AH Vignette: The Weed of Crime Bears Bitter Fruit



Alternate History Pop Culture Vignette

The weed of crime bears bitter fruit -- crime does not pay!

The Shadow knows!



In the mid-1990s, the world of cinema was consumed by superhero fever. Directed by Tim Burton and co-starring Michael Keaton and Jack Nicholson, the Warner Bros. film adaptation of the classic DC Comics character Batman in 1989 enjoyed resounding critical and financial success, paving the way for a sprawling multimedia franchise and single-handedly revitalising the superhero movie genre, which had been lying fallow since the middling response received by Superman III in 1983.

At the dawn of the new decade, the floodgates were opened as a deluge of new superhero movies poured onto the big screen. Throughout the 1990s, a host of attempts came and went as just about every production company and director in Hollywood scrambled for popular IP licences in an effort to get a piece of the Batman action. Some succeeded and others flopped. Some were genuinely inventive and others hackneyed. Some played it safe and others demonstrated real ambition.

The list is famous. Batman Returns landed in 1992, with Tim Burton returning to the director’s chair and Michael Keaton reprising his role as the Caped Crusader, this time opposite the novel pairing of superstar newlyweds Warren Beatty (whose infamous ego is credited in retrospect with putting Keaton off further turns in the cowl) and Annette Benning as the villains Riddler and Catwoman respectively. Beatty himself had directed Harrison Ford as newspaper strip detective Dick Tracy in a film of the same name (which proved enough of a success to spawn two sequels, Dick Tracy Goes to War and Dick Tracy Meets His Match) in 1990, the same year that Sam Raimi pioneered one of the first wholly original superhero films with Darkman starring Liam Neeson in the title role. Raimi would return as the co-creator and producer of a spiritual sequel called M.A.N.T.I.S. in 1994, featuring Denzel Washington as protagonist Dr Miles Hawkins. Disney entered the fray with Joe Johnston’s The Rocketeer, an adaptation of the independent comic book series harkening back to the Golden Age of superheroes, which proved to be a moderate hit and later received a spin-off television series. Later in the decade came the notorious Superman Lives, the storied Kevin Smith-scripted, Ben Affleck-starring reboot of the Superman franchise which requires little introduction here.

One of the quieter successes of the decade – a hidden gem only lately rediscovered, which is surprising given the magnitude of its success – was the 1996 pulp throwback The Shadow. Created by Walter B. Gibson in 1931, the Shadow had become a fixture of the pulp magazines of the decade, ascending to new heights of success later in the 1930s with the first broadcast of the ground-breaking Shadow radio serial starring Orson Welles in the title role and later receiving citations as one of the most important influences on the creation of Batman.

Producer Martin Bregman had held the film rights to the Shadow since 1982 and collaborated with screenwriter David Koepp (a huge fan of the character and of Welles’s portrayal in particular) on a draft screenplay which was shopped around major studios for several years. It was not until the success of Batman that production companies began to take serious interest; however, an attempt to get the project started with Universal Pictures in 1994 with Russell Mulcahy (fresh of the immense success of Highlander II: The Quickening) tapped to direct fell through when the company chose to focus their energies on the aforementioned M.A.N.T.I.S. Undeterred, Bregman approached 20th Century Fox, who were more receptive, and production was scheduled to begin in 1995 with a 1996 release in mind.

Attached to the project to direct was the acclaimed Hong Kong action director John Woo; his second major American picture. Having made his name with highly-stylised films such as The Killer and Hard Boiled, Woo had helmed his first Hollywood film two years earlier with the Jean Claude Van Damme vehicle Hard Target in 1993, and as promised broad latitude to make the film he wanted to make. The choice of Woo as director met with some reluctance on the part of Bregman and Koepp (although Koepp had been hired by Raimi to co-write the screenplay for M.A.N.T.I.S. and had limited involvement with The Shadow, he retained a nominal role as an executive producer), particularly given Woo’s relative unfamiliarity with the property. However, the director made an effort to learn about the character and its history and soon won over the producer and screenwriter after several meetings to discuss his vision for the tone and direction of the film.


David Koepp’s first choice to play Lamont Cranston, the Shadow (the final script largely dispensed with the overly-complicated backstory from the pulps in which the Shadow had maintained several secret identities) had been Alec Baldwin. However, by 1995, Baldwin was already starring in a major superhero production after his casting as Bruce Wayne in the Martin Campbell-directed “soft reboot” Batman Forever. Val Kilmer was strongly lobbied to step in as a replacement but declined the role; Sean Penn was recommended by future Superman Lives producer Jon Peters, on the basis that Penn had “the eyes of a caged animal; a fucking killer”. This suggestion was politely ignored and Woo introduced the unique idea (one which he would revisit in his next film, Face/Off) of featuring two actors in the lead role and knew exactly who he wanted to cast.

Prior to being given The Shadow, Woo had been interested in another Fox production that had fallen through, but he remained interested in working with its mooted stars. Cast as brooding millionaire playboy Lamont Cranston was Christian Slater, a former star of 1980s teen films turned Hollywood bad boy with his role in True Romance, who had already appeared in big budget movies including his turn as Will Scarlett in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves and interviewer Daniel Malloy in Interview With the Vampire opposite Brad Pitt and Tom Cruise.


Concurrently, the part of the Shadow would be played by veteran Hollywood weirdo John Travolta, whose career had lain fallow for many years since his late-70s heyday but had recently experienced a major revival of fortune with his appearances in the crime movies Pulp Fiction and Get Shorty. Travolta would once more undertake a similar role in the following year when he re-joined Woo to star in Face/Off opposite fellow crackpot Nicolas Cage.


Woo had found common ground with Koepp (who later described Woo’s decision as “an inspired stroke of genius”) over their shared interest in the duality of the Shadow as a concept, which had formed a substantial part of the character’s influence on Batman and was what the director found most interesting about the character. They were keen to explore the question of the film’s tagline – the Shadow’s famous catchphrase “Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows!” – and going further in creating a division between the hero and their own secret identity than any other superhero movie had before or has since. Slater and Travolta would often perform voice-over when the other was on the screen and one of the best-remembered elements of the film was the frequent conversations between Cranston and his alter-ego in the many mirrors of his palatial New York brownstone. From a production standpoint, it was anticipated that placing two leading men in effectively the same role would help to cultivate the tension between both halves of the Shadow that Woo was keen to convey on screen. In this regard, the plan was successful, although it did produce a rivalry between Slater and Travolta which may have made the production somewhat less smooth than it could have been.

The female lead role, Margo Lane, was to be played by Samantha Mathis, who had previously appeared opposite Slater in her first starring role as Nora in 1990's comedy-drama Pump Up the Volume. In a major departure from the existing property, Koepp’s script gave Margo psychic abilities which Woo was keen to explore (and, indeed, arranged for script revisions to emphasise when he felt that the existing screenplay had gone out on a limb to introduce these powers and then failed to live up to its ambition) and which Mathis noted would help to make the character more pro-active than the average comic book movie love interest. Although Mathis's performance was well-received, most critics agreed that the role was almost more appealing than its actor.


The villain of the feature was one of the Shadow’s traditional arch-nemeses from the original pulp novels, the “Golden Master” Shiwan Khan, the self-proclaimed last descendant of Genghis Khan. Like most of the Shadow’s pulp era opponents, Shiwan Khan was an unabashed racist stereotype; a Yellow Peril villain who many members of the production team, John Woo not least among them, strongly considered replacing. Nonetheless, Khan was ultimately left in. To play the role, Woo recruited one of his frequent collaborators from Hong Kong, actor and martial artist Chow Yun-Fat, in his first American role.


Ultimately, the racial implications of the Shiwan Khan proved unavoidable despite the best efforts of all involved to downplay the Yellow Peril associations of the character. Even so, critics gave the filmmakers credit for doing their best to be sensitive with the role; written and played as a cool-headed gambler and master planner, Khan was at least praised as a non-stereotypical take on the character and Chow received great acclaim for his performance (particularly his fight scenes with Travolta and Travolta's stunt double), leading to a fruitful career in Hollywood films for the actor for the rest of the decade.

Cast alongside Chow in a supporting role as Shiwan Khan's lead henchman, mad scientist Dr Farley Claymore, was beloved English character actor Tim Curry. Most audiences agreed that he was a highlight of the picture.


The plot of the film largely followed Koepp’s script; a period piece set primarily in 1936 but beginning with Cranston’s origins as a former First World War pilot who flew with the French air force then ventured to China where he became a feared opium warlord, before being handpicked by a mysterious holy man known as the Tulku who teaches Cranston to unlock his own mental and physical powers before sending him back to America to fight crime in his name. In the course of his adventures, Cranston meets Margo Lane, a reporter who has used her own hidden psychic powers to track down the Shadow and deduce his identity. Subsequently, they become entangled in the fiendish schemes of the nefarious Shiwan Khan, who plots to hijack a primitive nuclear weapon developed by Margo’s scientist father and his corrupt partner, Dr Claymore, and use it to destroy New York City in a kind of prototypical “broken arrow” situation which only the Shadow is capable of preventing.

Koepp’s absence from much of the production prompted Bregman and Woo to enlist an uncredited script doctor (later revealed to be none other than Quentin Tarantino, a huge admirer of Woo who reportedly jumped at the chance to work with him) to punch up the dialogue, excise some elements which were deemed to be superfluous and expand on some other elements, particularly the aforementioned psychic abilities the story gave to Margo. Woo himself wrote several new scenes which transformed into action set-pieces, affording him an opportunity to prove his mettle as one of the world’s foremost action directors. Perhaps in consequence, compared to some of its contemporaries, The Shadow was notably darker and more violent take on the superhero genre which embraced the lurid sensationalism of its pulp origins; although nowhere close to Woo’s Hong Kong work, it was perhaps closer to Tim Burton’s original Batman film or even Brandon Lee’s The Crow and its sequels than lighter fare such as the competing Batman Forever (which had utilised Alec Baldwin's talent for comedy and embraced the light-hearted fun of the 1966 Batman television series to great effect) and consequently drew as much controversy as praise (particularly given that The Shadow had a somewhat improbable Happy Meal cross-promotion with McDonald’s restaurants). The Shadow, as played by Travolta to great effect, would sneer, “The weed of crime bears bitter fruit… The Shadow knows!” before drawing his signature handguns and blowing mobsters away.

Critically acclaimed on its release, particular praise was reserved for the performances of the cast (particularly the novel double-lead casting of Slater and Travolta as both halves of the Shadow), the stylishness of the period setting and the film’s success in developing unique and distinctive themes which went beyond the expectations of a summer blockbuster without sacrificing faithfulness to the tone and aesthetic of the original pulps. John Woo’s direction was met with effusive commendations; all of his hallmarks were on full display (some critics suggested they were reflected more effectively in The Shadow than even in many of his Hong Kong productions), including frenetic action scenes, slow-motion sequences, elaborate gunplay, Mexican stand-offs, nebulously Christian themes (the final confrontation between the Shadow and Shiwan Khan begins in a hall of mirrors and ends in a cathedral) and blood-spattered doves. The Shadow would win several awards, most prestigiously an Academy Award for Best Costume Design (along with three further nominations in technical categories) and a number of genre awards (including a near clean-sweep of the Saturn Awards in 1997). The movie currently retains an 84% “fresh” rating on the review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes.

Produced on a budget of approximately $65 million, The Shadow scored big immediately on its release, debuting at number-one posting an opening weekend total of $38,178,206 on 23 June 1996 and becoming one of the most popular blockbusters of the summer of that year. While less commercially successful than either in the end, it enjoyed a distinct leg-up on its main competitors, The Rock and Independence Day, in terms of critical reaction. It would go on to gross $174,605,982 in America, ending the year with the fourth-highest domestic take, with overseas earnings of $151,443,743 producing a cumulative total of $326,049,725. Overall, The Shadow was the fifth-highest grossing film of 1996, edging out The Hunchback of Notre Dame at number six and falling short of The Rock at number four. It remains the most successful film of John Woo’s career.

Owing to the success of the film, discussion of sequels was inevitable; both Batman and Dick Tracy had demonstrated earlier in the decade that the appetite for sequels to popular superhero franchises was always high. However, Woo was not interested, having already moved on (with Travolta in tow) to start work on his next big action effort, Face/Off. In any event, sufficient bad blood had emerged between Christian Slater and John Travolta that a repeat of the same formula seemed untenable right away. Slater himself enjoyed a brief run as an action star (considered at one stage for the lead role of Richard Miller in the 1999 adaptation of the popular Time Crisis video games directed by John McTiernan, a part that eventually went to Keanu Reeves) as a result of the movie, until personal demons conspired to undermine his career in the early 2000s, an indicator that the weed of crime bears bitter fruit (Slater would eventually recover and is rumoured to be under consideration to appear in Kill Bill, Vol. 3 next year).

In the end, a small but successful cottage industry of Shadow tie-in novels would result in a bestselling series written primarily by the author of the film’s novelisation, James Luceno. The first release was 1997’s The Shadow: Revenge of the Golden Master, loosely adapted from a preliminary sequel treatment widely believed to have been written by Tarantino. Today, The Shadow is remembered as “a movie that could’ve started a great series” if things had turned out differently and its rare status as a successful superhero action blockbuster that didn’t produce an endless parade of sequels and spin-offs is probably the largest contributor to its comparative anonymity next to its contemporaries. Nonetheless, although it is seldom the first movie to answer the question of what was the best superhero film of the 1990s, it is often the one that ends the discussion.

“Hey, you know that one movie where Christian Slater and John Travolta played the same guy?”

“The Shadow knows!”

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Hi Heavy,

I really enjoyed this vigneete. I think it is a bit of an obscure franchise but I am interested in what you have done here.

An idea; why not keep vignettes set in the same cultural universe in the same thread to keep up a following?


An idea; why not keep vignettes set in the same cultural universe in the same thread to keep up a following?

I did think about that - I wasn't even planning on putting that in at the end to link them together, to be honest! I think it's because both vignettes originated as separate ideas without the notion that they would be connected. If I do another, that might be possible, but I feel like I've tried to have it both ways here and slotted fake movies in between real ones which may not be sustainable.

Might have a go at that James Bond story I mooted back when I was on the Doctor Who one earlier on in year.


I enjoyed it, it is really well written...
is this alternative history? At first I thought it is about Tim Burton and Batman, but it turned out, he did was involved in it in OTL. So where is the POD and difference?


I enjoyed it, it is really well written...
is this alternative history? At first I thought it is about Tim Burton and Batman, but it turned out, he did was involved in it in OTL. So where is the POD and difference?

I didn't really think too much about the PoD, because I think vignettes are best when they drop you into a world where things have happened already, if that makes sense, and you don't necessarily need a PoD for that.

Re-reading the first few paragraphs, I think a reasonable PoD might be Warren Beatty opting to stay in the director's chair for Dick Tracy and casting Harrison Ford in the lead role instead. The movie does better (I like Beatty as Tracy, but I think Ford or Kurt Russell would've been a better choice) and gets sequels, Disney invests a little more in The Rocketeer as a result and it does a bit better, the post-Batman '89 superhero craze is a bit bigger.

How plausible is that? Probably not very. I can never remember whether Beatty was hired to star in Dick Tracy then decided he'd direct it or if it was the other way around. I know he's pretty attached to the character and the property. But it isn't outside the realms of possibility that Michael Eisner or somebody could have decided to say, "No, this is the guy we want."