Creating a Pulp and Noir Heroverse for the Big Screen

The first half of the twentieth century (from the Roarin’ Twenties, to World War II era, and on through the post war Atomic Age) was an ideal breeding ground for some cool pulp heroes who found their way into comics and comic strips, radio shows, movies, and old black and white television series. These noir-like classics were so appealing there were many attempts from the 1980s into this century to create more updated movie versions of them and to create entirely new characters.

Although I am hardly a fan of continual reboots and remakes, I think it is time go gather some forces from the past and reintroduce these characters (all who have seen their share of adaptations) again for a series of hard-boiled, stylized, noir, gangster and detective tales.

Here are four great characters and stories that need a new movie worthy of their coolness, with practical effects and sultry cinematography, as well as one movie that is already near perfect the way it is.

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The Shadow

I’ve talked about how much I love The Shadow in the past. I wrote an article here last July on characters The Shadow influenced and of the talks of a new Shadow movie (which I still haven’t heard anymore about).

I never saw the 1940 film, but as the 1994 movie is the latest venture, that is the one many of my generation may remember. The movie wasn’t horrible (heck, Tim Curry and Gandalf were part of it) but I just couldn’t get around the title casting. Something about Alec Baldwin just wasn’t a good fit for me, even though he is a fine actor.

I would love to see The Shadow return in full noir glory, with a gritty, epic, globe-hopping adventure.

I have put a lot of thought into this one, and “cast my own Shadow movie” for, in case any stumped filmmakers need some pointers. I think it’s a great cast, FYI, and even the diversity police would be satisfied, maybe. If they need a director or screenwriter, I’m available, since Sam Raimi gave up trying to do his own version in the 2000s.

The Phantom

I really wanted to love The Phantom movie that popped up two years after The Shadow in 1996. The cast was great (Billy Zane, Kristy Swanson and Catherine Zeta-Jones for starters), but the script just seemed forced and didn’t show off the character’s potential as much as it should have. There were some pretty intense scenes, though, and that “microscope” murder is still shudder-inducing even in today’s graphic horror show world.

The original character was created by a man named Lee Falk, and his groundbreaking Phantom was the first superhero to appear in the “skintight” fitted suit that pretty much every other superhero today has mimicked. Falk was also a huge fan of William Shakespeare as much as he was of classic pulp heroes, and inserted several Shakespearean references into his work.

(RELATED: Why ‘The Phantom’ Endures as a Genre Favorite)

Falk also had a cool World War II connection, serving as chief of the radio-foreign language division of the Office of War information. “Phantom” was the codename for the Norwegian Resistance movement as the comic was a popular attraction in the newspapers smuggled into Nazi-occupied Norway.

These are just a couple of the nifty things to consider in bringing The Phantom back to the big screen. There was a modern-day mini series that made it to the Syfy channel around 2010, but it was a pretty loose modern day adaptation.

A new film could be a bridge between the pulp stories of the past, and detective tales still popular today.

Green Hornet

I know, in terms of live action, the movie version from 2011 was already up against the classic television series with the one and only Bruce Lee as Kato and Van Williams as Green Hornet. Williams himself appeared in the 1993 Bruce Lee biopic as the director of the Green Hornet series.

The Seth Rogan and Jay Chou 2011 effort was super fun, but it was more than anything a comedy spoof. Sure, the campy fun of the television series can stay, but add a little grit to the era to really make it work. One good reference to look at is the 2010 comic book series from Kevin Smith ad Phil Hester. Smith is, if nothing else, a true comic lover, and it shows in this one. I usually don’t like turning favorite male characters into females, but in this case Smith’s writing Kato as a girl worked. This is a “next generation” story, after all.

These stories fit the bill better for what a new adaptation of Green Hornet could look like, with action, humor, and a full appreciation of the source material.

Bring Smith’s storytelling, and flair for fun, into a tale set in Green Hornet’s original 1930s era, and we might have something there.

The Spirit

I still really don’t know what to think of the 2008 movie adaptation of The Spirit. There was something that was undeniably fantastic about its stylized isolated color cinematography and Samuel Jackson’s hilarious line delivery. As a matter of fact, after recently rewatching the trailer, I want to bust out the sketchbook and create some fanart. Even so, I’m ready for this hero to have another go.

Frank Miller did the screenplay for this one, and you can really see his influence, which isn’t a bad thing. I love Frank Miller’s work, but there is just something missing for me.

As far as the “weirdness” of the movie, The Spirit has always been one of the weirder series, and that’s why it is so terrific.

See, The Spirit is more important to comics than you would realize. First and foremost, he was the baby of Will Eisner, the most important creator in comic book history. If you love Stan Lee or Bob Kane (which I do), but don’t know much about Eisner, I recommend you do some research.

Second, The Spirit, who first debuted in 1940, was bizarre and strange before his time. Yes, he was a noir crime-fighting vigilante, but The Spirit comics bounced around successfully from genre to genre, from horror, to comedy, to straight up noir mystery.

For those wanting to see a different take, if you can find it, there was a 1987 made-for-television adaptation that looks to have a completely different vibe (the title role was played by Flash Gordon himself, Sam Jones), and interestingly enough has a slightly higher IMDB score than the feature film.

I think The Spirit still needs some revisiting, as he is too interesting of a character to let go of so fast.

One of the first Spirit stories I remember was from a Smithsonian comic book compilation, “The Story of Gerhard Shnobble,” written in 1948. Shnobble was a diminutive, often overlooked man who could fly. He had never actually flown (he forgot he could) until he was fired from his job, and decides to test out this talent and show the world he isn’t a nobody. Long story short, on his maiden flight, he gets caught in the middle of a gun battle between The Spirit and some bad guys, and is shot and killed.

No one saw him fly.

This weird little tale is the spirit of The Spirit that I want to see more of. I would even scrap the movie idea for a while and look at creating a television series based on The Spirit tales. There are so many of them, any writer would have a blast.

Now, not every movie adaptation is a miss. One of the most underrated live actions from Disney came out in 1991.

The Rocketeer

Here’s the weird thing about The Rocketeer: it was set in the 30s and 40s, but it isn’t a comic from that era. Dave Stevens first introduced the character in 1982 as part of a series called Starslayer. He later has his own stories, but they sure fit perfect with the rest of the pulp and noir heroes. Really, in terms of eras, he’s closer to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles than he is The Shadow or Green Hornet.

The movie was one of those few great surprises in cinema. I remember going on opening day, and still have a cool “commemorative movie poster button.”

From the look to the cast, to mobsters fighting Nazis, to art deco meets steampunk, to the shoutout to Howard Hughes’s Spruce Goose, to the costuming comic book goofiness, The Rocketeer was sheer fun for the sake of fun. Plus, it made you feel great to be an American, as the spirit of innovation was one of the great themes. Even the short-lived cutesy poop animated pre-school series Disney recently released can’t keep this gorgeously put together classic from shining.

The best line in it came from Paul Sorvino’s mafia boss Eddie Valentine, who demonstrated how America can be a fantastic melting pot of cultures all strung together with a common value system, one even the organized crime world seems proud of:

“I may not make an honest buck, but I’m 100 percent American. I don’t work for no two-bit Nazi.”


There would be only one reason I wouldn’t mind seeing a new Rocketeer story, and that is so he can have some potential for a crossover appearance in these other aforementioned stories. It doesn’t even need to be a standalone movie. We would bring him in to make a high-flying cameo with another hero. That would be awesome.

Many of these old titles have been created as some pretty good graphic novel series by Dynamite Entertainment, which specializes in these types of adaptations of pre-existing franchises. Perhaps a retro-style “Dyno-verse” could form, with many of these titles overlapping into each other’s stories.

If Phase Four of the Marvel Cinematic Universe just seems a little too bland, or DC Comics is still trying to figure out what they want to do with their characters, it might be refreshing to travel back in time to an alternate universe of steam-powered flyers, hard-boiled detectives, strong and beautiful femme fatales, and dark noir heroes lurking around the corner.

Can such a universe of sleek art deco nostalgia still exist and make it in today’s world of quotas and quarantine?

Only The Shadow knows.

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