The Phantom at 25: A Superhero Film That Deserves A Better Screen Treatment

Before the likes of Batman and Superman were introduced in 1938 and 1939 respectively, there was The Phantom. And according to the Guinness World Records, The Phantom was credited as the first superhero who made his comic-strip debut on February 17, 1936.

So, when The Ghost Who Walks finally got his long-overdue big-screen treatment over 60 years later, it was supposed to be a cause for celebration. Blessed with a US$45 million budget and backed by a major studio (in this case, Paramount Pictures), The Phantom was positioned as one of the highly-anticipated summer-movie blockbusters in 1996. The film enlisted Australian director Simon Wincer, best known for the hugely popular Free Willy in 1993, who happened to be a huge fan of the character. If that’s not enough, Jeffrey Boam, whose famous screenwriting credits include The Lost Boys (1987), Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989) and Lethal Weapon 2 & 3, was in charge of the screenplay. Then, there’s Billy Zane, whose dashing looks and tall build was a perfect casting choice to play the title character.

And yet, for all the money that has been spent on production and marketing, The Phantom opened and died a quick death during the first 3-day opening weekend between June 7-9, 1996. Debuted only at a paltry US$5 million on the No. 6 spot (the film’s other high-profile competitor, The Rock ruled that particular weekend box office), The Phantom hardly stood a chance and only managed to scrap less than US$18 million.

Treat Williams as Xander Drax in "The Phantom" (1996)

For such an established superhero character with a 60-year-plus history, The Phantom could have been a potential franchise starter. But it didn’t happen and after the film flopped so badly at the time, no one really talked about it ever since. While it did develop a cult following, thanks to the subsequent VHS and DVD releases, The Phantom remains one of those largely forgotten superhero films during that particular era.

Frankly, The Phantom deserves a better film than what it was offered at the time. Blame it on Jeffrey Boam’s screenplay itself, which is so trite and old-fashioned. Right to the point that it feels like a failed TV pilot than a so-called superhero blockbuster made for the big screen. In case you have forgotten what is it all about, here’s a recap: The film takes place in the late-1930s era where we are introduced to Kit Walker (Zane) a.k.a. The Phantom, who lives on the Bengalla island. He dons a skintight (I mean, really tight) purple suit with a black eye-mask to conceal his identity. His weapons of choice? Pistols and no, he doesn’t possess fancy gadgets similar to Batman. And yes, he rides his trusty white horse.

When a shady New York industrialist named Xander Drax (Treat Williams) desperately wanted to get his hands on the Skulls of Touganda, which is happened to be a combined (three of them, to be exact) weapon of destruction, it’s up to The Phantom to save the day.

Of course, no superhero film would be complete without a female interest and that person in question is Diana Palmer (Kristy Swanson), who turns out to be Kit’s ex-girlfriend back in their college days. The film also featured then-unknown Catherine Zeta-Jones, who plays Xander’s sexy sidekick Sala and James Remar as his top henchman, Quill.

Now, Treat Williams may look the part playing the over-the-top villain as Xander Drax but he’s hardly the kind of an intimidating antagonist. His character comes across as unintentionally laughable and the only time I enjoyed Williams’ sleazy performance happens during a scene, where he blinds a librarian (Alan Zitner’s Dr Fleming) by casually telling him to adjust the microscope containing sharp needles. Even though that particular scene was shown offscreen when the needles penetrated the librarian’s eyes, it made me look away.

Then-unknown Catherine Zeta-Jones in "The Phantom" (1996)

The whole “retrieving-the-Skulls-of-Touganda-for-evil-intentions” storyline is strangely dull, to begin with. Personally, I don’t mind with Simon Wincer wanted to capture the nostalgic touch of a period-set superhero adventure in the utmost pulpy way possible. But just like The Shadow two years ago, which turned out to be another high-profile 1930s-set superhero blockbuster fiasco, the film lacks high-stakes situations and yes, a certain revisionist edge to make it more intriguing for the modern audiences. Speaking of revisionist, Martin Campbell’s The Mask of Zorro (1998) was a prime example of how to introduce an old-fashioned superhero character to a contemporary era without abandoning its roots.

Moving on is Billy Zane’s titular role. He was undoubtedly the right choice playing the character and honestly, I couldn’t think of anyone else other than Zane himself. While Zane certainly has a fun time here, it’s a pity that the bland script does little to make his otherwise charismatic character worthwhile. If not for the film’s huge failure, Zane could be well on his way to Hollywood’s A-list stardom. Sure, he did appear in another high-profile Hollywood blockbuster during the ’90s era (Titanic, to be exact) but he’s more of a supporting role in that James Cameron’s 1997 epic romance-disaster drama.

Kristy Swanson brings enough feisty edge to her otherwise mere love-interest role as Diana Palmer while you can’t go wrong with James Remar playing an antagonist you love to hate.

A scene from "The Phantom" (1996)

For a superhero film that uses a lot of practical stunts at the time, the action feels oddly stale and tedious. Whether it was the opening bridge scene or the one where he jumps from a seaplane and onto his galloping white horse, none of them actually feels spectacular or entertaining.

Interestingly enough, The Phantom actually took decades of false starts since the late ’70s when Sergio Leone was first attached to the project. It didn’t work out and I always curious to see how the legendary filmmaker, who pioneered the Spaghetti Western subgenre in the ’60s would fare in a superhero film. Other notable directors including Joel Schumacher and Joe Dante were involved at some points before they left the project as well.

The massive failure of The Phantom has killed any chances for future instalment(s) to materialise. The fact that Zane signed on for two more Phantom films back then didn’t change a thing. Then, there was a talk about a reboot titled The Phantom: Legacy once upon a time but too bad that didn’t happen either. The only time that another live-action attempt was made for the character turned out to be SyFy’s 2009 two-part miniseries of the same title starring Ryan Carnes as Chris Moore a.k.a. the 22nd Phantom.

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