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The Phantom

Director: Simon Wincer
Cast: Billy Zane, Kristy Swanson, Treat Williams, Catherine Zeta-Jones

(US DVD: 9 Feb 2010)

There once was a time when people purchased newspapers. Inside these newspapers readers found a section dedicated to colored strips of short stories or jokes. Whether they were detective stories like Dick Tracy or humorous fables like Peanuts, each bit was intended to provide a little levity to the usually morose news day. Though some news purists continuously overlooked these amusing characters every day, many grew to love the daily break from regular news and the characters found within such comic strips.


In all seriousness, though, Lee Falk created one of the longest running and most beloved comic strips in 1936. The Phantom told the numerous adventures of a purple-suited crime fighter based in the mythical African country of Bengalia. With his loyal pet wolf named Devil and a trusty steed called Hero, the Phantom is one of the earliest superheroes penned to paper. His affinity for ancient artifacts remind some of Indiana Jones, while his pupil-less eyes hidden behind a black mask invoke images of the later Batman. The Phantom (arguably) inspired these characters as well as many more of today’s favorite superheroes. Superheroes whose latest on screen adventures are raking in hundreds of millions of dollars at the box office. 


So, why did the 1996 film adaptation of The Phantom tank so badly at the box office? There are three reasons I came up with after viewing the breathtakingly beautiful new blu-ray release of the film. Yes, the film looks terrific. The set design is spot-on, and this HD transfer draws out the vibrant colors instilled in each scene gorgeously If nothing else, the lush jungle life and perfectly defined black levels in each cave scene make The Phantom worth checking out—but I digress.


First off, the character itself is a hard sell to the modern American public. A purple-suited do-gooder with mystical powers and skull rings who shoots people doesn’t exactly scream “family film”. Yet that’s exactly how it was made; the PG-rated cut is definitely for kids. The villain, Xander Drax , is played like a living cartoon by Treat Williams. Our hero makes a few “clever” quips post-fight. Even the thrills are of moderate scale with the kills being off-screen or merely implied. 


That being said, it all works. Well, it works most of the time. Williams’ performance is filled with fun although his zeal rubs off. The quips fit in with the cartoon feel of the whole experience, and the thrills are still thrilling enough to hold attention. Not everything rings true, but director Simon Wincer’s intentions are perfectly clear. This is not a film unaware of its tone.


The film’s second misstep, however, was unforeseeable.  It was simply released too soon. Before 1996, the best superhero movie with a kid-friendly attitude was probably Superman, and that was released almost two decades prior. The whole superhero trend hadn’t caught on yet, and the next related genre, the Indiana Jones series, was by then seven years in the grave. So by the time he came along, Billy Zane isn’t a name that will draw a crowd, and this series needed a bigger star to draw in a comparable audience.


Finally, The Phantom’s lackluster receipts were inevitable because the film simply wasn’t perfect and it had to be to succeed. When a movie is trying to be campy and fun instead of dark and serious, every character, every line of dialog, and even every feeling has to ring true every time. If one or two moments don’t fit with the tone of the movie, the whole thing can derail. Though The Phantom never completely comes off its track, there are a few instances that miss their marks.


Zane, for instance, does an admirable job in the role, but his charisma is limited and it shows. Some of his punches during the actions scenes are clear misses, and a lot of the time he just looks too clumsy to be unstoppable. Unlike Indiana Jones who is almost always flying by the seat of his pants, the Phantom is always in control. He sees things before they happen and thus reacts calmly. The idea is first-rate, but the execution is not very exciting.


The same can be said for choice lines of dialog.  During multiple action scenes, the “bad guys” chasing the Phantom yell such clichéd lines as “Don’t let him get away!” and “Catch him!” sometimes one after the other. I can see how these would fit in the comic strip, but they come off as clumsy and repetitive on film. Other lines betray the family vibe of the film, such as when the attractive villainess says “I claim the body when you’re done” when it looks like the Phantom is about to be murdered. She already made out with him during a rescue. Is that extra bit of sexuality really necessary?


The Phantom is far from perfect, but that doesn’t make it a bad film. For all of its detriments to box office success, The Phantom does an incredible job at delivering on its intentions. It’s campy, but fun. It’s light, but thrilling. It’s simple, but effective. 


In fact, the most disappointing aspect of the release isn’t anything found in the film but what’s missing from the special features. There’s nothing at all on the disc unless you count the film’s theatrical trailer and technical specifications listed on the back cover Though it’s doubtful the bonus content would be in high demand, a hero with this much history deserves at least a documentary chronicling the many different mediums covered by the Phantom. Those precious few people who still read the comic strip would greatly appreciate it.

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Ben Travers is an awards season analyst and prognosticator with a devout interest in all things film & TV. Mr. Travers lives in Los Angeles as an experienced writer and filmmaker with an extensive portfolio of coverage, including thorough reporting on the Academy Awards, weekly box office reports, and more reviews written than will ever be read. He is a graduate of the University of Iowa with degrees in both journalism and cinema.


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