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.
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.
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.
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.
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.