Warner Brothers hit it in big in the summer of 1989 with Tim Burton’s “Batman.” Superheroes were big box office again and every studio in Hollywood wanted in on the action. Problem was, there weren’t enough heroes available. Warner Brothers controlled all the DC heroes, and other than Batman, they weren’t doing much with them. Marvel’s characters were still in limbo at this point…one exception being the dreadful 1990 film “Captain America.” So, studios ended up looking to some lesser known characters…which lead to the 1996 film “The Phantom.”
The Phantom is a very different character than many popular superheroes. He is known for his bright purple costume and skull ring. Unlike many comic book heroes, he has no super powers…as a matter of fact, he often uses guns to do his dirty work. He also doesn’t patrol a big city like Gotham City or Metropolis. He does his work in the jungle. Now, before I get accused of being an uniformed idiot, I should point out that The Phantom is technically not a comic book hero…having originated in newspaper comic strips (there is a difference). He debuted in 1937 and still appears in newspapers today.
In the film, The Phantom, and his alter-ego Kit Walker, are played by Billy Zane. We begin with some backstory of how the original Phantom came to be, having witnessed the death of his parents at the hands of an evil group of pirates known as The Singh Brotherhood. Kit is the 21st Phantom. When we pick up his story, in 1938, he is dealing with some goons who are out to steal one of the Skulls of Touganda. One of these men, Quill (James Remar) is also the man who killed the 20th Phantom…Kit’s father.
Meanwhile, back in New York City, a newspaper editor is investigating the activities of a crooked businessman, Xander Drax (Treat Williams). The editor sends his adventurous niece, Diana Palmer (Kristy Swanson), to Bengalla to investigate Drax’s ties to a group of pirates. Along the way, Diana’s plane is hijacked by an all-girl band of air pirates, led by Sala (Catherine Zeta-Jones). But, lucky for her, the Phantom saves her in a daring rescue that involves them escaping in one of the bi-planes and then jumping from the plane onto a moving horse before the plane crashes into a mountain. Oh, and I forgot to mention, Kit is an ex-boyfriend of Diana’s but she doesn’t know he’s The Phantom.
After her adventure in Bengalla, Diana returns to New York and Kit follows. As the two investigate, they learn that Drax is the one searching for the skulls. Thre skulls, as a matter of fact, that when joined together will create the ultimate weapon. This leads all of them to a hideout inside an island where the remnants of the Singh Brotherhood still thrive and control the final skull.
“The Phantom” has a great nostalgic feel to it…like an old multi-part serial. It makes perfect sense considering that The Phantom was the subject of a 1943 serial. The action sequences have a wonderful ridiculousness to them…if only there had been a few more of them. The serial feel would’ve come through even more had The Phantom encountered some new danger every 12 minutes or so. But the action sequences we get are fun in a crazy sort of way. You can’t help but smile to see him dangle from a rope bridge, jump from planes onto horses, and battle kung-fu pirates in a set that looks like it was built from spare parts out of Disneyland’s “Pirates of the Caribbean” ride.
Billy Zane’s little quips and smirks at the camera add a nice intentionally campy touch to the whole thing. He seems to be saying, “I’m wearing purple and I look a little silly, but just have fun with it…ok.” But completely over-the-top, and I mean that in a good way, is Treat Williams as one of the most wonderfully dorky villains to come along in ages. As for the ladies, Catherine Zeta-Jones is the perfect choice to play a sexy sky-pirate, but Kristy Swanson, cute as she is, never really gels in the Lois Lane-ish role.
Though it could’ve done with a bit more action, “The Phantom” makes for a welcome departure from your standard superhero movie. Not all superheros have to dark and brooding, after all…they can be purple!