The Phantom (1996)

What is it with the "fist-on-hips" thing?
What is it with the "fist-on-hips" thing? I mean, really...

A lot of people have trouble taking superheroes seriously, what with the tight suits and the underwear on the outside of their pants. But I challenge anyone to walk down a dark alleyway at night, hastily turn around, and not soil yourself in fear when you find the goddamn Batman standing there, right behind you. Sure, your rational mind would soon take over and you might remind the costumed fool that “Halloween ain’t ’til manyana”…giving him the perfect opportunity to perform some amateur dental surgery on you with his boots.

Unfortunately, Batman was far from the first costumed hero of the 1930s. Created for the daily newspaper strips of 1936, The Phantom represents one of the last costumed mystery-men to make the scene before Superman came along and changed everything. Four months separated the two hero’s debuts in their respective magazines. Can you guess which one won more culture cache? Here’s the hint: the only man in a purple suit who’s going to frighten me is the Joker. And even I have trouble taking the Phantom seriously.

For one thing, the Phantom has more in common with the globe-trotting adventurers of early-twentieth century pulp fiction than any hero who’s name isn’t Lamont Cranston (not that that was his real name…or was it? Only the Shadow knows and I’m not even about to get into all that again). The Phantom’s got the wolf-friend, the white horse, and the little native servant boy to hold both while he snoops around Bad Guy Headquarters, looking to rescue a Damsel in Distress. Throw in a chic heroin addiction and he’d sweep the William S. Burroughs Awards, winning extra special mention for Most Outlandish Costume.

This is how the plague spread.
Incidentally, this is how the plague spread.

So Batman and Dick Tracy proved the viability of big-budget, outlandish superhero movie productions just in time for the 1990s. Then Batman Returns threw down a gauntlet covered in fish parts and oily, black Penguin-spit that, for some reason, people were hesitant to pick up. Instead, they decided that big, garish productions were all well and good so long as they were well lit and lighthearted enough to keep the kids unafraid and their bitchy parents from complaining. That’s probably why The Shadow‘s such a sliced-and-diced mess, and why tonight’s film is such a rip-off of Indian Jones. It comes to us from Last Crusade scribe Jeffrey Bloam…who’s credits also include, I was not at all surprised to find, both the Lethal Weapon films I like and every decent episode of The Adventures of Brisco County Jr. in existence.

If that doesn’t clue you in to The Phantom‘s general tone, you need to stop whatever you’re doing and watch more Brisco County Jr. It’s a lot better than this film, if for no other reason than Bruce Campbell.

Still, we start off on firm Indiana Jones ground, with a truck load of treasure hunters driving through the Bengalla Jungle, circa 1938. (Actually, we start off with a redundant, obviously tacked-on prologue. What are the odds a character will have to go over this same ground later on, using clunky, expository dialogue? Eh? Who wants to bet me?) Their leader, Quill (James Remar, who’s gone on to star in everything from Sex in the City to The Batman to Dexter), establishes his Bad Guy cred by having their child guide drive the truck over a rickety rope bridge. Ordering his men to have a go at raiding a local tomb only reinforces audience prejudice.

See the kind of life Dr. Quest rescued Hadji from?
See the kind of life Dr. Quest rescued Hadji from?

Our treasure hunters are after one bit of shiny in particular: a silver skull with big glowey gems for eyes, and their bit of casual culture-raping swiftly draws out the Phantom. Quill is much dismayed by this, having already killed the Phantom several years back. Still, the purple-suited hero’s lively enough to rescue the little native boy and nab everyone but Quill…who makes it out of the jungle with the silver skull. Damn, predictable superheros, always having to rescue someone.

Turns out the skull’s one of three mystical, ancient Whatsids that hold the key to some kind of unlimited power or another…because they always do. The Phantom knows this because he can read all about it in the Great Big Books of Exposition scattered around his jungle cave of a hideout…appropriately-named the Skull Cave.

Unbeknownst to Our Hero, Quill works for this universe’s Lex Luthor analog, Xander Drax (Treat Williams). Mr. Drax is on a mission to unite the three skulls and seize the aforesaid unlimited power. The one throne in his side? “Uncle” Dave Palmer (Bill Smitrovich), crusading newspaper owner and genetic relative of our designated Love Interest, Diana (Kristy Swanson).

Always knew Catherine Zeta-Jones was into the bondage.
Always knew Catherine Zeta-Jones was into the bondage.

Despite being played by the First Buffy, Diana’s no Action Girl, and she’s not the Crusading Girl Reporter I first took her for. Still, Uncle Dave mentions something about the Yukon, so we know Diana’s not about to follow her mother through Debutante School. Interestingly, Diana’s “respectable” suitor amongst New York’s upper crust, Jimmy Wells, is basically Billy Zane’s character from Titanic. He plays tennis and drinks gin fizzes, meaning he’s far too hoity-toity for her. She after all, is a hard working, baloney-eating, average, all-American girl…who just happens to be Kristy Swanson-hot, with the cash to globetrot anywhere, courtesy Uncle Dave…who’s so rich he treats the Mayor and the Police Commissioner to cigars in his upstairs lounge. Seems Uncle Dave’s also dug up quite a bit of dirt on old Drax, and plans an excursion to southeast Asian in order to investigate further.

If there’s one thing Indiana Jones movies have taught us, it’s that children and girls only exist to be rescued by dashing, stalwart heroes. Unless they’re femmes fatales. To that end, Diana convinces her Uncle Dave to let her do the investigating. So she’s the one who gets kidnapped by Drax’s wing of hot, leather-clad, bi-plane pilots…led by the delicious Sala (the even more delicious Catherine Zeta-Jones).

Too bad this places our Bad Girls squarely in Phantom territory, leading to the obligatory rescue and the obligatory putting together of plot pieces. Our Phantom decides a quick jaunt to New York might be in the cards. At least then he can tell all his hero friends about the actual girl he had over. Doffing the domino mask, he resumes his civilian identity as mild-mannered (if stupidly-named) Kit Walker.

"Wait...what? Oh. Hello, ladies."
"Wait...what? Oh. Hello, ladies."

And here’s Zane’s chance to really show us something. In spite of his long publication history, Kit Walker has none of the emotional baggage more-famous heroes have crumbled under. He’s not a mortal god like Clark Kent and he’s not a brick on legs like Dick Tracy. He’s not a remote madman like Lamont or Bruce Wayne or Tony Stark. He’s not even an insecure nerd who hides behind one-liners, the ability to stick to walls and jump real good. He’s just honestly, no-frills, 100% mild-mannered, perhaps the best Clark Kent in cinema history (besides Chris Reeves, of course). He’s gets just as much face time as he needs and no more, with Zane making more of it than most actors would in two films. There’s this great hitch in his voice when finally tells Diana (whom he knew, as Kit, in college) about taking over “the family business” that’s just so pathetically sad I can’t help but feel for the jungle-dwelling bastard. He also fucks up about as much as he doesn’t, implying a humanity more capable characters lack (necessitating the need for sidekicks – I’m looking at you, Dr. Watson). The Phantom’s sidekicks are a horse and a wolf named Devil, so make of that what you will. I take it to mean Mr. Kit Walker is living out his four-year-old self’s fantasy life well into adulthood and, even for him, it’s starting to sour.

All of which means he’s a bit dull since he’s basically Indiana Jones in a mask. This despite being the exact opposite of Indian Jones, in that the Phantom seeks to keep mystical objects out of the hands of crazy Americans. “It all began four hundred years ago,” the Phantom tells his Love Interest later on (making the prologue unnecessary…told you), “when a small boy saw his father savagely murdered by pirates of the Sengh Brotherhood. That same boy swore an oath of vengeance, to fight piracy greed and cruelty in all its forms. And he became the first Phantom. I’m his descendant, Diana.” Think about this: he’s the twenty-first in a line of masked, tights-wearing vigilantes stretching all the way back to the 1500s. (Hence all the Big Books of Exposition, I guess.) By the standards of mystery men, that’s pretty fucking awesome.

From a broader, literary standpoint, the Phantom’s just another superpowered white dude, worshiped as “the Ghost Who Walks” by the fake natives of a fake jungle. (“Bengalla” was near the Indian subcontinent until 1960s, when it relocated itself to Africa.) He even has a Native Companion (Radmar Agana Jao) for an Alfred in the under-appreciated (and under-utilized) Guren. (Who’s also a field nurse, thank God…can you imagine bouncing around that jungle with a knife wound in your side? On a horse, no less? Can you say infection?)

Somehow, pontoon surfing never caught on.
Somehow, pontoon surfing never caught on.

From an I’ve-seen-too-many-movies standpoint, The Phantom looks like it wants to be an Indiana Jones movie so hard it verges on parody. It even tries to buy Satire a drink once, when Quill asks his men, “What’s the matter with you guys? Can’t you hit anything?” No, Quill, they can’t. They’re henchmen. Hate to break it to ya, buddy. But that man in the purple suit? Yeah…he’s gonna kick your ass. I know, it sounds unbelievable…but he’ll probably shoot you, too. And he’ll get the girl. He’ll even get the girl to jump off a plane onto the back of speeding horse.

“I must be crazy,” Diane says, right before she jumps. Yes, you are. A man in the purple suit and a domino mask just rescued you from air pirates and asked you to jump off a plane onto a horse. You’re completely fucking crazy. Now do as the nice man asked. He’s crazier than you are and knows exactly what he’s doing, believe me.

That’s the thing. The Phantom is either a fun, mindless superhero movie that’s basically cruising on autopilot…or a subversive commentary on the whole of Pulp Adventure genre. Everything’s here, right down to the Republic Serial villain.

"Very vigorous, Kristy. Very vigorous."
"Very vigorous, Kristy. Very vigorous."

Hell, even a Fu Manchu analog (or Shiwan Kahn rip-off, if you prefer) shows up for the climactic fight scene. And, of course, he’s The Great Kabai Sengh (Mortal Kombat‘s Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa). It’s all here and its all fun in the same way Brisco County Jr. was fun,  managing to take itself seriously while being unabashedly silly.

I especially like the boundless enthusiasm everyone brings to their roles. Treat Williams plays a very affable Affable Evil and I even liked Swanson’s Lois Lane impression…though if I were a Phantom looking to…ahem…carry on the line, I’d pick Catherine Zeta-Jones myself. What can I say? I like to fly. I enjoyed Simon Wincer’s clean, crisp direction, and certainly laughed more often than I did over Wincer’s previous films. Like Operation Dumbo Drop. Or Free Willy.

That last one honestly shocked me. “Free fucking Willy?” Yes. And most of The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles. No wonder the man knows how to coax a pulp adventure through the gore-splattered minefield I call my brain. What the hell is he doing making horse race documentaries? This man and Michael Bay should immediately trade bodies. Which tribe of fake natives do I talk to about pulling that kind of switch?

Unwritten movie law dictates, "Every pulp adventure must end with a volcanic erruption."
Unwritten movie law dictates, "Every pulp adventure must end with a volcanic eruption."

So, it’s either yesterday’s forgotten gem or today’s goldmine of unintentional comedy. Either way, The Phantom‘s fun even after the novelty of that purple leotard wears off. I doubt I’m the first comic book fan to complain about a costume being too faithful to its source…but I’m going to go ahead and claim that I am in an attempt to be “edgy.”  Because I’m sorry, but no one’s running around southeast Asia in a purple leotard…unless it’s also a Stillsuit…which might actually work…have to get back to you on that…

In the meantime, The Phantom proves you don’t need production over-design or bales of special effects to make a decent superhero film. All you need is a troop of actors willing to take it all seriously, a script that knows what its doing (perhaps a little too well) and a director who can work with a wide angle and a big scope. Its a winning formula in sore need of duplication. Because we could all use a few more Phantoms in our lives.

GGG

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4 thoughts on “The Phantom (1996)”

    1. Always sounded a bit like an alcoholic beverage ad to me. Something one of Frank Miller’s characters would order at that one strip club/bar everyone in Sin City eventually ends up in. “Gimmie a slammer of Evil and a beer back, Nancy. And keep ’em coming.”

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