s - 1950’s period piece: the taxi driver, the journalist girlfriend, the chief of police, the supposed playboy who is really a superhero, and the evil business mogul. These are the characters you’ve seen time and again in every period piece set in the 1930’s – 1950’s, they are in every comic book of the era. You see nothing else. Indeed, neither The Shadow nor The Phantom ever go beyond and show you people you haven’t seen before.
The bigger problem with these films, however, is that their plots aren’t very tight. Specifically, they are packed with nonsense and filler. Consider this. How does an American make himself a warlord in Tibet after the First World War, which wasn’t even fought in Tibet. Why would a holy man pick a brutal drug addicted warlord to make into a hero? Why send him to New York City after training him? What a coincidence that Lamont just happens to be dating the daughter of an atomic scientist who also happens to be telepathic. Why does Khan want to blow up New York City anyway? None of these things hang together. They feel like ideas tossed in to make the film interesting rather than legitimate parts of the plot.
At the same time, The Phantom is full of coincidences and its premise is frankly stupid. In an age when the forces of darkness were the Nazis or the communists, when the Japanese were raping Nanking, “the Phantom” fights generic pirates near some nonexistent island. Oddly, “the Phantom” is the 21st in a long line of father-son teams, which means they’ve been doing this longer than America was even a country, yet the film and the character are both American-centric. The story moves back and forth between New York and the island for no believable reason except that the filmmakers wanted to show the Phantom in New York and wanted to finish in the jungle. Even worse, this film gives off the distinct feel that they simply took the “cool” visual elements from Raiders and just tossed them all together into a meaningless jumble.

Ultimately, I find both films to be very frustrating. Either easily could have been the next Raiders of the Lost Ark, but both cut so many corners and were made so indifferently that it just wasn’t possible. These films are all about the veneer and they completely lack substance. That is frustrating.


shawn said...

Seen both and can't really dispute anything you've said here, but I' ll admit I have a soft spot for "The Shadow". I think it was trying to follow the success of "Dick Tracy" and Tim Buton's "Batman" and so it is trying too hard to be a larger than life film, when it should have been smaller and darker to be a good noir movie.

Anonymous said...

I'd say Dick Tracy was the best of the post-1989 Batman comic book adaptations. :-)

I've never seen The Phantom but it's one of those movies that was in development hell for years, with Joe Dante being attached to direct a version of the film in the 80s.

The Shadow was ultimately disappointing. Nice to look at, but kind of all over the place. It did have some nice-looking pre-CGI matte paintings and a cool song, "Original Sin."

I think the Tibet stuff was a little off-putting, at least for this particular movie. It would be like Indiana Jones flashing back to his time as a student, except he was a student in another country, learning something no one in the audience gave a shit about! (It works for something like Batman Begins because it was an origin story.)

PikeBishop said...

I remember the same things about "The Phantom." Meh, Rainy Saturday afternoon film if there is nothing else on. Been there done that.

But what got me was a guy wearing a skin tight costume in the (expletive deleted) Tropics!!!!!!

Outlaw13 said...

The Shadow was a radio show back in the 30's...I don't know, was the Tibet thing part of the backstory of the original character? Maybe the sets were off because of the film's budget? Just wondering.

I've seen them both, and I thought The Shadow was the better of the two. Not anything great but it was OK...better than a lot of stuff that have come out lately.

AndrewPrice said...

Shawn, I concur. I want to like "The Shadow" and I periodically give it another try. It just always leaves me disappointed. I think you're right that it wanted to be "Batman" or "Dick Tracy" and it ended up missing it's own identity. It either needed to be a lot bigger or a lot smaller and smarter.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, I agree about "Dick Tracy" and "Batman." And I agree with your assessment -- nice to look at, but all over the place. Also, I would say that in the nice to look at category, one problem is that it felt very limited in what you saw. There were no sweeping city shots or outside shots to make the show feel like more than a set. In too many ways, this feels like it's being presented on a stage.

I think "The Phantom" is worth seeing, just as a reference point, but it's ultimately a knock-off as well.

The Tibet stuff, I guess, is necessary to establish the main character and the villain, but it just feels like it belongs in some other movie. It's like some Kung Fu fantasy film crashed into "LA Confidential."

AndrewPrice said...

PikeBishop, And he never showed a single drop of sweat either! LOL!

What struck me about "The Phantom" ultimately was how bizarrely out of place the character was. Here's an American who was born and raised on some tropical island where he lives as their ???? god? hero? legend? How did that happen? And how is he the 21st? It feels like a backstory that just can't work.

AndrewPrice said...

Outlaw, The backstory is a jumble. It's different in the comic books than it is on the radio than it is in the film. In one instance, he learned these powers "while traveling in East Asia." In other, Lamont is actually just a front for another man. In other, he faked his death in a South American jungle. It sounds like his history evolved a lot. It sounds like the film version is based on an amalgam. To me though, it detracts from the film because it doesn't mesh well with the rest of the film.

The budget for both films was about $45 million, which is almost exactly what the budget was for "Batman" about 10 years prior. "L.A. Confidential"'s budget a year later (1997) was $35 million. So budget isn't really the problem.

tryanmax said...

If there is any defense of the clichéd nature of both films it may be that both comic franchises helped establish the clichés. The mistake of the filmmakers, I think, was aiming for too much fidelity to the source material rather than considering the sensibilities and perspective of contemporary audiences. 
Also, having seen both films near their releases and again recently, they have not aged well. Both seemed much better at the time. 

AndrewPrice said...

tryanmax, They definitely have not aged well. That said, they are still better movies than a lot of what is coming out these days. At least these had plots.

I think you're right that the problem was that they tried to stick to closely to the source material or at least the feel of the source material without either giving you the complete feel or modernizing it.

Tennessee Jed said...

loved the comic strip by Mort Walker. Saw the Billy Zane film. It didn't bother me that much because I didn't demand too much. It was just nice to see Phantom on the big screen. Never even bothered with The Shadow. I was not a Shadow fan. Throw in Baldwin and it was just never on my radar.

Tennessee Jed said...

there was a 2009 mini-series that, as I recall, showed real potential, but it was never picked up as a series.

Anonymous said...

The review is spot on, I've seen both in the last year and was even less impressed then when I first saw them. Plot holes, cliches galore and just plain stupid. Superhero movies have come a long way.


Kit said...

From what I've seen of The Phantom it looks like dumb fun. Though I've only seen clips.

AndrewPrice said...

Kit, The problem is that it's not fun enough. It's missing that sense of fun somehow and what you get is a movie that is trying to be serious without the tools to be serious.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, I try to watch these periodically because I would love to see more films from that period, but they just keep getting less interesting as they age.

AndrewPrice said...

Jed, I remember the miniseries. I was hopeful and it had a nice style, but as you note, it wasn't picked up.

Unknown said...

While I didn't like The Shadow (gave up after 30 minutes), I have yet to see The Phantom.

That said, this is something you all need to view:

(Part 1)

(Part 2) - It was posted very recently, but has been removed for whatever reason. As soon as it becomes available, I'll post it.

Unknown said...

Update: Found Part 2 -

AndrewPrice said...

Thanks for the link Collin!

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