He’s the ghost who walks, an immortal crime fighter in purple and had a pet wolf before it was cool (I’m looking at you, Jon Snow). Yes, The Phantom doesn’t sit at the forefront of most minds when you talk great superhero movies, but it’s certainly one of the most underrated and shamelessly entertaining.
For those who came in late… originally legendary filmmaker Sergio Leone wanted to take the colourful comic book character from strip to screen, but it was Joe Dante who got the ball rolling before having to pull out due to scheduling conflicts. He still served as executive producer, and we very nearly had a purple nippled Phantom when Joel Schumacher tried to take over. Thank fuck the gig ended up going to veteran Australian director Simon Wincer. The 70-year-old is your go-to guy if you have a moving horse story (Phar Lap, The Lighthorsemen, Flash, The Cup etc) and there was plenty of horsing around in The Phantom with the white stallion, but one of the key things that Wincer added was a sense of levity. Sure, the brooding superhero is so fetch right now and I love Batman as much as the next person who has him tattooed to her person, yet if Captain America: The First Avenger has taught us anything it’s that there’s nothing wrong with a touch of joy while saving the world. The 1996 movie brought that, largely thanks to the charm of Billy Zane.
He first fell in love with the character – which had its debut in 1936 – when he was filming Dead Calm in Australia back in the late eighties. The then 29-year-old got notoriously method to play Kit Walker, the latest hero to take up the mantel of the Phantom aka Ghost Who Walks aka the guy villains kept mistaking for being immortal because different lads keep stepping in to fill his shoes like James Bond. The Jim Henson creature company developed a Batman-esque costume with built in muscles that had to be re-designed when Zane showed up for filming because he had buffed up so much it was unnecessary. Yet it was more than the physical presence that Zane nailed, as he was able to perfectly capture the superhero who could be firing pistols at pirates one moment, then winking as he scoops a damsel to safety the next. The screenplay – written by Jeffrey Boam – threw back to the essential elements of some of the screenwriter’s most famous projects like Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and The Lost Boys. Our hero was a swashbuckler with swagger.
Set in 1938, the story leaps around from the remote jungle where Kit lives at Casa di Cave (with the ghosts of Phantoms past) and New York city as the Phantom investigates a sinister plot to create the ultimate weapon. Treat Williams gives a delightfully crazy-as-tits performance as villain Xander Drax, which sounds like a character name Vin Diesel was destined to play. Thrown into the mix is Kristy Swanson four years after the Buffy movie flopped as Diana Palmer (sugar), and a pre-fame Catherine Zeta Jones as boss lady pirate Sala (spice). Los Angeles, Thailand and the Gold Coast (STRAYA!) provided the real-life locations that transported as back to The Phantom’s world.
In a movie that involves magical skull rings that shoot rainbow lasers at each other when willed, there are many kitsch elements – obviously – which only further endeared this film to me. Sure, there are some dodgy faux punches and some even dodgier sets, but the highlights are worth noting individually.
–The greatest sequential moment in cinema history! Kit has a quick word with his pet wolf Ghost, ah, I mean Devil who then passes the message on to the pet horse who then gallops after a flying helicopter which our hero then proceeds to leap from on to a MOVING BLOODY HORSE all because he played Chinese Whispers with his pooch. Hand them the Oscar.
–Femmes! BAMF femmes! In a time before Black Widow, in a time before Peggy Carter, in a time only months before SMG’s Buffy, here we had not one but TWO female leads in a comic-book movie. There’s Swanson’s Palmer, who takes no shit and wears pants when it was culturally more acceptable to wear skirts and asks for sandwiches over romance and is single-handedly trying to save a whole newspaper by taking down an evil organisation for kicks. Did I mention the sandwiches thing? Then there’s Sala, who’s the flip side of the coin. On the surface a classic film noir femme fatale, she’s a hell of a lot more: she’s a pirate QUEEN. Girlfriend has risen to the top of a male dominated world by being a cut-throat ma’am who is all about the sisterhood. Let’s not forget the scene when Kit lands on her ship and is greeted by several women in the bathroom, who scream and then produce guns and start shooting at him because why the heck not? Later, he bumps into Palmer and Sala when the following line of dialogue occurs –
The Phantom: What is this, a ship full of women?
Sala: All my pilots are women.
The Phantom: Interesting.
Fuck yeah all her pirates are women! A whole ship full of fuck-off lady pirate BAMFs! Also, despite being on opposite teams, when shit gets real towards the film’s conclusion and both women are stuck in a perilous situation, conflicting love interest and motives be damned, Sala grabs her former frenemy Palmer and whispers ‘Us girls have got to stick together’. Yes. Yes they do.
–Pirates, minus Johnny Depp’s elderly gay wind chime shtick! Furthermore, pirates that have an evil lair which we know is an evil lair because it has a MOTHERFUCKING SHARK POOL OF DEATH! Not sharks with friggin’ lasers beams attached to their friggin’ heads but hey, it was ’96.
Essentially what I’m getting at is yes, this is a purple-clad superhero that your great-great-great grandfather found relevant and yes, his sidekicks are wolves and horses BUT in world of grey-rimmed, brooding comic book movies there’s a lot to be said for this jubilant feast of fun. As a kid I saw it twice at the cinema, both times with my grandfather, and so help me God if you don’t enjoy yourself watching this back in adulthood. Put a stop to the ‘gritty’ reboot that’s allegedly coming, halt the TV series that’s supposed to take Kit Walker back to his teens, we’ve already seen the best version of The Phantom and he was a grinning, skull-ring wearing charmer with a wink.
Maria Lewis – follow Maria on Twitter here: @moviemazz or on top-rating film podcast Pod Save Our Screen, available now on iTunes.