In the 1990s, between The Rocketeer, The Shadow, and The Phantom, standalone, retro-styled comics films had a moment. Only one, however, featured Billy Zane galloping through the streets of New York City on horseback while wearing a skintight purple unitard. It’s hard to argue with anything so cheerfully corny.
The Phantom came out in 1996, making it a late entry in the decade’s retro-superhero movie trend. It suffered from being too similar to the movies that’d come just before and from coming out in a year where the big action movies were Independence Day, Twister, The Rock, and Mission: Impossible. In comparison to the cutting-edge special effects on display in those films, The Phantom looks downright old-fashioned. Its plot is old-fashioned, too, keeping faith with its source material—a comic strip that’s been appearing in newspapers since 1936.
The comic had some big-name fans who circled the adaptation, including the legendary Sergio Leone, Gremlins director Joe Dante, and Batman & Robin’s Joe Schumacher. The gig eventually went to Australian director Simon Wincer, who’d hit big in 1993 with whale-meets-boy adventure Free Willy. (He also made the 1990 Tom Selleck Aussie Western Quigley Down Under, which is perhaps a more relevant credit.)
In The Phantom, the year is 1939—three years after Indiana Jones outran a boulder in Raiders of the Lost Ark. The Phantom owes a lot to the Indiana Jones series in certain ways, right from the opening act, which begins as a trio of bad guys (and a native kid they’ve pressed into service as a guide) cross a rickety swinging bridge to steal a priceless, supernaturally-charged silver skull. The subsequent action scenes—lots of derring-do on airplane wings, horseback acrobatics, hand-to-hand combat, shipboard rescues, and clever escapes—also tip their hat to Dr. Jones.
But despite the timeline, The Phantom is completely given over to fantasy. No Nazis here. Just a guy who inherited his secret identity from his father and, like, hangs out in a treasure-filled cave waiting to fight any villains who might stumble into Bengalla, the nebulously-located but vaguely Southeast Asian island that he’s sworn to protect. He’s buddies with the indigenous people, who regard him as a folk hero; he’s also pals with the head of the British “jungle patrol” that occupies the island. It’s a weird conflict of interest that the movie never addresses.
Instead of worrying about cultural inappropriateness, or, uh, plot logic, The Phantom instead keeps its focus on light-hearted adventure. As Kit “The Phantom” Walker, Billy Zane—in his cheesy beefcake prime here, just a year before he turned scoundrel for Titanic—is not exactly the most fascinating hero around. The fact that he’s a superhero without any real superpowers (unless a pet wolf counts) makes him marginally more appealing, though the stakes are never he-might-die high.
Unlike Batman or Superman, the Phantom’s not really well-known outside the funny pages. No doubt comic creator Lee Falk spent a lot of time crafting the character, who existed for 60 years’ worth of adventures before the film. The Phantom movie spends the length of its prologue explaining its protagonist’s multi-generational backstory, but there’s not much depth beyond that. A movie made today would contain, at the very least, a flashback to Kit ascending to Phantom-hood when his father is killed. Maybe we’d learn who his mother was, and how she played a part in his life. Instead, we get just his father in ghost form (Patrick McGoohan), popping up in random places to tut-tut him and give him guidance. There’s something to be said for a superhero movie that isn’t an origin story—but a little more context would’ve gone a long way toward anchoring the story.
Shallow though it may be, though, The Phantom is breezily entertaining—and you can tell that most everyone involved knew they weren’t reinventing the wheel. It also has certain flashes of flair that are pretty obviously why it’s become something of a cult favorite. The three main supporting characters, in particular, do a lot to bulk up the film’s paper-thin story about secret pirate brotherhoods and magical skulls.
As mustachioed antagonist Xander Drax—the character spells it out at one point, making sure we notice it begins and ends with an X, for reasons only he knows—Treat Williams is clearly having the best time. Who wouldn’t, if they got to play an eyeball-stabbing, artifact-looting, wannabe-world dominating, dapper-yet-evil businessman? Kristy Swanson, so often cast as an airhead, gets to play Diana, the no-nonsense love interest who a) figures out that Kit is the Phantom, which nobody else ever manages to do and b) takes a raincheck on romance by leaving him behind at the end, even though “nobody refuses the Phantom.” She also punches a bunch of dudes and gets to wear pants throughout the entire movie. Even better, though, is a pre-Mask of Zorro Catherine Zeta-Jones, who slithers in to play the only character who actually has an arc: the glamorous Sala, who commands an awesomely cool squad of lady air pirates. She realizes halfway through the movie that being a mean girl sucks—and that she should really be helping the good guys instead.
The Phantom is not without flaws. It’s got that deliberately retro thing going on, in its 1930s (by way of the 1990s) setting. But it’s also got that 20-year-old movie problem; while it actually treats its female characters rather well, certain other aspects—particularly in how it frames the indigenous culture that the Phantom dwells alongside—haven’t aged so well. The people of Bengalla supposedly chose Kit’s ancestor to be their avenger and are therefore the reason he’s got a superhero mantle at all, but aside from Kit’s Alfred Pennyworth equivalent and the little kid he saves at the beginning, the islanders are basically treated as set dressing.
It’s not good and it’s also a side effect of The Phantom’s frantic urge to compact anything resembling exposition in favor of swinging from ropes, sword-fighting, flinging pirates into shark-infested waters, etc. The Phantom isn’t here to illuminate anything about the human condition or even the condition of its characters. It just wants to please and have fun. Logic be damned.
This is a movie that sends its jungle-dwelling, leotard-wearing hero to New York City; makes careful mention of the fact that he attended college there, which suggests he must have some degree of smarts; and then has him pay an incredulous cab driver with a pocket full of jewels, because that’s the only thing of value he bothered to bring with him. It’s ridiculous, and it pulls you out of the movie to ask yourself, “Wait... what?” It’d be very easy to ding The Phantom for the many WTF moments like this one, but—like Billy Zane’s campy performance—it’s too goofy and earnest to hate it. Look, if you want darkness, gloom, existential pain, and cynicism, there are a zillion other superhero movies you could watch instead.
Or you could have a blast with the movie that decided to bring you this: