Nostalgia keeps making me feel like an goddamned idiot. This week, The Phantom showed up on Netflix, and like some of my friends, I got stupid excited to revisit something from my youth. Directed by Simon Wincer, the 1996 adventure was produced by Alan Ladd Jr. and noted psychopath Robert Evans, and it starred a post-Twin Peaks star-on-the-rise Billy Zane, just before his apotheosis as “that asshole from Titanic.” I couldn’t remember a single plot detail but I knew it was important and so I cued it up.
Shit. What a goddamned disaster.
Was I a stupid kid? How did I not notice this is incomprehensibly bad? How did no adult step in to save me? Christ. Well, let’s get together and unpack some things. Please don’t bother re-watching. I’m here to save you.
This probably isn’t the place to start, but the tagline for this movie on the posters is SLAM EVIL! and I honestly think that might sum up the entire production. What the shit does SLAM EVIL! even mean?
I re-watched the film twice and The Phantom doesn’t slam anyone, much less the concept of evil. It doesn’t mean anything at all. There is no meaning but there are exclamation points and colors. And that’s basically The Phantom in a nutshell.
I want to explain who The Phantom is, but I’m not sure this movie is even about his journey? He’s almost tangential to, or even accidentally involved in the story. We open on a boy, shipwrecked on an island in the 16th century, and he’s taken in by a warrior tribe. He picks up a Skull ring and becomes The Phantom, who will fight around the world for like general good-guy stuff. If he ever dies, his son will take his place, so it totally upsets people who think they’ve killed him. This is all delivered in like thirty seconds of exposition so no one has a chance to ask “why?” or “how?” about anything.
For the next 20 minutes, we don’t see The Phantom. We follow some dudes that are supposed to be bad tomb raider types, but it is hard to tell that they’re evil when they’re just doing the same stuff Indiana Jones usually gets up to. One of them actually gets strangled by a skeleton, and it is hard to tell if we’re supposed to be upset or cheer for Mr. Murder Skeleton?
Truthfully, it is difficult to piece together much of the first act, but The Phantom (now in the form of Billy Zane) is protecting this burial pit, or else he just doesn’t like other white people trying to appropriate his treasure. This all resolves around some kind of rope bridge disaster, and then we meet The Phantom’s secret helpers in his Batcave (Phantomcavern?) — all children of ethnic minorities doing manual labor for him in a sequence that I cannot believe anyone felt okay with shooting, even in 1996.
The next two acts are a completely different movie, involving a Big Bad one-percenter named Xander Drax (Treat Williams) and both Catherine Zeta-Jones and Kristy Swanson alternate between distressed damsels and femme-fatales on a whim. It’s meaningless and bad; and in the end there’s a bunch of pirates who shoot a cannon at a Dick Tracy bad-guy and his body bounces the way physics would not allow.
The film’s producer, Robert Evans (!), and the rest of his team certainly believed in telling The Phantom’s story. Why? Because it had worked before. In 1994, vastly superior The Shadow took a former radio superhero and made a film adaptation. Kids liked watching people get punched and grandparents wanted to come see a property they knew from their youth.
This was my experience, as my grandfather took me to see both of these films after prepping me with old radio serials we got on tape from the library. That path to The Phantom, I realize, is priceless and beautiful. And had I remembered that’s what got me to see The Phantom in the first place, I would have never revisited and destroyed that pleasant memory. Sorry, grandpa.
As it stands, The Phantom is a call-back to a point when we burned out on superhero movies by just trying to push any old stupid IP into theaters. It is devoid of theme or meaning, and features a character who suddenly has dual wielding pistols for murdering people and sometimes just jumps around in a purple suit. It is simply-made cinema born to fill in a calendar date, with aspirations for little more. In the abstract, what The Phantom represents is a looming threat for studios like Marvel and DC, currently making superhero business the biggest game in town. You can’t misstep in this costumed world. One Phantom level picture at the wrong time could sink the entire cape and cowl industry.
Featuring Billy Zane and a bunch of b-roll footage of jungle animals, someone thought this would be a swashbuckling adventure for viewers of all ages. Instead, it is both boring and nonsense, so let’s just leave it to the dustbin of history — and maybe re-watch The Shadow instead.