1996 was a banner year for cinema. Or, at least it was a banner year for the cinematic enjoyment of a one Mr. Kyle Anderson (i.e. me). I’d been to movies before, of course, but the year I turned 12 became the first year when I managed to convince my parents and friends to go see pretty much every blockbuster release I could: Twister, Mission: Impossible, Dragonheart at the drive-in, Jean-Claude Van Damme‘s The Quest (look, I was 12), and of course Independence Day. But buried in that summer was a superhero movie. What?! You guys, remember The Phantom? I do. And I thought it was the shit.
Of course, it didn’t take too long for me to realize The Phantom was a pile of pants, but 12-year-old me, a comic book lover of the highest order who was stuck in a period of time when superhero movies were either stupid (Blankman…remember that?) or were Batman Forever (which I will fight anyone who says it’s stupid). This was also the period of time that spawned movies like The Shadow—movies based on other 1940s heroes, be it from comic strips or radio plays. A little too late to be counted, and a year before the death knell of the ’90s comic book movie boom (Batman & Robin) came The Phantom, a movie that could have been something special…but wasn’t.
Directed by Simon Wincer (if you responded “who?” then you are not alone), the man who’d recently gave the world Free Willy and Operation Dumbo Drop, The Phantom on paper had everything cool going for it — a known hero property, a cool 1930s or 1940s setting with cars and costumes and what not, a suave leading man in Billy Zane (even though Bruce Campbell had a chance to play the role), and high-flying action. And I admit, to my sensibilities at the time, it was the ultimate in cool. I knew enough about the character of the Phantom from reruns of Defenders of the Earth and the dark future-set Phantom 2040 to be invested, there weren’t any other superhero movies that year for me to care about.
The story starts in the 16th Century where a young boy witnesses the death of his father at the hands of the evil Kabai Sengh and his brotherhood of pirates. The boy jumps overboard and washes up on a remote south Pacific island where he is taken in by the local tribe, given a skull ring, and taught to be the purple body-suited hero the Phantom, known alternately as “The Ghost Who Walks” and “The Man Who Never Dies,” the former being maybe the dumbest title of all time. He’s called these, though, because the Phantom is a title passed on from generation to generation every time the previous one is killed, in the never-ending fight against injustice. Cut to 1938 where Kit Walker (Zane) is the 21st Phantom and on the trail of the Sengh Brotherhood as they look for the Skulls of Touganda, a trio of skulls made of precious metal and gems that have intense destructive powers when put together.
The thief in question is Quill (James Remar), a member of the Brotherhood and the man who killed Kit’s father, the 20th Phantom (Patrick McGoohan). His father, by the way, keeps visiting Kit in visions. Or maybe he’s an actual ghost who walks. I dunno, man; it’s a pretty weird movie. Anyway, Quill is working for a megalomaniac industrialist named Xander Drax (Treat Williams) who makes sure we remember his name begins and ends with an X. Kit travels to New York City to investigate and meets his ex-girlfriend from college, Diana Palmer (Kristy Swanson), whose uncle owns the big newspaper which is investigating Drax also. You get it so far? Diana is still pretty mad at Kit for leaving her, even though “Hey I have to go be an island-based superhero” seems like it’d be a pretty good excuse.
The movie basically becomes a globe-trotting adventure with Drax and his cronies (including a femme fatale played by a young Catherine Zeta-Jones) one step ahead of the Phantom and Diana. Oh, also the Phantom has a white horse named Hero and a wolf named Devil, because why wouldn’t he? In the ’30s, kids just needed to see cool stuff in the comics. They eventually all meet with the still-alive Kabai Sengh (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa) and Drax endeavors to find the final Skull…but maybe the dude with the Skull ring knows where it is.
I think, if you can’t tell from the above, one of the major problems with the movie is just how complicated the story is. I’m having a hard time remembering half of what happens and I probably watched this 30 times as a kid. The other main problem is how dag-blamed hokey everything is, which is not helped at all by the scene-chewing marvel that is Treat Williams. He is the exact kind of moustache-twirling world-dominator you’d expect, and he goes insane, literally cackling in the highest of pitches at the end of the movie. Zane does a good enough job, and fills out the Lycra suit well enough, but his chemistry with Swanson is very bland and there needs to be sparky banter between the two for it to work.
But looking back, it’s easy to see why I liked it 20 years ago; it’s got everything I thought was cool and the visuals were very impressive. It’s not as a good a period-set superhero movie movie as 1991’s The Rocketeer or even 1994’s The Shadow, which also didn’t get a sequel, but I think in the mid-90s, it was the lack of taking the property seriously that was the trouble. Not that The Phantom needed to be dark and grim—far from it—but it felt like most of the people involved just rolled their eyes and said “Oh, I’ve got to be in this movie,” or they just decided the movie was silly and so acted that same way. Despite all of that, though, I’ll always have a fondness for this colorful, boring turd.
Images: Paramount Pictures