He’s the ghost who walks, an immortal crime fighter in purple and had a pet wolf before it was cool (we’re looking at you, Jon Snow). Yes, Simon Wincer’s The Phantom doesn’t sit at the forefront of most minds when you talk great superhero movies, but it’s certainly one of the most underrated and shamelessly entertaining.
Released in the summer of 1996, The Phantom is yet another comic book adaptation which has never quite gotten a fair shake. It was produced for a rather extravagant $45 million, yet opened to poor reviews and apocalyptic box office, killing Paramount’s plans for a franchise. Although the flick has performed respectably on the home video market and has amassed something of a cult following, it nevertheless deserves more attention and respect.
The Phantom is pure, unpretentious matinee fun, retaining the spirit of its source to produce an old-fashioned, Indiana Jones-esque action-adventure suitable for kids and adults alike. It’s not high art, but its light-hearted disposition makes it a perfectly enjoyable B-movie extravaganza. The Phantom is actually part of a trifecta of ’30s-set comic book adventure movies from the 1990s which flopped, following The Rocketeer and The Shadow. They make for a smart triple feature.
The story: In the 1500s, a merchant vessel is attacked by the Sengh Brotherhood and the only survivor is a young boy who is raised by natives on the island of Bengalla. Four hundred years later, that boy survives as the Phantom (Billy Zane), a masked avenger who is seemingly immortal. Just kidding, the role is passed down from father to son, but don’t tell the bad guys that. Quill (James Remar) is one of these bad guys, working for the evil Xander Drax (Treat Williams), and has been sent to Bengalla to retrieve one of the Skulls of Togunda. Whoever owns all three will become an immortal force. Along with the Phantom, comes Diana Palmer (Kristy Swanson) who is investigating Drax, as well as being the ex-girlfriend of the Phantom’s alter ego, Kit Walker.
After a failed attempt by Sergio Leone, Joe Dante was originally attached to direct a Phantom film for Paramount Pictures in the early 1990s, and he developed a draft of the script together with Jeffrey Boam. Dante and Boam’s script was originally tongue-in-cheek in tone and the climax included a winged demon. However, when Paramount pushed the film back a year, Dante left for other commitments, and eventually ended up being credited as one of the executive producers. According to Dante:
“I developed the script with the late Jeff Boam, who wrote Innerspace, as a kind of a spoof. We were a few weeks away from shooting in Australia when the plug was pulled over the budget and the presence of a winged demon at the climax. A year or so later it was put back into production – sans demon – only nobody seemed to notice it was written to be funny, so it was – disastrously – played straight. Many unintentionally funny moments were cut after a raucous test screening and I foolishly refused money to take my name off the picture, so I’m credited as one of a zillion producers.”
Joel Schumacher was considered to direct the film (god forbid), but the job was eventually given to Simon Wincer, who had been a fan of the character since childhood. And the fact that Wincer was indeed a fan really shined through. In fact, it’s clear that nobody making this film was ashamed of the material. Nobody tried to pretend the material was something it wasn’t, and they stayed true to the basic ideas that fans of the character would recognize from the page.
Aside from its purposely campy hi-jinks, there’s some really great meta stuff on display (“For those who came in late…” announces the voice-over at the start, before getting us caught up with the hero’s origin story, which isn’t all that far removed from a joke you’d find in Deadpool), whilst for the action-hungry there are genuinely great and impressive set-pieces. There are pirates, and car chases, and a truck hanging upside-down from a rope bridge… in a jungle. It’s terrific.
Essentially what we’re getting at is yes, this is a purple-clad superhero that your great-great-great grandfather found relevant and yes, his sidekicks are wolves and horses BUT in world of grey-rimmed, brooding comic book movies there’s a lot to be said for this jubilant feast of fun. Put a stop to the “gritty” reboot that’s allegedly coming, forget about that mini-series that took Kit Walker back to his teens, we’ve already seen the best version of The Phantom and he was a grinning, skull-ring wearing charmer with a wink.
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