People, we need to talk about The Phantom.
My first article for Panels was about the cinematic masterpiece (ahem) Daredevil. The thing is, that film was a hit. It doesn’t really need anyone to defend it. It may not have broken any records, but it did break 100 million.
Daredevil is a film out of time. It came out only a year or so before Batman Begins, and after Blade and X-Men had already shown that there was life in the genre. Since then, the films have been (for the most part) of a consistent quality. Not all of them have been great, but very few have really been terrible, and they’ve all made money. Daredevil feels like it belongs a decade earlier, when Hollywood had made many less successful attempts at bringing comics to the screen.
And nestled back amongst these failures and misfires was The Phantom, a film that I would argue should swap places with Daredevil. This Billy Zane vehicle belongs among the modern era of the comic movies.
Well Marvel Studios has had a pretty diverse slate so far. They’ve had action films, comedies, war movies, fantasy epics and a spy thriller. This diverse range has been down to the simple idea that they let the characters be what they are. They let Iron Man be Iron Man, and find film stories that suit him. They let Captain America be Captain America. They let the Guardians Of The galaxy…well, you get the point. The successful films of the modern era (and now the tv shows, too, if The Flash is anything to go by) have been the ones that have followed this principle. The failures (coughManOfSteelcough) have been the ones that have tried to turn the central character into something else.
The Phantom was made at a time when it seems like every film version of a comic had to be the same thing. They all had to be a watered-down version of 1989’s Batman, with a sculpted bodysuit and some vaguely Danny Elfman-ish score. We don’t need to look any further than the first small screen Barry Allen to see this at work.
The Phantom ignored all of the rules of the time. Well, almost all. Another symptom of the Burton-craze was that films needed to some how looks like the 1930’s, and this was a period piece. But what a period piece. There was no sculpted body suit, and no attempt to dress the character up in anything dark or modern. In fact, I’m pretty sure that the dreaded words “dark” and “gritty” have only ever been mentioned in relation to the film in this here article.
Nobody making this film was ashamed of the material. Nobody tried to pretend the material was something it wasn’t, and they stayed true to the basic ideas that fans of the character would recognise from the page.
It’s fun. It has scenes in a cave, because that’s where the Phantom lives. Two of the main characters in the film are a horse and a wolf. There are pirates, and car chases, and a truck hanging upside-down from a rope bridge…in a jungle.
Billy Zane plays the protagonist absolutely pitch-perfect. He’s funny, heroic, human and flawed. Like Chris Evans’ take on Steve Rogers, this is an action hero you probably wouldn’t mind grabbing a beer with. He finds the fun in the material without making fun of the material. Kristy Swanson manages to play the kind of independent and bold female character that isn’t so insecure as to need to keep pointing out that she is independent and bold. And Treat Williams….oh, Treat…..I’m not sure any actor has had this much fun playing a villain. He pulls off the same trick as Zane, managing to find the humour and the camp without stepping over into a different film.
Did I mention it has a scene on a rope bridge? In a jungle?
And, hey, how many comic book movies have been produced by Robert Evans?
If this film was released now, I genuinely think it would be a hit. It would hit a sweet spot. It’s bright, and fun, and it looks great. It’s an action adventure that happens to have a costume in it. Unfortunately, like it’s soul mate The Rocketeer, The Phantom was simply the right film at the wrong time.
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