The Phantom


The Phantom was a popular comic strip and movie serial in the 1930s and ’40s, so it makes sense that Hollywood would produce a big-budget feature in 1996, after the target audience was dead. Making a movie aimed at a non-existent demographic — people who have fond memories of The Phantom and are also still alive — obviates the dilemma of whether to be faithful to the original material or to reinvent it for a new generation, since anyone who sees it won’t know either way.

That was the thinking behind “The Phantom,” a fairly expensive Paramount flop from an era when the only successful superhero movies were about Batman and did not, as a rule, have villains played by Treat Williams. Of course, when your film has no built-in audience, and also is not very good anyway, you’re not surprised when it does poorly at the box office. The only surprise anyone at Paramount felt when “The Phantom” grossed $17 million on a $45 million budget was that seventeen million dollars’ worth of people DID see it. “That seems high,” the Paramount people muttered to themselves as they reexamined the ledger. “Are we sure this doesn’t include people who thought they were pre-buying tickets for ‘The Phantom Menace,’ which opens three years from now?”

Who is the Phantom? Good question! According to the prologue, the Phantom started a long time ago when a little boy saw his father get killed by pirates and barely escaped with his own life. The boy grew up on a jungle island inhabited by cannibals who, instead of eating him, gave him a ring with a skull on it, and so that meant he was the Phantom (apparently; the movie doesn’t explain it any better). He passed the title of Phantom down to his son, who passed it to his son, and so on, for 20 generations. To give you an idea of how the bloodline has been watered down, the current Phantom is played by Billy Zane.

What are the Phantom’s superpowers? Another good question! You came prepared! Unfortunately, I cannot answer this question with any certainty, even though I have seen “The Phantom,” which is a movie about the Phantom. He’s in pretty good shape, as far as that goes, and he does OK in a fistfight. Those aren’t really “super” powers, though; those are regular powers. The ring with a skull on it proves handy at the end of the movie, when it emits a laser beam to repel a laser beam that’s being emitted by something else. But the power to produce a laser-beam-repelling laser beam has limited applications, and I don’t think the Phantom even knew the ring could do that until it happened. So the answer to your question is that whatever the Phantom’s superpowers are, he is keeping them a secret, and we should respect that.

You can usually get some idea of a superhero’s powers based on his or her appearance, but the Phantom is no help in this regard. He wears a purple, skintight bodysuit and a black Lone Ranger mask, carries a gun, rides a horse, and has a wolf as a pet/intern. He looks like he was created via Mad Libs.

Our story begins in 1938, in a jungle, where a “Raiders of the Lost Ark” rip-off is underway. Instead of a lovable, roguish hero and peppy action, we have some cold-blooded, fedora-wearing mercenaries who make a native boy drive their truck across a perilous bridge before stealing an ancient artifact from a cave. The artifact is one of three mystical skulls that are hidden around the world, and if you collect all three skulls, you get a fourth one free, or whatever. It’s the usual mumbo-jumbo. Point is, you don’t want these skulls falling into the wrong hands.

The Phantom’s job is to protect the jungle and its precious artifacts from those who would misuse them. Given that this one skull is the only precious artifact that the jungle is known to contain, and that the jungle itself is located far away from civilization, being the Phantom is probably fairly easy, like being a lighthouse keeper, or the box-office manager at a theater showing “The Phantom.” When word arrives that these Un-diana Joneses are on the premises, the Phantom swings into action, and before we even see his face we see his accessories: ring, belt buckle, and holster, all adorned with his skull logo. Maybe one of the Phantom’s superpowers is brand management?

Anyway, he’s unsuccessful at keeping the magic skull out of the wrong hands, i.e., the one thing his job required him to do, so he returns to his lair to sulk.

Back in New York City, some rich people are having a party. One of the rich people, newspaper publisher Dave Palmer (Bill Smitrovich), has raised the ire of fellow rich person Xander Drax (Treat Williams), an industrialist whose company does shady things that Drax doesn’t want the newspapers talking about. Palmer’s staff discovers that Drax has been at the public library researching a mysterious crime syndicate called the Sengh Brotherhood, and Drax — who mistakenly believed that there was such a thing as librarian-patron confidentiality — expresses his anger at this disclosure by stabbing out the librarian’s eyes. This tells us two things about Drax: he supports public libraries, and he doesn’t like snitches. I don’t see a problem here.

Palmer’s niece Diana (Kristy Swanson) heads to Bengalla to investigate what Drax is up to. It was Drax’s goons who swiped the skull, of course. (I’ll say one thing for this movie: it consistently avoids being complex or unpredictable.) On the way there, Diana gets abducted by some of Drax’s other goons, including sexy villainess Sala (Catherine Zeta-Jones). She is in the movie so that there can be a second lady so that we can see two ladies slapping each other.

Now the Phantom must spring into action again. Twice in one week! This time he has to rescue Diana. He does a better job of that than he did protecting the magic skull, so at least his employee evaluation at the end of the year won’t be all bad news. Diana’s first remark when she encounters the Phantom is “Your dog’s a wolf!,” which seems fairly low on the list of things about this guy that are worthy of comment. Nothing about the purple costume?

Duly rescued, Diana returns to New York. A few days later, the Phantom shows up, now dressed like an ordinary American businessman and going by the name “Kit Walker.” This is his alter ego, which we didn’t even know he had. As far as we knew, he was the Phantom full-time, hanging out with the natives in the jungle and bossing his wolf around. What’s more, Kit Walker and Diana went to college together! They even dated! But when Diana runs into Kit in New York, it doesn’t occur to her that he looks and sounds very much like the man in the Lone Ranger mask who saved her in the jungle earlier that week. I know that the inability to recognize the hero when he’s standing right in front of you is common in superhero stories, but I’m holding it against “The Phantom” specifically, just out of spite.

Kit Walker and Diana go to New York’s “Museum of World History” (NO ACTUAL MUSEUMS WERE HARMED IN THE MAKING OF THIS FILM) and find the second magic skull, just in time for Drax’s goons to show up and take it from them. Not only did the Phantom fail to prevent the theft of the one skull he was in charge of, now he has also lost a second skull that he took on pro bono. If Drax’s guys are smart, they will just follow the Phantom around until he leads them to the third one.

The goons take Diana again, too, which seems to be a more powerful motivator for Kit Walker than the skulls are. Before he acts to save her, though, he ducks into a broom closet to change into his Phantom costume. Since the costume grants him no special powers and barely conceals his identity, and since everyone outside of Bengalla thinks the Phantom doesn’t exist anyway, why not pursue Diana’s captors in his street clothes? I assume the answer is superstition. Failing that, I assume the answer is a better one that the movie just forgot to tell us, the way it forgot to tell us what the Phantom’s powers are, or what personality traits he has, or what anyone finds interesting about him.

Everybody eventually ends up in another exotic location, not Bengalla this time but an uncharted island in “the devil’s vortex” (NO ACTUAL BERMUDA TRIANGLES WERE HARMED IN THE MAKING OF THIS FILM). This is where the third skull is supposed to be. It’s also where the evil Sengh Brotherhood is headquartered. These are descendants of the pirates who killed the first Phantom’s father centuries ago — or perhaps the actual same pirates, several hundred years old, how the hell do I know? I don’t even know how the film’s title character shuttled between his Bengalla lair and the United States regularly enough to go to college, so why would I know something as trivial as whether the villains who don’t show up until the last 15 minutes of the movie are immortal?

Drax gets the three skulls and joins them together, whereupon a laser beam shoots out of them and vaporizes a henchman. “I’ve harnessed the power of the sun!” Drax exclaims, overstating things a bit. That’s when the Phantom shows up and uses his skull ring to make a laser that destroys the three magic skulls, as well as Drax and the possibly immortal pirates, and we’re done. The story has reached its “climax,” which in this case means the part of the story that was slightly less tedious than the other parts.

Then the Phantom takes off his mask so that Diana can see he is Kit Walker, her old college boyfriend. Diana doesn’t seem surprised, but neither does she say anything along the lines of “I knew it!” She doesn’t really have much of a reaction at all. This suggests that she isn’t particularly interested in this “Phantom” person and whatever his whole deal is, and I can relate to that, so she’s my favorite character.