The Phantom 1996
I vaguely remember when this movie was coming out back in 96. It was during that second comparatively small wave of superhero movies after Tim Burton’s Batman, and when the movies were still trying to stay true to the look of the comic book heroes but not always everything else, and while there was a minor change to the Phantom’s typical striped shorts making them solid purple it looked almost exactly like how the Phantom looks in the comic books, and in my opinion it looked completely ridiculous, and purple is my favorite color. While it’s billed as a superhero movie, it plays much more like a much lesser Indiana Jones adventure movie as it is set in the late 30’s, takes place mostly in the jungle, and they are even going after some skulls with crystals in them. I remember hearing about how bad of a movie this is, but it ended up being a lot more fun than I expected. It’s quite cheesy at times and has plenty of silly dialogue and plot elements, but I went in expecting a flop and came up with a halfway decent pulp adventure.
One of the best things about this movie is Billy Zane himself, even dressed up in that ridiculous outfit he manages to be completely charming. There was also an element to his fighting style which I found quite interesting in that he tends to fight much better when he’s not looking at what he’s trying to hit. It’s something that I haven’t really seen before or since and it added a bit of a unique element to the handful of fights in the movie. The costume was something that I had a hard time with, even though it looked very similar to the comics, it just didn’t fit into the style of the rest of this movie, it always just looked out of place. The concept of the superhero itself is a bit of a strange one, he’s a part of a long line of Phantoms fighting pirates in the deep jungles, though the legend is perpetuated that it’s still the same person, which gives him an aura of immortality even though it never really comes into play aside from one of the henchmen keeps insisting that he’s killed the Phantom before. He also has an intelligent horse and wolf as his companions who are used a couple times then never really heard from again.
Kristy Swanson plays his love interest, the niece of the newspaper editor-in-chief Diana Palmer, and she does a great job at it. It’s refreshing that she never plays the damsel in distress at any point even though she is kidnapped. But instead she is completely capable of taking care of herself, and not only that but the Phantom doesn’t try to ignore that fact except during a brief moment during their first encounter and instead embraces her headstrong nature. In fact, Ms. Palmer isn’t the only strong female in this movie, there’s also the pirate captain Sala played by Catherine Zeta Jones before she took part in the Zorro movie ,here she plays an air pirate captain heading up a league of female pilots. While she does have some fun moments, she is one of the weakest characters. She’s supposed to be this villain, yet she is extremely easily bested when the Phantom casually grabs the gun out of her hand and she acts as if nothing has happened and pulls him in for a kiss. She also shifts allegiance near the end of the movie after Ms. Palmer’s extremely convincing argument consisting of the line “Why are you so evil?” Besides Sala, there’s the other henchmen played by James Remar who seems to continually insist that he has killed the Phantom already and even kept his old gun belt, though he never seems to understand until the very end that the current Phantom is the son of the previous Phantom, and also never gets to do much aside from making a young boy cross a rickety bridge with their truck since he would be the lightest.
The head of all of these villains is Xander Drax played by Treat Williams. He’s the debonair businessman who moonlights as the head of a criminal organization, though the movie never tries to play off the fact that he is anything other than a villain aside from a brief comment he makes to Mr. Palmer the newspaper editor-in-chief. Drax also gets a cheesy dialogue moment where he confronts yet another pirate leader and while explaining who he is, he spells out his name and also mentions that “it begins and ends with an ‘X’!” He was an odd choice for a villain, he never seemed overly intelligent to pull off a Lex Luthor style villain, he never really put on airs that he was anything other than a ruthless crime lord posing as a legitimate businessman, and his relationship with his pocket cop was somehow turned into boring exposition.
And of course I haven’t mentioned the macguffin of the movie, a set of three skulls which turns out to be four skulls including the ring that’s been passed down from Phantom to Phantom, oh sorry I should say “spoilers”? The first one is taken at the beginning from the jungle and that leads into the legend and brings both parties to come head to head for the second skull which then lead the way to the third. And when they’re combined they hold the key to some unexplained ultimate power which ends up being a weird laser beam that the Phantom repels with his ring’s laser beam which doesn’t make sense because they are acting like they are controlling the beams even though it’s supposedly not tied to their minds and the skulls end up destroying themselves for no apparent reason. It’s enough to drive a person batty, and unfortunately all the good graces this movie builds up with its fun sense of adventure is shadowed by this awful climax that ends with the volcano island erupting in the distance for no real reason either. I did still enjoy most of the movie, and while it seems like it’s been a long time since getting my daughter’s thoughts on one of these movies she did watch it with me and seemed to like it well enough though she thought one scene where Drax kills a librarian with a booby-trapped microscope was too scary even though the violence happened offscreen. It’s not the disaster I thought it was going to be, but the ending really threw me off of it. Until next time, this has been Bubbawheat for Flights, Tights, and Movie Nights.