What if… ‘The Shadow’ were on Netflix?
Marvel’s Iron Fist showed up on Netflix earlier this month, and I’ve been slowly watching through the series.
As with Netflix’s previous Marvel miniseries — Daredevil, Jessica Jones, and Luke Cage — Iron Fist got me thinking, to borrow an old Marvel comic-book title, What If…?
The earlier miniseries were tremendously well done. All were gritty, story-driven series with plenty of action, great characters (and villains), and fine casts. (Iron Fist, so far, hasn’t lived up to the bar set by its predecessors.)
Daredevil’s first season pitted him against Kingpin, Wilson Fisk. The dangers seemed real for Matt Murdock as he struggled to become Daredevil, and for his friends and the other residents in Hell’s Kitchen. The second season was a bit more expansive, but still limited in scope. The same went for Luke Cage. Jessica Jones, on the other hand, was a more personal conflict between Jessica Jones and Kilgrave that other people got pulled into it.
Back to my question: What If… there were a limited-episode, streaming series based on a pulp character?
This really crystalized for me while watching episode four of Iron Fist, “Eight Diagram Dragon Palm,” as Danny Rand ventures into Chinatown. I immediately thought of The Shadow, since Chinatown played a regular role in the novel series.
Imagine a TV adaptation of “The Living Shadow,” the first novel in The Shadow series, that focuses on Harry Vincent learning to become an agent of The Shadow, as the cloaked vigilante confronts Diamond Bert Farwell in a story involving murders, stolen jewels, and secret Chinese identification disks.
Instead of today’s New York City and Hell’s Kitchen, the setting here would be 1930s New York City and its Chinatown.
The story would focus on the characters: Vincent, Claude Fellows, Det. Joe Cardona, Wang Foo, Steve Cronin, and Farwell. While keeping The Shadow largely an unknown entity, we could follow the cloaked figure on a few of his missions as he blends into the dark, black night, as his name implies. (If you’ve got to include Lamont Cranston and Margo Lane, at least use the pulp versions of each.)
We would learn The Shadow’s modus operandi, and discover that The Shadow is a man who lacks supernatural or mystical powers. He’s someone who is undoubtedly well-trained in espionage and concealment, as well as illusion, who is observant, methodical, and insightful, and who has an uncanny ability to persuade and a knowledge of hypnosis.
This would be a small-scale story, one of people, crimes, and community. Sure, there could be crowded gun battles, but it wouldn’t be an epic on the scale of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (or even its network TV adaptation, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.).
In fact, showrunner Marco Ramirez recently echoed this thought while discussing his upcoming Netflix series The Defenders during an interview with Entertainment Weekly. The miniseries will pit Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, and Iron Fist against Alexandra, a villain played by Sigourney Weaver.
Discussing Weaver’s character, Ramirez said: “We knew it would take something massive to pull these four characters from their individual worlds to work together, but also small enough that it felt like it existed in our world.”
As with The Defenders and the other Marvel series on Netflix, there’s no need to have The Shadow’s villains plotting world domination or destruction. That’s become so cliche in TV and movie adaptations of popular-culture characters that it’s hard to tell one from another. Even adaptations such as the Spider-Man movie series are overly packed with destruction and villains, when the character actually calls out for stories much smaller and lower-key.
We’ll leave the epic-scale adaptations to pulp characters that are more suited to those types of stories, such as Doc Savage, The Spider, Conan, and Tarzan. Clearly, these characters could anchor — or have anchored — tent-pole movies.
Just think about “The Land of Terror,” the second Doc Savage novel. It’s one of my favorite. It starts off with the murder of a close friend of Doc Savage’s by a mysterious “Smoke of Eternity” weapon, and a dash around New York City before Doc and his five aides tear halfway around the globe as they chase the villain Kar to a forgotten island in the Pacific where dinosaurs still roam.
It’s epic in scale, just as many other Doc Savage novels were. Likewise, The Spider novels, while maybe not as globe-spanning, were certainly epic in scope as cities could be captured or destroyed, and legions of people killed or drugged and turned to murderous armies.
Let’s leave the blockbuster storytelling to select characters. Not everyone needs that treatment.
Maybe the time is right for this What If…? I can only hope that a limited-episode streaming series of The Shadow comes about. And hope that if it does happen, the showrunners keep the characters faithful to the pulps, even if they do have to tweak them somewhat.