Retro superhero: ‘The Phantom’

the phantom billy zane

Richard Donner’s “Superman” movies and Tim Burton’s “Batman” movies – and their sometimes regrettable sequels – came before, of course, but Bryan Singer’s “X-Men” really kicked off the big-screen superhero genre in 2000, and the trend was solidified a couple of years later by Sam Raimi’s “Spider-Man.”

But during the “lost in the wilderness” years of the the 1990s, the studios tried not once, not twice, but three times to capture the spirit of the superhero genre as typified by the great pulp magazine-style heroes, the forefathers to comics.

“The Rocketeer” came first in 1991 and was probably the most successful. “The Shadow” came in 1994 and did a pretty good job of hitting all the key elements of the most popular radio and pulp hero of them all.

Then there was “The Phantom.”

The 1996 Simon Wincer movie, starring Kristy Swanson, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Treat Williams and Billy Zane as the Ghost Who Walks, was certainly faithful to Lee Falk’s original comic-strip hero.

Maybe too faithful.

the phantom by lee falk

If you’re not familiar with the Phantom himself, the character was born in newspaper comic strips in 1936 and continues to this day. The Phantom is Kit Walker, the 21st in a series of fathers and sons who – following the 14th-century murder of a father, prompting a son to vow vengeance and the upholding of law and order – has kept the peace around the world and battled evil accompanied by his wolf companion, Devil, and his horse, Hero.

The Phantom is notable for some cool characteristics, including his twin handguns, the skull ring – whose imprint is left on bad guys’ jaws – and the legend that has been cultivated around him: He’s known as the Ghost Who Walks because criminals – a superstitious and cowardly lot, as Batman could tell you – believe he’s immortal rather than just the latest in a long family of crimefighters.

Falk created “The Phantom” after his newspaper syndicate asked for a follow-up to his “Mandrake the Magician.” In creating the Phantom, Falk invented a couple of superhero conventions, including the skin-tight costume and pupil-less eyes behind the hero’s mask.

“The Phantom” movie had the courage of its convictions, certainly. Its tale – the Phantom tries to protect a set of magical skull carvings and keep them out of the hands of a wealthy villain (Williams) – goes through the correct motions. Switching back and forth from the remote island home of the Phantom to New York City, the hero is aided by a spunky newspaper reporter (Swanson) and everything is complicated by the femme fatale played by Zeta-Jones. And what a revelation she was here. I really wanted her to play Wonder Woman after seeing her here and in another, better superhero 1990s movie, “The Mask of Zorro.”

There are pirates and submarines and seaplanes and immense sets and some action set-pieces, some better than others.

Zane leaves a lot of people cold – including me – but he’s really pretty good here as the Phantom. He nicely underplays the role, tossing off jokes and filling out the purple outfit about as well as anyone can. I was as frustrated as anyone by the black leather “X-Men” outfits, but maybe the world just wasn’t ready for purple spandex. And striped shorts.

As much as Zane underplays his part, Williams seems to have been told to overplay every line. I guess he’s being a good sport and the “Power Rangers” villain delivery would at least come across as non–threatening to kids in the audience. While the character is amusing, a villain who’s never truly threatening is not a great villain.

I’m not sure there’s ever been a big-screen movie that so desperately wanted to be “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” (I’m not counting the low-budget knock-offs here.) From the 1930s setting to the rickety bridge crossing that ends with the heroes swinging to safety to the ancient relics that magically illuminate a spot on a map to the villains that go “boom” at the end, “The Phantom” tries to strike so many “Raiders” grace notes it’s almost bizarre. Maybe that’s not a a surprise: Screenwriter Jeffrey Boam wrote “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade,” a far better film.

“The Phantom” is worth seeing if you never have or if, like me, you haven’t in 18 years. It’ll seem like something of an awkward artifact because of the string of superheroes that followed it into theaters beginning just four years later, though.

Purple tights or no.


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