The Phantom (1996)

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Common wisdom seems to be that the film market is currently flooded with so many comic book properties that mainstream audiences will soon be experiencing a wicked case of “superhero fatigue” and the whole Marvel/DC empire will crumble. So far I seem to be experiencing the opposite effect. All of these rampant comic book adaptations have sent me on something of a superhero tangent and I’ve been finding myself looking back to comic book cinema of the past for smaller titles I might’ve missed over the years. Sometimes this urge is a blessing, like when it lead me to Sam Raimi’s goofily masterful Darkman. In the case of The Phantom, however, I’m not so sure I’m on the right path.

Based on a comic strip that’s been running continuously to this day since the 1930s, The Phantom is a starring vehicle for 90s pop culture artifact Billy Zane. While dressed as his superhero alter ego The Phantom, Zane is decked out here in skintight purple spandex, black leather mask & boots, and a handgun he rarely touches. He also rides an immaculately white horse & keeps a gigantic wolf for a pet. Raised by Mongolian pirates 400 years in the past or some such nonsense, The Phantom is rumored to be an immortal ghost who protects the sanctity of the jungle from white archehologists & businessmen looking to plunder its resources. In the comics he does this through practical real world means (including some martial arts shamelessly designed to show off Zane’s fanny in purple spandex). The movie adds a supernatural element to the mix in some black magic skulls that can be exploited to bring on world domination. This addition threatens to make The Phantom entertaining as a campy trifle with half-assed old-world mysticism backing up its comic strip charm. Nothing significant comes of it, though, and after the novelty of seeing Billy Zane dressed up as a handsome, but deeply odd superhero wears off the rest of the film is a total bore.

The main problem with The Phantom is that it lacks any strong creative voice or soulful eccentricity required to make a comic book movie really work. Just match up your very favorite scene from this film to an 15 seconds of Darkman & you’ll see what I mean. There was a time when the legendary Joe Dante almost helmed The Phantom as a tongue-in-cheek camp fest and another where the delightfully sleazy Joel Schumacher could’ve dragged it down to the same so-bad-it’s-great depths he brought Batman & Robin (the one with the bat nipples & ice puns). Sadly, neither of those versions of The Phantom were meant to be and the film wound up in the dull, uninspired hands of the director of Free Willy & Operation Dumbo Drop. It’s easy to see how The Phantom could’ve swung in a more interesting direction. If nothing else, the slightly off performances of the spandex-clad Zane, O.G. Buffy Kristy Swanson, and a deliciously evil Catharine Zeta-Jones all feel like they belong in a much better movie (or at least a less boring one).

As with everything in criticism, my boredom with The Phantasm might’ve had a lot to do with personal taste. Once the wackier introductions to the film’s central scenario were out of the way, the movie would up playing like a second-rate version of the Indiana Jones franchise, especially in the way it mimicked the “Tune In Next Time!” structure of old, serialized action programs on the radio. There are Indiana Jones junkies out there who might be aching for more similar content to tide them over until the next inevitable reboot and those might be the only folks I’d recommend The Phantom to. Anyone who’s looking for an eccentric comic book movie here is a lot more likely to feel let down. The aspects of The Phantom that wound up fascinating me the most were more or less all related to its comic strip source material. The Phantom is credited as being the first superhero shown wearing the skintight jumpsuit that has become pretty much the standard for the genre and is often seen as a direct precursor to superhero titans like Batman, Superman, and Captain America. The artwork & narrative of the strip also has a distinct echo of the work of madman outsider Fletcher Hanks to it, especially of his character Fantomah, Mystery Woman of the Jungle.

It’s never a good sign when an adaptation is outshined this much by its source material and it seems audiences at the time of The Phantom‘s release shared wholeheartedly in my boredom. The film bombed at the box office and, despite strong VHS & DVD sales, never earned the two sequels in its originally-planned trilogy. I wouldn’t call this effect “superhero fatigue”, however. It’s more of a boring movie fatigue, as the superhero source material was the only interesting thing going for this slog, an effect that fades fast once the novelty of the live action comic strip wears off.

-Brandon Ledet

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