Pulp Masterpieces, Part 4: The Phantom (1996)

Quite often when a genre or medium dies out, it doesn’t die right away…


…usually. The pulps didn’t die out overnight; during the 1940s, they slowly lost their popularity, and by the ’50s, pulps were largely a memory. But as early as the mid-’30s, there were signs that there might be cracks in the pulp empire.

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When I reviewed The Maltese Falcon, I pointed out how there were some pulp elements to it, even though it’s considered the first true film noir. There was the quality of one genre passing the torch to another as people’s tastes were starting to change. And it wasn’t just people’s tastes in stories; there was also competition from other sources. While television and paperback novels weren’t rivals for consumer attention at this time, there were others: comic books and comic strips. Action Comics #1 was released in 1938, ushering in a new kind of character in a fresh medium, but remember what I said about The Maltese Falcon, a noir movie with pulp elements? Before Superman, there was another superhero, and despite his bright purple attire, there were most certainly shades of pulp about him. I speak of course of the Ghost Who Walks, the Phantom!


Created by legendary artist/writer Lee Falk, the Phantom first appeared in newspapers in 1936. He was a gun-toting vigilante operating out of the fictional African country of Bangalla, a legacy hero who inherited the mantle from his father, and he from his father stretching back some four hundred years. Because no one knew of this, the legend formed that he was immortal and he became known as “the ghost who walks”, which is all kinds of badass. The gun-toting methods of the Phantom, along with his tendency to strike fear by using superstition are very pulp-like, but the tights and the mask where you can’t see his pupils? Those are comic book staples. In fact, I would say without the Phantom, a guy with white-irised masked eyes and operating out of a cave, you possibly would not have had the Batman, who himself was a transitional character back when he used to carry a gun and wanted his enemies dead…

…before somebody knocked the pulp right out of him:
The Phantom appeared for many decades in comic strips, then he began making appearances in comics, and then there was a cartoon series in the ’80s called The Defenders of the Earth where he appeared in an ensemble cast…
…and then later on in 1994, he appeared in an animated series taking place in the future, called Phantom 2040

…and this was five years before Batman Beyond, by the way, which had a very similar premise. Then there was either a TV mini-series or pilot that aired on Syfy in 2010 to bring the Phantom into modern day…
I caught part one, but it didn’t exactly impress me, partly because it just felt like it was capitalizing on the parkour craze going on at the time. What else? Oh, yeah. There was that movie released in 1996.
The plot (spoilers!): Corrupt businessman and crime boss Xander Drax…

…seeks to exploit the chaos enveloping the world. To achieve his goal of world domination, he must gather the mythical Skulls of Toganda, which when combined will give him unlimited power. To this end he has the aid of his thug Quill…
…and the air pirate Sala.
On behalf of her uncle, newspaper owner Dave Palmer, and woman named Diana…

….travels to the African nation of Bengalla to follow up on a lead regarding an ancient criminal brotherhood, where she meets the one man who might be able to stop Drax and his schemes.

Man, I really wanted to love this movie. It had everything I could possibly want in a film, from the setting, to the old school super heroics, to Catherine Zeta Jones.

I mean God, look at her! She even made The Haunting bearable. Well, almost bearable. But back to The Phantom. I’ve found that when I like a movie, I’m more inclined to forgive or at least not notice its faults, but when I dislike a film, those faults are magnified. I’m afraid when it comes to The Phantom, it’s very much the latter case.

Let’s start with the Phantom’s costume. I appreciate any attempt at authenticity by a producer attempting to do right by the source material. But there’s a reason why Wolverine was never seen in yellow spandex in any of the X-Men movies. Some things simply do not translate well from the comics to the big screen, and that god-awful purple outfit is one of them. The comics had it that color because in the Sunday funnies you wanted it to stand out and draw the attention of kids, so naturally you wouldn’t want it to be gray or black. But as tolerable as it might look in the dark…

…it’s just glaringly terrible. You might be saying “But Tom, it’s pulp!” And yes, I’m willing to give some leeway, but every time the costume is revealed in the harsh light of day…

Oy. Maybe they could have made it a darker shade of purple. Much, much darker.

Billy Zane is strong in the lead role. As Kit Walker/the Phantom, he comes across as being heroic, funny, and light-hearted when with friends, and grim when confronting his enemies. In fact, I would say if there was any lesson to be learned regarding how to portray Batman, this should be exactly it. I especially like the little touches Zane adds to the character, such as one scene where when chasing Drax and Co. he bumps into a woman and pauses to pick up and return the handbag she dropped. Zane embraces the spirit…

…no, not that Spirit. And no, I’m never reviewing that movie, so please don’t ask me to. Anyway, Zane gets it. He understands the genre and runs with it full tilt, and I love him for it.

Kristy Swanson is fine as Diana. I have no complaints. I don’t really have any compliments, either. She’s largely on hand as a hostage and unconvincing love interest. She really doesn’t have a great deal of personality or style. Maybe I’m just unfairly comparing her to Catherine Zeta-Jones’ far more charismatic character.
Nope, no maybes about it; Swanson is eclipsed every time.

In one scene, Sela claims Diana is in love with the Phantom, and he’s in love with her. When asked how she knows this, Jones says it’s because the Phantom picked Diana over her. Which just goes to show the Phantom is an idiot. Always pick the bad girl, Phantom; your life will never be boring. In fact—and this would have made the movie tons better—having the Phantom realize the reformed bad girl better suits his adventurous nature would have made oh-so-much more sense. Hell, while we’re at it, was Swanson’s character necessary at all? With a little editing, I could easily imagine her being written out of the script altogether to allow Kit Walker to be wooed by the alluring dark haired temptress.

Jones is a little light-hearted for being a ruthless sky pirate, but being Catherine Zeta-Jones, I’m willing to give her all the leeway in the world. But seriously, I get why they play her up as they do because of her turn in the third act, when Sela and Diana find themselves in a cave full of potential rapists and she decides that allying herself with the only other woman in sight is the prudent move. I can also buy her being badass enough to take on pirates hand-to-hand (unlike Swanson, who comes across as laughable and makes me wonder how anybody could be afraid of the Zhiang Brotherhood when the heiress is kicking their asses). In one scene, she lugs Diana through the bowels of the bad guys’ ship…

It’s played more for laughs, showcasing just how much of a dick Quill is for not carrying Diana himself. But Swanson must weigh, what, 120 pounds? For Jones’ character to cart her through the ship like that implies she’s damn fit. Fit enough to kick pirate ass.

As for Treat Williams…
…Man, I don’t know what sort of direction he was given. At times, his performance is fine, but the guy never seems to be taking anything at all seriously in this film, so I couldn’t take him seriously. As for James Remar’s Quill…
…I’ve got no complaints. He comes across as tough and mean and despicable, and I don’t mind the whole you-killed-my-father subplot he’s a part of. Remar is good at tough guy roles like this. But what makes little sense to me is how he took Kit’s father’s belt as a trophy, but not the ring? The man is a crook and I can see him looting the corpse, and showing off the spoils. I don’t see how the ring keeps getting passed down from generation to generation if something as simple as a gun belt gets taken by the guy who kills the prior Phantom. Am I nitpicking at this point? Yeah, probably. As for the pirates of the Singh Brotherhood…

Not pictured: Dignity.

God, I was half expecting Scooby-Doo music at this point. The pirates are laughable, running around with swords, looking like a bunch of cosplayers, and firing off three hundred year old cannons. Do you like Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa?
Then you’ll weep when you see how wasted he is in this film. He and the pirates make a late, nonsensical appearance in the third act. Oh sure, the Singh Brotherhood is mentioned early on and Quill is a member, but why are these jokers running around looking like they’re from an earlier century?

Another thing that annoyed me in the film was the appearance of the Phantom’s father, played by the immortal Patrick McGoohan. I’m supposed to believe that he’s still Phantom-ing it up at this age?
He was about 68 when this film got made, and honestly he looks to be at least 60. Would it have been a stretch to find an actor who was 50 or so to play the role? But casting aside, I hated the scenes where Kit is talking to the ghost of his dad (and yes, it’s officially a ghost, as McGoohan has a voiceover at the end). It just comes across as corny to me. And yes, I know, it’s a pulp movie; corny is supposed to be par for the course. I suppose had the film been better overall, Kit’s dad’s ghost would have been better well received on my part.

Some of the action set pieces are questionable, like the truck on the collapsing bridge, or the Phantom rescuing Diana with the biplane, or the Phantom fleeing an expanding fireball just like we’ve seen in what feels like every action movie made in the ’90s. The fights are well choreographed, I’ll give them that much. All except the ones where Diana is beating up hardened pirates, that is.

The film is hurt by being a little too much like a pulp movie that came out two years before, The Shadow. The mystic elements, the Asian bad guy, the helpful cabbie…

I think the film would be been better served had it been a touch more grounded in reality. Not too much, mind you, but if they had stripped away the ghosts and magic skulls and made it more of a Phantom vs. pirates tale, implying the Singh Brotherhood had expanded worldwide and Walker had to abandon his skull cave and leave Bengalla to combat this international menace, then I think the movie would have had more of its own identity. Granted, I do think director Simon Wincer was a good choice for a director; he had worked on many episodes of The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles, and understood the genre and period. The shortcomings come from the script.

I know there are people who love this movie and to them I say, more power to you. But for me calling it a “Pulp Masterpiece” just might be stretching things a bit.

Tag: Pulp Masterpieces

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  • ussafs3

    I grew up reading Phantom in the Sunday comics, so I was predisposed to enjoy this movie. But while the movie was enjoyable, the most memorable thing was when Catherine Zeta Jones appeared and thinking ” who.is.THAT?” I also loved when Billy Zane punches her out. You almost never see a superhero do that.

  • Cristiona

    The film that killed my Billy Zane phase. Yes, I had a Billy Zane phase; don’t judge me.

    I was actually familiar with the Phantom (my paper carried it), but this film. It did not work well at all. Which is too bad, since it could have worked. Maybe if it had been a bit smaller and less cliche.

    • Thomas Stockel

      Hey, I like Billy Zane, too. Demon Knight is a great movie, I loved Sniper, and I loved that tv movie/pilot Invincible he did. I don’t care if it has a 3.3/10 rating in imdb. 😀