Romance Lives: A Movie Review of “The Phantom”
Length: 100 minutes
Genre: Comic book/Action/Adventure
Director: Simon Wincer
Personal Rating: 3.5 Stars
Heroes today must brood. Failing that, they must have a “complexity” of some sort. This is not necessarily bad; Batman should be a brooding figure, as Christopher Nolan and Christian Bale brilliantly depicted in the Dark Knight trilogy. Marvel has done a fairly good job of giving their characters various foibles while still remaining heroic. That being said, however, the trend is to have every hero be “dark” and “edgy.” This habit is why, more than ever, The Phantom is a fun and good piece of entertainment.
Created by Lee Falk in 1936, the Phantom was one—if not the first—comic book hero. In fact, many of the tropes that we associate with comic book heroes—such as tights and masks that only leave white slats for eyes—were first seen in the Phantom. Although he appeared on screen a few times after his creation—1943 in a fifteen chapter Columbia Pictures serial and 1986 in the cartoon, Defenders of the Earth—he never appeared in his own feature length film until the summer of 1996 when Paramount gave the character a shot at the big screen.
The movie begins with a brief backstory: off the coast of Bengala, an English ship was attacked by the Sengh Brotherhood, a band of ruthless pirates led by the dreaded Kabai Sengh. The only survivor was a boy who was rescued by the Bengala natives; afterwards (in a strange ceremony) the boy vowed to fight piracy, greed and cruelty, and became the Phantom. Four hundred years later (in 1938) Kit Walker (Billy Zane) is a direct descendent of that boy and the twenty-first man to wear the mask of the Phantom. The story proper begins with the Phantom attempting to thwart the mercenary Quill (James Remar) and his associates from stealing one of the three skulls of Tuganda, legendary objects which, if brought together, will bestow upon the bearer unimaginable power.
Although Quill’s associates are captured and delivered to Captain Horton of the British Jungle Patrol, Quill himself manages to escape to New York City where he delivers the skull to his employer, Xander Drax (Treat Williams), evil businessman, criminal mastermind, and self-dreamed ruler of the world. Also in New York City, Dave Palmer, owner of the World Tribune newspaper, is investigating the possibility that Drax might also have connections with the Sengh Brotherhood. His adventurous niece and Kit’s former love, Diana, (Kristy Swanson) offers to travel to Bengala to find out. Before she can reach Captain Horton, however, Drax’s crew of female pirate pilots, the Sky Band, led by the seductive Sala, and Quill kidnap her.
Fortunately, the Phantom arrives to rescue her and discovers the link between the Brotherhood and Drax, necessitating a trip to New York as Kit Walker. From there, the Phantom must discover the location of the last two skulls, elude Drax’s forces and stop the megalomaniac, as well as the Sengh Brotherhood, from uniting the three skulls again.
At first glance, there might not seem to be much to recommend The Phantom for the modern viewer, but the aspects of the film often taken as weaknesses are actually the movie’s strengths. The plot, for one, is undeniably silly, with its mystical skulls, evil masterminds, flying female criminals, and secret organization of pirates, which comes with its own hidden base inside a volcanic island within the “Devil’s Vortex.” But the plot is also undeniably Pulp, that breed of story which thrived in the Thirties and Forties and which lived on fantastic criminals with even more fantastic plans for evil and/or world domination, and fantastic heroes to thwart them.
The Phantom, when first created, was a part of this pulp world, and it is to director Simon Wincer’s credit that the pulp tone of the comics was retained in the movie. The Phantom, in fact, balances its tone and plot nicely: it is not campy, nor does it wink at the audience or at its own absurdities (as Adam West’s Batman show did) but, at the same time, it realizes how silly it is and goes along with the fun. In other words, the movie realizes, refreshingly, that it is a comic book movie.
The acting is also well done—nothing exceptional, to be sure—but, in keeping with the tone and plot, fun and enjoyable. Treat Williams is wonderfully over the top and comedic as Xander Drax. It is not a buffoonish performance; Williams does not chew the scenery as Jack Nicholson did in Batman. Rather, Drax is played like a man with a sense of humor; a deadly sense of humor—as a booby-trapped microscope demonstrates—but a sense of humor nevertheless, usually expressed in his glib salesman-esque dialogue, laced with his well-endowed ego. At one point, for example, he tells his associates that history is being made and that they all played a part in it. Not an equal part, of course, he is quick to add, but an important part nonetheless. Movie fans will be pleased to see star power in the form of Catherine Zeta-Jones as Sala and star prestige in the form of Patrick McGoohan, the original Prisoner, as the ghost of the Phantom’s father.
The score, by David Newman, is very good, but what stands out is the Phantom’s theme itself, which depending on the octave, tempo and instrument used, can convey adventure or a tenderness and nostalgia for a bygone time.
But the true heart and soul of the movie is the Phantom itself. Dolph Lundgren and Bruce Campbell were both considered for the part of the Phantom, but it is hard now to see anyone but Billy Zane in the role. First, there is his dedication: he worked a year and a half on his physique (sparing the audience the sight of a costume which came with its own muscles a la Michael Keaton); and he studied the original comics so as to mimic the different poses of the Phantom perfectly. But more than that, Zane worked with the script and was able to make the Phantom a truly decent man.
This is shown in slight ways throughout the film: the Phantom helps Diana up into a plane when escaping from Sala and Quill; in New York, he momentarily breaks his pursuit of Drax in order to pick up a woman’s purse which the woman dropped in the surprise of seeing the Phantom. A little detail added maybe for a laugh but, even more so, a window into the Phantom’s character. Even with the fate of the world at stake, he stops to help a complete stranger in need. In those two to three seconds, Zane and director Simon Wincer amply illustrate that our main character is truly a hero—one who does good for the sake of doing good.
That, in fact, is the nub of The Phantom’s greatness: its simplicity and decency. The Phantom is not some psychologically scared or anti-social, cynical “hero;” he is simply a “good guy”—brave, just, honest, and strong. He is a modern day knight errant with genuinely pure intentions; when seduced by Sala, his only response is to tell Diana to tie her up. Nowadays, characters such as that are ignored for being “too simplistic; the world today demands “edgy” anti-heroes such as the Punisher and Wolverine and Deadpool to fight villains. Often, these characters are only the “heroes” because the people they are fighting are made to be worse than they.
To this charge, the only answer is, yes; the Phantom is a simple character and The Phantom is a simple movie but simple in a good way.The story of the film is concerned, first, with showing that there is a stark difference between heroes and villains, good and evil. The Phantom is not simply the hero because he is not as bad as Drax or the Sengh. Second, the film is invested in the truth of good battling and ultimately defeating evil, with evil correctly portrayed as uniform, across time and cultures. When Drax infiltrates the hidden base of the Sengh Brotherhood, he tells its current leader that he, Drax, is just the man to take “our cause into the Twentieth century.” There really is nothing uniting Drax and the Sengh together except their desire to better themselves through the suffering of others.
The Phantom stands against both the “old guard” of evil and its self-proclaimed “new guard.” There is no social commentary, no ideological posturing, no subliminal messages—only the fact that good must stand against evil in all its manifestations and that it always defeats evil in the end. In that sense, The Phantom is a modern fairy tale, inspiring us, the audience, to become heroes ourselves in our everyday lives. At the very least, the Phantom can remind us that goodness and decency can still matter and that (to paraphrase a certain wizard), there are other forces at work in the world, besides evil.
The Phantom is by no means a flawless movie; the choreography can be a little stiff and sometimes one can be a little underwhelmed. But these flaws cannot take away from the movie’s strengths. In our world, a movie that asks us simply to accept the fairy tale of a good man in a mask fighting the forces of evil is something to cherish. And we don’t even have to go to the Devil’s Vortex to find it.
By Nathan Stone