The Phantom (1996) — Pulp adventure at its finest

“Many of us have killed him over the years. But he keeps coming back.”

Justin’s rating: Indeed, this is the movie where “SLAM EVIL!” was the best they could do for a poster tagline. Slam evil.

Justin’s review: Superhero movies were in a weird, weird place in the 1990s. Apart from Batman and Superman (and maybe Dick Tracy, if you want to count that), there weren’t any huge breakout hits from the comics — but that didn’t stop Hollywood trying. This is how we got CGI messes like Spawn or Shaquille O’Neal waving a foam hammer around. But it’s also really fascinating to examine the superhero scene before X-Men changed the cinematic landscape forever, because studios were digging into all sorts of properties that most people had never heard of before.

Properties like The Phantom, which comes to us from a 1936 comic book adventure series. Aside from the fact that this was a pretty obscure IP, starring typecast villain Billy Zane as the hero doubly confused crowds. He’s supposed to be kicking kittens and pushing old ladies out of the way so that he can get on Titanic’s lifeboat, darn it!

To set expectations correctly, it’s helpful to stop thinking of The Phantom as a superhero flick and more like “Indiana Jones in purple spandex.” After all, the Phantom (Zane) isn’t super-powered or anything like that; he’s just the latest in the line of the Dread Pirate Roberts, er, Phantoms who get trained to fight bad guys in Afrindia (it’s kind of vague where this is set). It’s kind of like if Batman was beloved and financed by natives of another country and equipped with a skull ring, a horse, a pair of pistols, and a pet wolf to protect their interests.

And one of those interests is a mystical skull, which is poached by a group of minions working for a sinister businessman named Drax (Treat Williams). Drax is the kind of sleazy guy, well, who would normally be played by Billy Zane in any other movie. In fact, I could see these two men switching roles without much change. Drax is also the kind of guy who is aligned with an evil brotherhood and kills people with booby-trapped microscope or jungle spears.

So the Phantom sets out on the trail of the stolen skull (which, when you complete the whole set, gives you AMAZING POWERS or somesuch). He’s joined by old college flame Diana (Kirsty Swanson), who wears her tomboy credentials proudly and is happy to go on a continent-hopping adventure for her newspaper mogul daddy.

I won’t lie: It did take a little while to get past the rather ridiculous and impractical purple outfit, but when I did, I kind of became utterly charmed by the old fashioned adventurous spirit. It’s very much in the spirit with classic pulp fiction or the more modern takes that Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Mummy made popular. Nothing here is concerned with being realistic or serious; it’s a comic book come to the screen with all of the jokes, high concepts, and ludicrous stuntwork you’d expect. I love it when a movie gives itself permission to loosen up, because that sort of earnestness gets infectious. The cast has fun, the screenwriters have fun, and by gum, the audience has fun.

The biggest surprise for me is how genuinely funny this movie is. Even something like a fistfight can toss in an amusing gesture or two, and Zane clearly relishes throwing out snarky one-liners while jumping off planes onto horses or diving into a volcano lair. He also doesn’t seem to mind being at the center of a love triangle between Diana and Sala (Catherine Zeta-Jones), an honest-to-God sky pirate. Yes, this movie has sky pirates. WHY HAVE YOU NOT SEEN IT. Oh. The purple get-up. I gotcha.

(I do want to give a special shout-out to both Zeta-Jones and Swanson, as they throw out sassy quips and show us that it’s not merely the men who can handle action sequences. I loved every scene they were in, especially because it was about what they were doing, not how they looked.)

Whether or not you consider The Phantom to be part of the superhero genre, you should consider it. It’s one of those hidden-in-plain-sight gems with gorgeous period set dressing that promises and delivers a great time in only a way that cheesy ’90s adventure movies could do.

Didja notice?

  • “For those who came in late…” is a weird way to start a movie
  • Yeah, make the little kid drive the truck over the rickety bridge why not
  • Nothing like being choked out by a statue
  • So he talks to the ghost of his dead dad?
  • I like how she eats a sandwich
  • Death by microscope!
  • About dang time we got some sky pirates in this movie
  • “Tie her up… or don’t.”
  • All horses like it when you drop onto them from a plane
  • No smoking in the skull cave
  • The way he said, “Toothpaste? That’s nice” with that smile made me crack up
  • Pay your taxi driver in jewels why not
  • Bad guys love to clap at their meetings
  • He just speared that guy in the boardroom!
  • About time we smash up a museum
  • Always bring Phantom insurance
  • I love it any time a villain says “chit-chat”

One comment

  1. “For those who came in late” is how the Phantom comic strip starts the basic-premise-of-the-comic-recap every time they start a new story arc.
    Also? The Phantom comic strip is STILL running. Here in Australia, at least, I read it every morning.
    Billy Zane lobbied for the role of The Phantom because he was a big fan of the strip – apparently (source is questionable) he got into it when he was in Australia filming Dead Calm.

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