My Year Of Flops Shazamilicious Double Feature: Case Files #120 and 123, The Phantom and The Shadow
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I recently received an email from a My Year Of Flops reader alerting me to the disquieting fact that the series skipped from Case File 119, Be Kind Rewind, to Case File 121, Earth Girls Are Easy. The reader in question is Kit Moore, a blind, illiterate Alabama sharecropper so inspired by My Year Of Flops that he, she, or quite possibly it (you never know which of your readers are Lovecraftian arch-ghouls) became a rare-book-cataloging librarian, whatever the hell that is.
Moore isn't the only person My Year Of Flops has touched in an inappropriate (if not criminal) fashion. Just last week I learned about a young man in an unnamed Third World country who sold his sister into slavery so he could afford Internet access just so he could read my dissertation on Bratz: The Movie. In honor of these fine folks, I've decided to try something different: the first-ever My Year Of Flops double feature.
Today, I'll be discussing both 1996's The Phantom and 1994's The Shadow. We live in the age of superheroes. And T-Pain. If you were to remove superheroes and T-Pain from pop culture, the world as we know it would devolve into madness and anarchy. Society would crumble. Incidentally, I'm listening to/reviewing the new T-Pain CD as I write this, so I apologize if my various roles at The A.V. Club bleed together. That's why I'd like to humbly propose a new superhero franchise about a musician who stumbles upon a voice distorter laced with gamma rays, which gives him the magical ability to bang drunken skanks at will, secure half-priced lap-dances, wear ridiculous hats without shame or self-consciousness, and telekinetically convince rappers and singers who really should know better that their songs are fatally incomplete without his signature brand of creepy digital harmonizing.
When John McCain said that the fundamentals of the economy were sound, he wasn't talking about the work ethic of the American people or the innocence of children or even the delicious, delicious cranial fluids of said children, which really should be bottled and sold commercially. No, he was talking about the real fundamentals of the American economy: superhero movies and overly processed R&B.; The rest of the economy may be tanking, but those sectors are thriving.
It wasn't always that way. Back in 1996, Billy Zane failed to win the hearts and minds of moviegoers as a big Goober grape of a superhero in The Phantom. The film begins on a curiously antagonistic note, with a title card reading "FOR THOSE WHO CAME IN LATE " It's as if the filmmakers are telling the audience, "Hey fuckface, you should already know this shit, but for the slow kids in the class, here's a 90-second primer on the mythology of The Phantom." We then learn that many, many years ago, a young man witnessed his father's death at the hands of pirates and swore to fight "piracy, greed, and cruelty in all their forms." That's right: If the Phantom catches you bootlegging the DVDs of superior films featuring less-shitty superheroes, he's going to put the smack down.
If I'd found the following 100 minutes more delightful, this opening might have registered as a charming nod to The Phantom's past as a 15-part 1943 adventure serial. Instead, it struck me as unearned cheek. Today's superhero movies tend to devote enormous time and energy to origin stories. Iron Man, for example, stops just short of showing the building and testing of Tony Stark's fantabulous metal suit in real time, but The Phantom spills it all out in a mad rush so we can be introduced to what a minor character adroitly calls "A big, strange-looking thing on a horse, with a wolf."
That's putting it kindly. The clothes make both the man and the super-man. Consequently, I had a hard time getting beyond The Phantom's flamboyant sartorial stylings. With his skin-tight purple bodysuit, kinky black boots, and double-triangle mask, The Phantom (Billy Zane) looks less like a superhero than the misbegotten offspring of a raccoon and the grape from the old Fruit Of The Loom commercial. Or, alternately, a 6-foot-tall penis, or a guy headed to fetish night at a Prince-owned nightclub. It could be worse: In the comics, the Phantom wears striped shorts outside his tights, an, um bold fashion choice that the filmmakers thankfully nixed as being just a little too silly. It is a measure of how phony and unconvincing the film feels that Zane bulked up for more than a year to give the Phantom a muscular physique, as illustrated in a gratuitous topless scene, yet the muscles on his costume still look stenciled on.
When not fighting piracy, greed, and cruelty in all their forms, Zane works diligently on his abs, holds numerous animated conversations with his dead father, makes sure that the smoking ban in his Skull Cave is strictly enforced, and generally attends to the demands of being the 21st incarnation of The Phantom.
The film's plot concerns a mad hunt for the three mystical Skulls Of Touganda, a quest that puts Zane into direct conflict with an evil tycoon played with mustache-twirling zeal by Treat Williams. As is generally the case in superhero movies, the bad guys have all the fun. Williams entertainingly devours scenery as a nefarious villain alongside a young Catherine Zeta-Jones as a sexy lady pirate.
Zane doesn't act so much as he strikes heroic poses and gives his dialogue ironic quotation marks. The Phantom is so relentlessly kitschy, it makes the Adam West Batman look like The Sorrow And The Pity by comparison. Again, this wouldn't be a problem if the film had a coherent vision or a clever take on the material. Instead, it just feels like halfhearted camp, so dialogue and exchanges like the following are more liable to inspire groans than guffaws:
"Count me out. This is wrong. Skulls? Forces of darkness? This is wrong. I was an altar boy and so were you, Charlie."
"All right. What's your name and why do you want that skull so badly?"
"Ah. And who is Kit Walker?"
"And what about the skull?"
"I thought it would go well with my drapes."
"Ah, cute. You're very cute, Mr. Walker."
"Have you heard the exciting news? We're going to the Devil's Vortex!" (And then to Disneyland!)
"Bottom of the ninth and we're two skulls behind!"
The Phantom lacks a strong authorial voice, which wouldn't have been a problem if the producers had retained original director Joe Dante. Alas, the film is more notable for what it might have been than what it is. In his memoir, Bruce Campbell writes of almost landing the lead role in The Phantom. Campbell long ago stopped being a mere actor and became a type: square-jawed, self-mocking, fearlessly goofy, and handsome in a way that skips deliriously into self-parody. His persona is beautifully tailored to this kind of larger-than-life cartoon hero. Campbell should probably be glad he didn't get the role. These days, he reigns as a preeminent ironic cheeseball icon. Zane, on the other hand, is just a cheeseball.
Where The Phantom is a second-rate film about a third-rate superhero played by a C-list actor, The Shadow is an even more frustrating proposition: a second-rate film about a first-rate superhero played by a brilliant, perfectly cast actor.
The Shadow has a long, auspicious history. The character began his twisty path to pop-culture notoriety in 1930 as the enigmatic narrator of radio's Detective Story Hour. As befits a character who can mesmerize evildoers with just the sound of his voice and the power of his personal magnetism, listeners were so fascinated by the character that they demanded to know more about him. With help from pulp scribe and magician Walter B. Gibson, The Shadow became a popular hero in radio, novels, comic books, and magazines. The evocative introduction to the radio show, "Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? [Sinister laugh.] The Shadow knows!" became instantly iconic. In 1937, a 22-year-old prodigy named Orson Welles famously lent his sonorous voice to the character.
The Shadow was a noirish figure who understood the criminal element because of the darkness of his own soul. He was a dark knight, a formative influence on Batman, V of V For Vendetta fame, and every other superhero who battles internal demons alongside external foes.
As the man who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men, Baldwin conveys bottomless complexity and sinister depths. The same cannot be said of the film. All the elements are in place: a great leading man, a fascinatingly ambiguous title character, an ace supporting cast (Peter Boyle, Sir Ian McKellen, Jonathan Winters, Tim Curry), nifty art-deco sets, and a script from the dependable, prolific David Koepp.
The Shadow isn't bad. But it's never as good as it should be. I place much of the blame on director Russell Mulcahy, who seems more concerned with special effects and production values than character. Shadow super-fan Sam Raimi desperately wanted to bring the character to the big screen but couldn't secure the rights, so he created his own moody superhero in Darkman. Years later, Raimi teamed up with Shadow screenwriter Koepp for a superhero movie that did pretty well: Spider-Man .
The Shadow daringly casts Baldwin as a disillusioned World War I veteran who has gone upriver and recreated himself as Yin-Ko, a bloodthirsty, utterly amoral warlord and opium merchant running, then walking amok in Tibet. Bruce Wayne certainly had his stormy moods, but he was never a bloodthirsty, drug-dealing, mass-murdering monster.
Then one day Baldwin is confronted by a holy man who teaches him to harness the blackness of his being for good, and tutors him on how to cloud people's minds and control their thoughts and actions. In pop culture, this telekinetic ability is commonly known as "Shinning."
After seven years of study, Baldwin returns to New York, where he leads the requisite double life: aimless playboy by day, shadowy crime-fighter by night. In his nighttime guise as The Shadow, Baldwin cultivates an army of helpers and accomplices identifiable by their opal rings.
John Lone co-stars as Baldwin's antagonist, a telekinetically gifted descendent of Genghis Khan intent on using his strange powers to rule the world. Lone and Baldwin aren't the only people in New York blessed with the Shinning: Wealthy socialite Penelope Ann Miller also possess psychic powers. (Strangely, when Miller made The Shadow, she had just married Will Arnett, Baldwin's arch-nemesis from 30 Rock and the only man who can compete with Baldwin in a talking like this contest.)
Miller, miscast as a Rita Hayworth-like glamour girl, is the daughter of nuclear scientist McKellen, who works alongside sniveling baddie Curry in the War Department's little-known Androgynous British Fop division. Lone uses his sinister powers of persuasion to rope McKellen and Curry into building an atomic bomb for him, all leading up to a final confrontation between Baldwin and his most fearsome adversary to date.
Koepp's script is full of humor both pitch-black and campy. In my favorite exchange, Miller tells Baldwin of a wonderful dream she's just had where she's lying naked on a beach in a sun-kissed tropical paradise. Then she asks Baldwin about his dreams, and the following banter ensues:
Baldwin: "I dreamed I tore all my skin off and was someone else underneath."
Miller: "You've got problems."
Baldwin: "I'm aware of that."
The Shadow should be a cross between Christopher Nolan's Batman and 30 Rock's Jack Donaghy, a black-Irish brooder with a conflicted soul, blood on his hands, a past he can never forget, and a winning way with a one-liner. But The Shadow is afraid to plumb the character's depths. Baldwin's voice is a thing of beauty—deep, resonant, and haunted—but in his Shadow cape, hat, trenchcoat, and scarf, he looks disconcertingly like a Madame Tussauds wax figure: poreless and not quite lifelike. The Shadow is all the more maddening for the way it gets so much right yet while missing the mark by a good margin.
The good news is that Raimi has apparently used his Spider-Man loot to buy the rights to The Shadow. A new Shadow movie is reportedly in the works. Then again, so is a new Phantom movie. Christ, if a one-dimensional vengeance machine like The Punisher can get three shots at hitting paydirt at the box office, then certainly a class act like The Shadow deserves another shot as well. My unsolicited suggestion for the lead: Jon motherfucking Hamm.
I originally intended to write about three failed '90s superhero movies in this super-sized mega-entry: The Phantom, The Shadow, and The Saint. I learned too late that The Saint fails to qualify for My Year Of Flops' superhero triple-feature for multiple reasons. First, The Saint is an international man of mystery, not a superhero. Apparently sporting a different preposterous accent and/or hairstyle every scene is not yet considered a superpower. Even more disturbingly, The Saint actually grossed a healthy $170 million worldwide.
Needless to say, when I learned that I had wasted an hour of my life watching Val Kilmer overact egregiously in The Saint for no goddamned reason whatsoever, I really let the My Year Of Flops research department have it. First I ordered a mass defenestration. Every single one of my useless, mouth-breathing, space-wasting research assistants was angrily hurled out of the A.V. Club window by an army of mustachioed strongmen. Alas, the aforementioned strongmen gave me attitude and tried to form a union, so they were themselves the subjects of a second mass defenestration, in which they were tossed out of the same window by even bigger, even more mustachioed strongmen. I learned, however, that being tossed out a second-story window isn't particularly painful, let alone fatal, so I had the research assistants and surly original strongmen crucified, then given a stern written warning. That ought to teach them. And to think, I had promoted the Paul Mazursky-obsessed Cockney bootblack to the head of my research department. Serves me right for trying to give a hand up to the disenfranchised, imaginary, and unconscionably silly.
The Phantom: Failure
The Shadow: Failure
The Saint: [half grade] Fai