Title: The Phantom (1996)
Director: Simon Wincer
Cast: Billy Zane, Treat Williams, Catherine Zeta-Jones, James Remar, Kristy Swanson
My introduction to the Lee Falk’s The Phantom was by way of a cartoon show from the 80’s called Defenders of the Earth; boy I was a fan of that show! It united Flash Gordon, Mandrake the Magician (another one of Falk’s creations) and The Phantom in a show that turned them into a team of super heroes who in every episode would go up against Ming the Merciless in his attempt to conquer the earth. Back then I must have been about 11 or 12 years old but little did I know that The Phantom had such a legacy as a character! Here’s a character that started way back in the 1930’s as a syndicated comic strip. It has gone on to appear in all sorts of media outlets including films, cartoons, video games, comic books and novels. Sad part about the character is that even though Lee Falk constantly made efforts to get the character out there to the public, for some reason modern audiences never connected with the character, which is probably the reason why the film made back ’96 flopped in such a big way.
After the mega success of Batman (1989) and its sequel Batman Returns (1992) all the major studios were looking for a way to duplicate the success of those films and so suddenly, comic book films where the hot ticket. Before Burton’s Batman, big budget comic book films were a rarity. Yes my friends, there was a time when comic book lovers were starving for superhero films! We earned for worthy adaptations of our favorite comic book characters. A glimpse of light showed itself on the horizon when Burton’s bat films made it so big. After Batman comic book fans got least one big budget comic book movie every summer. The problem was that most studios didn’t go for modern comic book characters, for some reason they opted to go with old comic book heroes, like The Rocketeer (1991), The Shadow (1994) and the film I’ll be reviewing today, The Phantom (1996). I guess studios wanted to go the safe route by making films of these established characters. No matter how old they were, studios thought movies based on these characters would make huge bank at the box office because they were classic super heroes. But boy were they wrong! Studios didn’t know it back then, but people didn’t want to see super heroes from the 30’s, they wanted to see modern day super heroes brought to life. The disappointing box office success of these three super hero films based on old characters taught film studios that what people wanted was something else, something modern. It was 20th Century Fox who finally went the right way and did a film based on Marvel comics X-Men (1999). Comic book movies haven’t stopped since, the new age of comic book films was born. But it seems studios haven’t learned their lesson entirely, cause they’ve just gone and spent 200 million dollars in making The Lone Ranger (2013), which has immediately lost a ton of money at the box office and is poised to become this year’s runaway turkey.
The Phantom, next to his horse 'Hero'
But what of The Phantom? Why did it flop? Aside from it being an old comic book character? Well, to be honest, the film isn’t all that exciting. I mean, be it old or new, what really matters at the end of the day is if the film is worth a damn, if it entertains. So doe it? Well, in my book it half way does. For me the film never truly takes off. Even though it was written by Jeffrey Boam; the guy who wrote Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade (1989), The Phantom still managed to be boring and flat. Even the fights were filmed in a boring way! Here I was watching the climactic fight between the good guy and the bad guy and I was like, that’s it, this is the best they could muster? The film isn’t impressive enough. I mean, I did appreciate the way the film tried to convey this feeling of old adventure films, of the old cliffhangers from the 50’s. Hidden caves, hidden treasures, good guys chasing bad guys while riding horses, the hero jumping off planes, pirates, swords…cool ideas, my only problem is in the execution, it all amounts to a boring film, which is a sad thing to be if you’re a superhero film.
Another thing that rubbed me the wrong way was how many elements were ripped off from the Indiana Jones films. I mean, okay, you got the same guy who wrote Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade to write this, but damn the similarities are so many that you almost feel like you are watching the Indiana Jones films all over again. Let’s see, the whole film is about these three magical skulls, kind of like those three magical stones from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984)? When they get together they are all powerful? Been there seen that. They have this scene where the bad guys unite the three magical skulls and laser lights come out of the skulls eyes and the lasers point out a spot on the map that shows the bad guys where they need to go to get the third skull….which instantly reminded me of a similar scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) in which Indy does the same exact thing. There this scene in which The Phantom jumps off a plane with his girl and the plane crashes on a mountain, a scene plays out in the same exact fashion in Temple of Doom, even the shots are similar! Even the opening of the film takes place in an old bridge, same as that old bridge that Indy dangles from in Temple of Doom, so yeah, the filmmakers behind The Phantom used the Indiana Jones films as a blue print. Unfortunately, they were unable to duplicate the excitement behind those films.
On the positive side of things, the film does scream Saturday Morning Matinee, and it does manage to have that old fashion sense of adventure to it, and come on, let’s face it, that cheesy, cliffhanger stuff is cool if you’re a genre fan. The overall vibe is fun and nutty, and when we take in consideration Treat Williams performance as the villain ‘Xander Drax’, the film is also over the top, not meant to be taken seriously at all. This is not a serious or close to reality take on a super hero like The Dark Knight (2008), in fact, this is the complete opposite, pure ridiculousness. In fact, the writer of the film, Jeffrey Boam, wrote his original script as a spoof. Unfortunately, the director didn’t go with the funny vibe, he tried playing it straight. Still, you can see glimpses of the comedic elements that Boam put into the script. I mean, we are talking about a guy wearing a purple skin tight suit while swinging from tree vines in the middle of the African jungle! In fact when I think about it, this film has a lot in common with the Batman television show from the 60’s! You almost expect a WHAM! to appear on the screen when The Phantom punches a bad guy. So I guess if you go in expecting pulpy, over the top, campiness, then you should have a better time watching this, but still, there are many things that hinder the enjoyment of the flick, for example, the sets are so obviously sets! They didn’t even try to make them look realistic. The ending of the film, which takes place inside of a cave is so obviously a sound stage it’s not even funny! The whole thing looks so cheap.
Many directors were interested in bringing The Phantom to the big screen. At one point, even Sergio Leone himself expressed interest in directing the film! He even wanted to follow it up with a Mandrake the Magician film! Can you imagine that? The Phantom directed by Sergio Leone? Damn, that sounds cool just reading it! Joe Dante and Joel Schumacher were also at one time going to direct, but the project eventually fell on the hands of Simon Wincer, the director behind D.A.R.Y.L. (1985), Free Willy (1993) and Operation Dumbo Drop (1995). If you ask me, any of the previous directors that came before him would have made a better film. The studio had wanted to make this film since the late eighties and early nineties, but various factors stumped the production, one of the reasons why the project came to a screeching halt was because of the disastrous box office intake of The Shadow, which was also a period piece comic book movie, but it was also an abysmal failure. Still, the project pushed on and we got The Phantom, which while not the worst comic book movie ever made, leaves a lot to be desired. Still, the film does have a good performance from Billy Zane as The Phantom. He actually pumped iron for more than a year so he could get all beefed up for the part. He didn’t want to use fake muscles like other superhero films. But then again the mind wonders: what would Bruce Campbell have looked like playing The Phantom? That’s right my friends he was up for the part! So was Dolph Lungdren! Instead we got Billy Zane, a lifelong fan of The Phantom. So in the end, I’d say that The Phantom is still a fun watch, just go in with low expectations and you just might have some fun.
Rating: 3 out of 5
Lee Falk and Billy Zane