Published on April 8th, 2014 | by Michael0
Pulp Fiction – Rockets, Skulls and Cloaks
In the early 90s, years before the X-Men and Spider-Man made comic books films commercially viable, three adaptations of earlier characters came and went with nary a blind bit of notice paid to them. They were The Shadow, starring Alec Baldwin as a mysterious crime-fighter, The Phantom, with a buffed-up Billy Zane as ‘the ghost who walks’ and The Rocketeer which featured Billy Campbell using an experimental jet-pack to fight Nazis.
Concepts like these were harder sell back in those days of course, and while each character did have their fans, none of them are what could be described as household names. As you might expect, none of the three pulled up any trees at the box office and any hopes of a building a franchise on each of them were killed off.
The first and by most measures most successful of these films was 1991’s The Rocketeer, created by Dave Stevens as a spin-off of sorts from Doc Savage. All-American boy Billy Campbell as Cliff Secord was surrounded by a hugely talented cast including Jennifer Connolly as his actress girlfriend Jenny Blake, Alan Arkin as mentor figure Peevy and Timothy Dalton hamming it up a treat as the villain of the piece, Neville Sinclair. Directed by Joe Johnstone, the film is a much a love letter to Hollywood’s 40s heyday as it is to the character of the Rocketeer. The jetpack which makes its way it our hero’s possession was created by inventor, film mogul and all around odd ball Howard Hughes (played by Lost’s Terry O’Quinn). Sinclair is a thinly disguised parody of Errol Flynn, though the film takes Flynn’s alleged Nazi sympathies and runs with them: Sinclair is a full blown German spy. Film sets are visited, swinging LA parties are attended and Sinclair’s henchman Tiny Ron Taylor is made up to look like Rondo Hatton, a Hollywood B actor of the 1940s whose distinctive looks were the result of acromegaly. There’s even a gag towards the end involving the famous Hollywoodland sign. The film was released to warm critical acclaim and though it more than made its money back, it failed to generate enough revenue for a sequel.
In 1994 came pulp hero The Shadow in which the world’s greatest actor portrays Lamont Cranston, an American drug lord in China and undergoes a damascene conversion and fights crime back stateside. The character has a rich and storied history – he was introduced as the narrator on a radio crime serial and his popularity led to a starring role and then a series of pulp novels written by Walter B Gibson. Many of the radio episodes were narrated by Orson Welles and introduced with the famous line ’who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows!’ A hodge-podge creation born of different writers across different formats, common elements include his dark cloak and fedora, his network of allies and his many disguises (in his original form, Lamont Cranston is merely an identity, in the film it his real name). His power to ‘cloud men’s minds’ and escape detection was born of the limitations of radio – it saved the narrator having to describe how the Shadow hid from his enemies.
Like The Rocketeer, The Shadow boasts a strong supporting cast including Peter Boyle, Tim Curry and Ian Mckellen. John Lone plays the villain, Shiwan Khan, a descendant of Genghis who arrives in New York with nefarious designs. With the help of his network and beautiful telepathic socialite Margo Lane (Penelope Ann Miller), The Shadow is naturally ably to thwart his dastardly schemes. He was unable to draw in the viewers however; the film barely surpassed its $40M budget and was met with a lukewarm reaction from critics, although in my opinion it does a good job capturing the pulp spirit of the character, even if the overall effect is a little hokey.
Finally in 1996 came The Phantom. The character was created by Lee Falk and is one of the all-time great concepts – ‘The Phantom’ is a legacy hero, a role handed down from father to son through generations although he is thought to be one man, hence his nickname ‘The Ghost Who Walks’. Though most strips concern a contemporary Phantom, there is scope for stories set in any historical period stretching back to the first Phantom, a 16th Century sailor. This fresh and timeless quality has helped the character’s enduring appeal, the strip is still published today. Like the Hulk after him, the Phantom was originally intended to be grey by Falk, who considered calling his creation ‘The Grey Ghost’ but the Phantom came to be known by his famous purple suit.
Billy Zane is perfectly cast as the Ghost Who Walks and spent a long time preparing for the role, beefing up so much that the Batman style muscle suit made for him wasn’t needed in the end. The Prisoner’s Patrick McGoohan is great value as the Phantom’s deceased father who had the mantle before him and the other players include future Buffy the Vampire Slayer Kirsty Swanson and a pre-fame Catherine Zeta-Jones. The plot revolves around evil New York business man Xander Drax (Treat Williams) searching for the ‘Skulls of Touganda’ which will give him unimaginable power. With the help of his father’s ghost, his wolf Devil and his horse Hero as well as Swanson’s Lois Lane-lite Diana Palmer our plucky hero must stand up to Drax and his small army of henchmen, all on the eve of WWII. Zane brings a levity and humour to the role that is perhaps lacking in our other heroes, with a winning smile and a nice line in self-deprecation, with McGoohan ably supporting with excellent exasperated eye-rolling. In fact with his good looks, cheery smile, pet wolf and ghost pappy, The Phantom could easily pass as a 1930s version of Constable Benton Frazer in Due South, a series which debuted two years earlier. Alas, like its filmic predecessors (and indeed, Due South) the film didn’t garner the audience it deserved, taking it less than half its budget and the two planned sequels were scrapped.
Time, however has been kind to all three films. Each has benefitted hugely from home releases and can claim to be a cult classic; they are staples on Saturday night TV and rightly so. They also have a well-deserved legacy. Billy Zane, on the strength of his performance was cast in the biggest role of his career, Titanic the following year. ‘The Man Who Never Dies’ also lived on in the excellent Phantom 2040 cartoon series which chronicles the adventures of a future Phantom and boasts Mark Hamill, Ron Perlman and Debbie Harry among its stars. Rocketeer director Joe Johnstone brought his trademark mix of period detail and rollicking adventure to the hugely successful Captain America: First Avenger, essentially the Rocketeer again on a vast scale. The character of Cliff Secord may yet receive a reprieve himself, Disney are considering a reboot (and have released the original on Blu Ray to test the waters) but whether there’s room in the Disney canon at this moment for what is essentially a low-powered Iron Man is debatable.
The Shadow has perhaps had the most oblique impact; thwarted in his attempts to gain the rights to either it or Batman, Sam Raimi created an analogue of the character for Darkman, a superb vigilante film which combines the feel of the pulp stories with Raimi’s trademark wacky violence. Raimi has since acquired the rights to The Shadow raising hopes of a new adaptation which has so far failed to materialise.
So yes, none of these films drew in the big bucks today’s superhero films get. All failed to get their franchises off the ground. But many people, myself included, look back on them with great fondness, a fact backed up by impressive video and DVD sales for all three. Heck, maybe in 10 years’ time we’ll be able to say the same about John Carter and The Lone Ranger. Or perhaps not.