Ricky Church looks back at The Phantom as it celebrates its 25th anniversary…
In the 1990s superhero films were few and far between with Batman mostly dominating in the Burton/Schumacher era. There weren’t many other superheroes hitting the big screen in that decade nor were they taken nearly as serious as they are now, being viewed more as goofy entertainment rather than some of the serious and pop culture breaking films we have now. Despite that, there some other superhero films from the 90s that stand out and one of them happens to be celebrating its 25th anniversary this month: The Phantom.
Released in 1996, The Phantom is based upon the 1930s comic strip of the same name and follows Kit Walker, played by Billy Zane, as the mysterious and mythical Phantom who protects the jungle of Bengalla. When a corrupt New York businessman searches for three powerful skulls that could allow him to rule the world, it’s up to The Phantom to stop him. With the help of his ex-girlfriend Diana Palmer, played by Kristy Swanson, The Phantom has to regain the lost skulls before it is too late.
The Phantom serves as a throwback to the pulpy serial adventures of the 1930s, taking direct influence from both the films of that era as well as the original comic strips with many references made to those stories. It is a schlock-filled film complete with cheesy one-liners, swash-buckling swordplay and campy over-the-top acting, yet it has an irresistible charm that makes it very entertaining. It is pure fun from start to finish and something both kids and adults can enjoy with a fast-paced story and series of action set-pieces that never feel boring, whether Phantom’s infiltrating an enemy ship, making an air getaway, jumping from hood to hood on speeding cars in downtown New York or battling a band of murderous pirates. The action is constantly changing to raise the stakes and provide the audience with something fresh each time.
Zane carries the film as its lead hero. He delivers a pretty earnest performance as Kit Walker with a whole lot of charisma. Given the modern superhero films we have now, it’s almost surprising to see Kit is not a brooding and dark hero with a chip on his shoulder who feels the weight of his responsibility, but actually enjoys what he does and does so with both a sense of humour and a smile. When Diana is surprised and slightly terrified to see his pet is a wolf and states that obvious fact, his reply is just a laugh and “I know.” Even when’s out of the Phantom uniform, he exudes charm and confidence, yet also doesn’t necessarily try too hard to hide his identity as, when he’s with Diana at her uncle’s office, he speaks in the same tone and even does the same sort of pose as the Phantom before catching himself. The only moment where Zane turns on a bit more of a serious delivery is his final confrontation with Quill, the man who killed his father but believes The Phantom has simply come back to life. The energy Zane brings to Kit/The Phantom gives the film a very enjoyable flair.
The rest of the cast is just as entertaining. Swanson’s Diana plays against the typical portrayal of a 1930s damsel in distress as a female adventurer who can hold her own fairly well. She’s not afraid to throw a punch nor does she panic when she’s twice kidnapped. She also figures out Kit’s identity as The Phantom on her own (not that he was doing a great job hiding it anyway). Treat Williams is delightfully hammy as Xander Drax, the main villain with delusions of grandeur who, despite his villainous nature, always has a smile on his face and has a very good set of manners and way of speaking. His politesse makes those few moments of violence from him all the more evil as it doesn’t faze him at all – with the exception of complaining of a cramped muscle after throwing a spear into someone’s back.
James Remar’s Quill is also hammy in his villainy, but shifts between threatening and buffoonish as he continuously fails against The Phantom. Catherine Zeta-Jones rounds out the cast as Drax’s henchwoman Sala, a femme fatale who is massively attracted to Phantom (to the point she even says she’ll “claim” the body after Quill kills him) and enjoys being bad, but isn’t totally evil as she abruptly switches sides after Diana asks her – literally – why she is so mean, forcing her to face that armour-piercing question. It does come a bit out of nowhere, but Jones does such a good job as the femme fatale archetype that it works.
Even though it’s rather forgotten next to the likes of other 90s superhero films like the various Batmans and Blade, The Phantom is still an enjoyable flick that is deeply rooted in its comic book material. It works as a throwback to the old serials and as an adaptation as it followed the general storyline and characterizations, a surprising fact for a superhero film in the 90s when studios and filmmakers weren’t too concerned with relying on comics as source material. It is a shame a sequel or the long-talked about reboot with Zane never materialized as The Phantom was ripe for a pretty fun family-friendly franchise, but even with this one movie The Phantom is a great viewing and holds up after over two decades.
Ricky Church – Follow me on Twitter for more movie news and nerd talk.