The Phantom: A Forgotten Superhero Film

Sergio Leone and Joe Dante at one stage were linked with The Phantom. We look back at Billy Zane's moment in the superhero spotlight.

“Where’s your spirit of adventure?” asks Drax, the film’s villain, before setting off in search of the final skull of Touganda. This sums up The Phantom nicely. It might not work, but they went on an adventure and tried something interesting and different. Cinema would be richer with a greater sense of adventure. That said, the spirit of the film being expressed by the villain does serve as an example of what a muddle the team behind The Phantom movie got themselves into.

The 1996 film The Phantom is a bit of an oddity. It gets a lot of stuff really wrong, yet there are other areas where it comes up with a really interesting approach to the challenge of making a comic adaptation. It’s not a film that I particularly enjoyed, but it is a film that I feel a lot of goodwill towards.

Set in the late 1930s, The Phantom tells the story of, er, The Phantom, a superhero moniker passed down to Kit Walker (Billy Zane) by his father, who appears to him throughout the film as a ghost. He has to stop villainous New York mogul Drax and his goons, working as part of the Sengh brotherhood, from bringing together the three Skulls of Touganda, which would afford the dastardly bad guys a great deal of magical power.

“For those who came in late” a voice announces at the start of The Phantom, before a short film piece plays and runs us quickly through the events that have led to the start point. It’s a stylish and efficient way of getting the dreaded superhero origin story out of the way.

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It’s also a good marker for the strange and often frustrating way The Phantom excels at some of the complicated stuff. It looks great, and it’s a lovely idea. Elsewhere the film shows serious signs of padding, so there’s even an argument for giving this scene a little more time. Had it been allowed to play out over a couple of minutes it would have better matched the subsequent film’s pace.

A brief extension of our time on the pirate ship would have been helpful, too, as it’s a great looking set and one that we return to. Had we spent more than a few seconds on it at the start of the film, the pirate ship sequence at the end might have felt more impactful. Broadly, though, The Phantom handles the origin part of the superhero story really well.

Then we move straight onto a fantastic sequence that plays out on a rope bridge. The baddies must get a truck across the rickety looking walkway. They have a young boy with them as a guide, and they all cross on foot before making him drive across. Here, we get tension but no incident, which is great because it means that the tension can be built on for future action sequences. We establish that the bridge struggles to support the truck, which is later paid off with higher stakes, and this sequence is exciting in its own right. We also learn about the bad guys, who happily risk the life of a young boy in order to avoid any personal risk. It’s very economic filmmaking, having one segment serve several different ends.

It’s quite surprising, then, to find economy and invention absent from much of the rest of the film. The hard stuff out of the way (origin told, tone set, hero introduced), you’d think The Phantom would be set to get going. For the next half hour of The Phantom, though, the hero features for maybe five minutes. The rest of the time is spent laboriously setting up the story (which was all but set in the intro), the villains and the supporting characters, changing location and then setting up again. Everything is established, and at a languid pace, except for the main character, which means that when he does finally step in to take over the film, it’s difficult to be interested in him. By the time he becomes a big part of the plot, it feels like the movie doesn’t need him.

That’s not helped by the fact that The Phantom in The Phantom never comes close to convincing. The character is revealed with a series of dramatic costume close ups, which feel more fitting of the 90s era the film was made in than the period it’s set in and paying tribute to. The costume itself looks busy. There’s not much to it: a purple jumpsuit that covers the body, a black leather belt with a skull buckle, a skull ring, and a black eye mask.

The body suit has weird, dark patterns printed on it that make it look murky. More than once I thought something had gone wrong with the color balance on my television, or perhaps that the DVD featured a dodgy transfer, before I realized that it was the patterning on the suit. The Phantom’s look is really simple, as is the character. The film has a calm pace and tone. That such an overly complicated take on the costume was used stands out as strange, and is an example of the film getting the easier stuff wrong.

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Then there’s Billy Zane’s performance.

Zane is excellent in The Phantom as Kit Walker. He looks the part, exudes charisma, and seems natural and at home in old New York. Unfortunately, as The Phantom, he really struggles. Zane’s Phantom is unflappable in the face of danger, but to me he just seems bored. Zane is never able to sell that the character is exciting or fun in the same way that he’s able to sell Walker.

Elsewhere, Catherine Zeta-Jones’ performance further demonstrates how erratic the film is. As a villain, she’s terrific. She looks the part and appears to have a ball vamping it up. It’s no small wonder, then, that the character ends up reformed and assisting Zane’s Phantom by the end of the film. Zeta-Jones’ Sala starts out as a highlight, but finishes the film as a flappy, grinning non-character. What a boring change.

The car chase through New York is a great action set piece. 1930s New York, from the sets to the cars, looks incredible and Zane’s Phantom leaps from car to car before leading a chase on horseback, looking every part the poised action hero. For this brief section of the film, The Phantom comes to life. To borrow from the film’s own dialogue, the ghost walks. Again, though, the success is short lived as it completely deflates the moment it hits the park and you lose that city period setting.

Unfortunately, many more of the action elements of The Phantom don’t even start with a positive. The fight choreography is very poor indeed, with one bizarre attack from The Phantom standing out as particularly odd. It involves the character leaping up, trapping two villains with his thighs, and flinging them, but comes with the unfortunate effect of accidentally having the film’s hero gesture at the audience with his buttocks. Then there’s the cinematography of the pirate ship fight at the end, which is shot so close to the actors that much of the sequence could be taking place anywhere, rather than the brilliantly elaborate set.

Then there’s the bizarre opening, where The Phantom does acrobatics on a tree branch after jumping off his horse. It’s silly, which would be fine if it felt like it fit in the film. Perhaps it fit the source material, but the thing is, if you’re going to do all the things from the comic strip you need to find a tone in this medium that allows you to do so. I don’t think the tone they have here allows for The Phantom to spin around a tree branch without it feeling out of place.

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Elsewhere, lots of slow motion and repeating of action shots from different angles creates the impression of a film that’s being padded. It’s just over an hour and a half long, and the end credits seem to last a good while. I question whether the team behind The Phantom felt they had quite enough film.

There’s further evidence of uncertainty behind the scenes. Take the scene where a character is killed with a booby-trapped microscope. Suddenly, the score shrieks at us with a chorus of violins, while the trap causes a cartoonish *kerthink*. It’s heavy handed and stands out as being so different from the rest of the film that it distracts from the actual impact of the action. Of course, had it just not landed it would have been a forgotten moment. As it stands, the clumsy, overegged solution makes the scene one of the more memorable parts of the film.

We can’t know whether the sound in this instance is so because the film didn’t work, or if the film doesn’t work because of the sound design. Either way, it suggests a lack of confidence in the moment. But what we’re talking about with The Phantom is a movie so lacking in confidence that didn’t even trust its leading man to lead the film.

The nervousness is understandable. The Phantom is a film out of step with the comic adaptations of the time. Consider the neon tracksuit of a film that is 1997’s Batman and Robin (clothing wise, The Phantom is more like cinematic knitwear), or the sleazy 1996 picture Barb Wire (cinematic used pants bought off the internet).

The recent documentary The Death of Superman Lives, which explores the ill-fated 90s Superman film that collapsed prior to production, offers a fascinating insight into what was being made at the time, and how. A gentler, 1930s set adventure film in 1996 was a bold proposition. Especially so in the wake of the tepid reception, both critically and financially, 1994’s The Shadow (another 1930s set action film) had received.

The Phantom spent years in development, with filmmakers Sergio Leone, Joel Schumacher, and Joe Dante involved at various points. Perhaps the lengthy journey to the screen caused a lack of momentum or left too much time for second guessing. The film was eventually taken into production with director Simon Wincer, an experienced filmmaker, although one without the same pedigree of film on his CV as the likes of Leone (The Good, the Bad, and The Ugly), Schumacher (The Lost Boys) or Dante (Gremlins). Wincer’s previous film had been Operation Dumbo Drop, while the director had also helmed the tittersomely titled whale flick Free Willy and the cult robot movie D.A.R.Y.L. (Data Analysing Robot Youth Lifeform). Not long after, he would direct Crocodile Dundee in Los Angeles, which I shouldn’t expect you’ll be seeing covered on this site any time soon (editor’s note: muhahahaha).

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The Phantom brought back less than half its reported $45m budget at the box office.

Of course, those waiting for a decent adventure movie set in the 1930s would only have to endure a short wait. In 1999 Steven Sommers’ The Mummy was released. Trusted with a budget almost double that of The Phantom (in truth, The Mummy looks ten times more expensive), Sommers’ film is a crackling, pacey affair with a brilliant lead turn from Brendan Fraser. The parallels between the two, from the flashback openings through to mooted director Joe Dante, are notable. The big difference is that where The Phantom limped apologetically across the screen before shuffling away, the The Mummy stormed both the screen and the box office. In The Mummy, the jokes land, the characters are memorable and the action sequences are thrilling. The success of The Mummy, which brought in more than $400m from around the world and would be followed up by both sequels, spin-offs, and a theme park attraction (and a particularly fun one at that), is no injustice. It’s the better film by far.

The Phantom, then, looks nice and works in spots, but never really gets going and suffers from a lack of nerve. It’s not a film that deserves a kicking, as the team behind it tried to do something interesting, but it’s also not one that benefits from reassessment.