Phantom, The (1996)

The Phantom (1996)

The Ghost Who Walks. The Man Who Cannot Die.

Known as ‘the ghost who walks, the man who cannot die,’ the twenty-first man to hold the title of the African superhero, The Phantom, travels to New York to investigate shady businessman Xander Drax’s interest in the fabled Skulls of Touganda. A trio of artefacts which, when brought together, give their possessor great powers, the skulls have been sought for a long time by the Phantom’s age-old enemy, the evil Sengh Brotherhood and Drax is suspected of being a member.


With Batman souring the skies in the 90s thanks to Tim Burton, there was little competition for the Caper Crusader. Superman had his day in the 70s and 80s with the Christopher Reeve films. The Incredible Hulk had dominated the TV shows but never made it to the big screen. Spider-Man had been relegated to a couple of low rent TV movies and the likes of the X-Men, the Fantastic Four and Iron Man were all still yet to get off the ground. So it was left to a lesser known hero of yesteryear to make the jump from page to screen. The Phantom was a popular comic strip which originally came out in the 1930s (and pre-dates Superman by a few months) and was about ten years too early in getting released. With the fuss regarding comic book heroes nowadays, a more appreciative audience may have been found. But back in 1996, everyone was like “What? Huh? Who?” and unfortunately this is probably The Phantom’s most inherent weakness – just who is he?

Well the idea of a superhero (who doesn’t actually have superpowers, he’s more like Batman) who bizarrely wears a purple spandex costume whilst trying to blend into the background of the African jungles doesn’t really sell itself for a start but The Phantom is decent fun, if nothing else. I think the best way to sum it up is that The Phantom is, at times, like watching Indiana Jones rattle around in a full body purple jumpsuit. It’s got the same old school, pulpy serial vibe that the Indy films had and, whilst playing itself straight, never takes itself too seriously and isn’t afraid of poking a joke at itself every once in a while. It should be noted that the script was penned by Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade screenwriter Jeffrey Bloam so there are plenty of similarities in style with the films.

I think the underlying problem with The Phantom is its simplicity. It never really goes for broke: the action is sporadic and not very intense when it turns up; it’s not violent in the slightest, perhaps more aimed for a younger market; and there is not a great deal of sexuality. It’s all very child-friendly and a little too corny and camp at times. You never get the ‘wow’ factor with anything. Writing a review about it, I’m finding it hard to come up with any memorable scene to highlight or any dialogue to mention. Don’t get me wrong, The Phantom is entertaining. There a million and one terms that could be used to describe the film but “bad film” isn’t amongst them. The script keeps the pace of the film moving briskly along so it’s never overly dull. But on the flip side, it never once takes your breath away. Rarely have superheroes been so, average.

Billy Zane is decent in the lead role and brings about a reasonable degree of normality and ‘everyday Joe’ quality to the role, though he lacks that extra spark or wit to make the role truly his. He is able to balance that with the buffed-up physicality needed, although the purple costume does him little favours. But in the end, The Phantom is hardly the most memorable superhero to grace the big screen despite the glaringly colourful attire. Treat Williams hams it up dramatically as Drax and the feminine quote for the film is handled by Kristy Swanson and Catherine Zeta-Jones. Swanson is the love interest and though she looks great, her character is given little screen time to develop any depth. Zeta-Jones is one of the bad guys and has been taking tips from Williams on overacting the villainous role. The casting is solid but the script gives them little to work with.


The Phantom isn’t going to offend anyone in any way because of its low key approach to the material and I enjoyed watching it. But it’s instantly forgettable compared to some of the genre’s more famous recent offerings. The Phantom may have had his moment to shine but he blew it and has been long forgotten with Spider-Man and X-Men bursting onto the scene.





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