After The Shadow fizzed at the box office, the hopes, for lovers of old time adventure and pulp-ish entertainment, rested on the Paramount production of The Phantom, based on the classic comic strip by Lee Falk, featuring a stellar cast: Billy Zane, Treat Williams, Kristy Swanson, Catherine Zeta-Jones, James Remar and Patrick McGoohan.
What could ever go wrong?
And really, based on the trailer, one could dream…
The Phantom debuted in 1937 and is one of the great iconic comic book characters from a time in which superheroes were not so ubiquitous.
Lee Falk’s character has a very pulp-style mythos: he’s a masked avenger without superpowers, has an ancient origin story, a traditional nemesis in the form of a pirate brotherhood, a secret cave base, two big guns blazing, and he’s the sort of guy that wears a mask and purple costume and rides a white horse. In the jungle.
What’s not to love?
But something went wrong – after Joe Dante and Joel Schumacher were passed by (and Bruce Campbell failed to get the lead role), direction duties were assigned to Australian director Simon Wincher, whose main qualification for the job was his having been a long-time fan of the comic and directing a few episodes of Young Indiana Jones. But Wincher was a family-movie sort of guy with a nice hand for period stories, so he was not out of place after all. Another Indiana Jones connection came in the form of Jeffrey Boam – who wrote the script for Last Crusade and also for The Phantom.
And the cast did earn their keep: Billy Zane did a lot of work on the character, Catherine Zeta-Jones and Kristy Swanson are beautiful and quite interesting as bad girl and good girl in the piece, and Treat Williams is obviously having lots of fun as the sociopath bad guy.
And when it hit the screens, it got nice reviews from both Roger Ebert and Kim Newman. Lee Falk himself gave the movie a thumbs up.
But in the end, it made less than half of its cost, and it flopped dramatically.
The franchise – two sequels featuring Zane/Phantom plus a related movie featuring Lee Falk’s Mandrake the Magician – died.
What did not work?
It’s hard to tell.
The film looks great, the performances are good, the story holds. Special effects are OK, the action is non-stop. And the music is excellent.
Possibly the plot is too fragmented, and the movie crams in 100 minutes three-movies worth of action and plot twists. But the main reason for the flop was, I think, 1996 audiences were not ready (or were no longer interested) in nostalgic adventures set in the ’30s.
Some also blame the lack of aimed pre-launch campaign on the part of Paramount, whose advertising office maybe thought the character was much more of a household name than it really was. The fact that the original Dante/Boam script was a comedy spoof of the whole “ghost that walks” thing but it was played straight by Wincher and the cast does not help.
And it’s a pity, because while not a masterpiece or an unmissable movie experience, The Phantom is good entertainment, and fully deserves its current cult status. Just like The Shadow from two years before, it probably has a worse fame than it deserves, and it’s worth a look, possibly accompanied by a large serving of ice cream on a summer night.