The Phantom paid tongue-in-cheek homage to old-timey do-gooders but never got its due

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They kept trying it. All through the 1990s, movie executives were greenlighting big summer movies based on mostly forgotten ’30s-vintage pulp superheroes. Clearly, people placed high within Hollywood’s largest studios thought that the teenagers of the ’90s, kids who had grown up buying gold-embossed collectors’ editions of X-Men comics in record numbers, would eventually lose their shit for the square-jawed quasi-superheroes of the Depression era. These movies kept coming out, and they kept failing. Some, like 1990’s Dick Tracy, were only soft disappointments. Others, like 1994’s The Shadow, were legendary flops. But none of them really made money. None of them ended up getting sequels. And yet they kept trying it.

It’s not that hard to figure out why they kept trying. The Indiana Jones movies had, of course, been huge hits, uniting generations in their giddy, exuberant old-school adventure yarns. And the Batman movies, both those from Tim Burton and Joel Schumacher, were big hits. The Batman character dated back to the ’30s, as well, and his oldest stories baldly ripped off those of the Shadow. With his non-powered fistfights and his noir-detective plots, Batman was, in a lot of ways, one of those pulp heroes, even if none of the movie versions really drew much from that era of his hijinks. So even seven years after Burton’s original Batman, studios were still trying to come up with their own versions.

There is also, of course, the perennial problem of aging, out-of-touch movie execs attempting to cater to teenagers whose tastes they don’t understand and whose lives are like nothing they can comprehend. Maybe these movie execs thought that an ancestral superhero like the Phantom would have the name recognition to do decent multiplex business. They miscalculated. The teenagers of 1996 had America Online. They had the Fugees and Beck and, at least until September, Tupac. They had Seinfeld and Friends. They had the Jordan Bulls. They had ecstasy. If you gave them a gigantic spaceship blotting out the sun until Will Smith shows up to destroy that spaceship, or Tom Cruise dangling from the ceiling of an ultra-secure bright-white CIA vault, then sure, maybe they’d show up in the theater. If you gave them a purple-leotarded jungle warrior doing battle with pirates, they would not.

The Phantom, the character, had been around since 1936, two years before Superman made his first appearance. Crucially, he’d been a comic strip superhero, not a comic book superhero, though there had certainly been plenty of comic books about the character over the years. His story had been told three panels at a time for decades—not exactly a format that lends itself to developing a deep and iconic mythology, though creator Lee Falk did his best. Falk was still writing the Phantom’s comic strip in 1996, when the movie adaptation came out; he kept doing it until his 1999 death. But kids my age—I was 16 in 1996—probably mostly knew the Phantom from Defenders Of The Earth, an ’80s cartoon where the character teamed up with Flash Gordon and Mandrake The Magician, another Falk creation, to battle the ever-present planetary threat of Ming The Merciless. (It was cool. I had the lunchbox.)

Falk had conceived the Phantom as a sort of hybrid of Zorro and Tarzan, a masked white avenger who lived in the jungle of a fictional African country and who fought a generations-long battle against the pirate clan who had killed some of his ancestors. You couldn’t make a movie about that guy now; people would call him the White Panther. But at the time, most people hadn’t yet figured out that it was fucked up to tell stories about white guys who go native and immediately get accepted just because they’re awesome. (The Phantom came out right between Dances With Wolves and The Last Samurai; the movie was not the only offender there.) Still, the whole idea of the character was hopelessly dated, a problem that the movie tackled by steering directly into it.

There had been talk of a Phantom movie for decades. Sergio Leone, the spaghetti Western master, wanted to make one, which is a wild thing to consider. Gremlins auteur Joe Dante was on board for a while; he developed a script with Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade screenwriter Jeffrey Boam. In the end, Dante got a producer’s credit, but he blasted the end product for taking itself too seriously. According to Dante, he and Boam had meant the movie as a comedy, and the guy who ended up getting the directing job—Simon Wincer, the Australian journeyman behind Quigley Down Under and Free Willy and Operation Dumbo Drop—had gotten the tone all wrong.

Watching the movie today, though, I don’t think Dante was being fair. The Phantom is nobody’s idea of a masterpiece, but it’s a fun example of the ’90s studio B-movie, and its gleefully unserious tone is a huge part of the reason why. Wincer didn’t have the classical storytelling gifts of a Spielberg, so The Phantom was never going to resonate on the same level that the Indiana Jones movies did. Still, it’s got that same sensibility: gee-whiz old-school pulp action, rendered by people who are clearly having a blast and who never give the sense that they’re above the material in any way.

A lot of the credit goes to Billy Zane, the man who ended up in the Phantom mask. (He beat out Bruce Campbell, who was seemingly considered for every ’90s superhero role and who would’ve absolutely winked his way through The Phantom.) Zane will go down in film history as one of the world’s nastiest, smarmiest villains, and that’s definitely what he’d done in his best pre-Phantom roles, whether in the tightly plotted thriller Dead Calm or in the over-the-top low-budget horror blast Tales From The Crypt: Demon Knight. But in The Phantom, he’s pure wholesomeness, an adventurer who seems to be in love with adventure and who never gives off a sense of being tortured, a stark contrast from Michael Keaton in Batman or Brandon Lee in The Crow. He fills out his purple leotard with brawny physicality and hits the sort of hands-on-hips, chest-out poses that Falk had drawn into those comic strips.

The movie knows that Zane’s character is ridiculous. He is, after all, a college-educated New Yorker who went off to the jungle to live in a skull-shaped cave once his father died, unquestioningly taking over his father’s role as the next Phantom. (It’s a family thing; the son becomes the Phantom as soon as his father dies. We never learn what would happen if a Phantom had a daughter, or how the successive Phantoms had convinced their wives to come live in that skull cave.) But the movie buys into the absurdity completely. All of the women in the movie immediately swoon over the Phantom, and none figure out that it’s Billy Zane under the mask even though it’s clearly Billy Zane under the mask.

The movie’s villain—Treat Williams as occult-obsessed businessman Xander Drax—is just as excited to be a part of this malarkey as Zane is. Williams has as much fun playing the bad guy as you’d hope for a movie like this. There’s one scene where he stabs a guy in the eye with a spiky microscope and another where he impales a mobster on a spear and then complains about tweaking a muscle. But Drax’s enthusiasm is genuine. “Did you hear the exciting news?” he gushes to an underling at one point. “We’re going to the Devil’s Vortex!”

The supporting characters are equally breezy. Kristy Swanson—who, between The Chase and the original Buffy The Vampire Slayer, had plenty of experience making enjoyable ’90s crap—is the love interest who, at one point, elbows a henchman in the balls. A young and pre-stardom Catherine Zeta-Jones plays an air pirate who starts off as a horny villainess and who switches sides when Swanson asks her why she’s always so mean. She’s great, but my favorite supporting characters are the Phantom’s wolf and his horse. There’s a great scene where the Phantom and Swanson are escaping from a bad guy’s ship in a seaplane. The wolf, who’s been helping to fight bad guys on the boat, jumps off, runs up to the horse, and has a quick bark/neigh conversation. The horse, apparently understanding exactly what the wolf was saying, takes off running, so that the Phantom can jump out of the plane and onto its back. It’s ridiculous, and it’s perfect. If you’re already going to believe in the purple-cat-suited jungle legend, why not believe that his wolf and his horse can talk to each other?

Parts of The Phantom are deeply awkward. This was only three years before The Matrix, and yet the action scenes are about on the level of an episode of Xena: Warrior Princess. The movie relies so hard on the old trope about bad guys with guns not being able to hit the hero that a lead bad guy feels the need, at one point, to complain about it. Toward the end, we see a couple of instances of gallingly shitty mid-’90s CGI. And then there is the gross business of the movie’s racial politics. In the very first scene, the first Phantom, then a little boy, escapes evil Asian-stereotype pirates and lands with benevolent African-stereotype tribesmen. (For much of the movie, though, the Phantom has little contact with the locals, and it’s not even clear whether he’s supposed to be in Africa or what.)

Still, in its colorful old-timey silliness, The Phantom represents a road not taken for the superhero movie. (Sadly, there have been no more superhero movies in which wolves and horses talk to each other.) In recent years, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has recaptured some of that same sense of winking silliness, but it took a while. The Phantom wasn’t an influential movie. (I picked it as 1996’s most important superhero movie mostly by default.) It made back less than half of its production budget, and plans for a sequel were immediately suspended. A year later, Billy Zane was back to playing over-the-top villains, serving that role with admirable brio in Titanic. And despite its failure, Hollywood still wasn’t done making pulp-hero movies. Eight years later, we got the willfully goofy, CGI-heavy retro-futurism of the deeply underrated Sky Captain And The World Of Tomorrow. Once again, nobody went to see it. Hollywood doesn’t always learn its lessons quickly.

Other notable 1996 superhero movies: Near the peak of his physical powers, Jet Li, basically already a real-life superhero, starred in the Hong Kong movie Black Mask, in which he played an experimental super-soldier who wore a mask and cleaned up Hong Kong by night. A few years later, Artisan released a dubbed version of it into American theaters, with a rap soundtrack awkwardly and hilariously edited in. It’s a fun-enough movie, but it never achieves the levels of glorious, narcotic weirdness that The Heroic Trio had done a few years earlier.

The Crow is a movie that probably should’ve never gotten a sequel, considering that its star died during filming. But it got one, anyway, in the form of The Crow: City Of Angels, which tells basically the same gothsploitation-Death Wish narrative, moving the action to Los Angeles and telling the story of an undead father getting revenge on the gibbering sadist-cult gang who killed his son. Its new star, the Swiss actor Vincent Perez, is awfully pretty, but he’s also painfully wooden, mostly just underlining how good Brandon Lee was in the first movie. But City Of Angels does have Hole’s cover of Fleetwood Mac’s “Gold Dust Woman” on the soundtrack, and it has a scene where Iggy Pop punches out Ian Dury, so it’s not a total loss.

The Troma movie Sgt. Kabukiman N.Y.P.D.—made in 1990 but not released until six years later—tells the story of a New York detective who gains not-at-all-offensive Japanese-themed superpowers when he’s investigating a massacre of Japanese actors. He fights bad guys with chopsticks and sushi. Since the movie’s release, the character has made cameos in various other Troma sequels, sometimes alongside the Toxic Avenger.

That same year, Fox tried to turn the X-Men spinoff Generation X into a TV series. It didn’t pick up the pilot, but it did air the pilot as a TV movie, so maybe that counts. Darkman got a second straight-to-video sequel in the excellently title Darkman 3: Die Darkman Die. And the movies Barb Wire, Tales From The Crypt: Bordello Of Blood, and Vampirella were all comic book adaptations of one form or another, though none were really superhero movies.

Next time: The Joel Schumacher Batman era ends with the spectacular disaster Batman & Robin.