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A Mysterious 1930s Superhero Comes Out of the Shadows

`THE Shadow,'' one of this season's more rambunctious action-adventure epics, comes to the screen with a long pedigree. In fact, the main character's history is considerably more interesting than the shenanigans he goes through in his new movie.

Unlike later superheroes from Superman to Spiderman, the Shadow did not spring full-blown from the imagination of an enterprising artist. He began as a mere disembodied voice, according to an essay distributed to the press by Universal Pictures, proprietor of the new ``Shadow'' film.

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This voice belonged to the host of an early 1930s radio series called ``Detective Story Hour,'' and listeners found his mysterious tones more tantalizing than the whodunit yarns he introduced. Responding to this unexpected interest, one of the show's writers decided to juice up the announcer's presence by giving him a name to suit his enigmatic image: the Shadow.

Since the program was sponsored by a pulp-fiction magazine, fans started asking for Shadow material at their local newsstands, not realizing that no such material existed. Quick to seize on a potential market, the magazine's publisher hired a prolific pulp author to crank out a series of Shadow adventures. The first appeared in 1931 and became an immediate hit. Staff artists provided appropriately cryptic illustrations, showing little more than a pair of penetrating eyes veiled by a swirling cloak and a rakishly angled hat.

Armed only with superior brains and heroic morals in his early crime-fighting career, the Shadow evolved over the years into a partly supernatural figure with the power to ``cloud men's minds'' and put the most dastardly villain at his mercy.

Quite a guy. And quite a moneymaker for the media wizards who nurtured his career in magazine stories and radio episodes for the next 25 years. Even the great Orson Welles had a hand in his success, portraying him on radio in the late '30s; by that time the Shadow - or Lamont Cranston, his secret identity - had acquired a love interest named Margo Lane, a history of yoga training, and a talent for telepathy. No less a pop-culture connoisseur than author Jack Kerouac numbered himself among the character's admirers, patterning the phantasmagoric hero of his novel ``Doctor Sax: Faust Part Three'' after the Shadow's spooky appearance, outlandish abilities, and triumphant ``mwee-hee-hee-ha-ha'' laugh.

It's a pity the Shadow's latest incarnation doesn't live up to his illustrious past. Set during his original heyday in the 1930s, the new movie is a hodgepodge of violent action, ostentatious effects, and lunkheaded jokes, stitched together by a hackneyed plot wherein he woos Margo Lane, fights a would-be world conqueror, and saves New York from a cataclysmic bomb blast.

The picture's only real value lies in the questions it raises about Hollywood's current priorities.

Watching the action race foolishly across the screen, I found myself pondering the fact that the producers have taken a cluster of fictional elements rooted in the '30s - complete with period costumes, settings, and story ingredients - and treated them in a wholly contemporary way, with dialogue and special effects positively drenched in stylistic mannerisms of the '90s.

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Why have they taken this approach? It isn't hard to figure out the answer. The current crop of Hollywood filmmakers is long on technological resources but sadly short on original ideas - which explains the endless stream of sequels, remakes, and otherwise recycled projects that try to pass as fresh entertainment nowadays. Resuscitating a superhero like the Shadow provides yet another opportunity to unleash the special-effects gang on an action-filled story, without going through the bother of dreaming that story up.

Dredging up a pulp-fiction character from 60 years ago also provides another opportunity that's more pernicious than the opportunism just described. In the '30s as today, sensitivity to ethnic bias was not particularly acute in some media circles, and it wasn't uncommon to find nonwhite characters used in flagrantly unflattering ways. Accordingly, the Shadow's archenemy during the late '30s and early '40s was Shiwan Khan, heir to all the evil ambitions that his Asian ancestor Genghis Khan had unloosed upon the world.

While one might excuse the appearance of this ``yellow peril'' villain in a pulp-fiction commodity half-a-century old, it seems odd that a present-day Hollywood studio would produce a racially charged story that pits its handsome white hero against a horde of monstrous ``Mongol warriors.'' There's nothing subtle about this attempt to exploit racial stereotypes in the guise of old-fashioned fun.

``The Shadow'' was directed by Russell Mulcahy, who counts several action films and hundreds of rock videos among his credits. Alec Baldwin and John Lone play the American hero and Mongolian villain, respectively, and Penelope Ann Miller wrestles with the thankless love-interest role. David Koepp wrote the scruffy screenplay, and Stephen H. Burum did the flashy camera work.

* ``The Shadow'' has a PG-13 rating. It contains a great deal of violence and some sexual innuendo.

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