The Phantom has been intermittently incarnated in the media. There was a 15 chapter Columbia serial The Phantom (1943) starring Tom Tyler, which is favourably regarded by serial fans. The character was incarnated into two animated series, Defenders of the Earth (1986-7) where The Phantom joined several other King Features heroes Mandrake, Flash Gordon and their various siblings in battling Ming the Merciless, and Phantom 2040 (1994-6), which concerns the activities of the Phantoms son in a Cyberpunk future setting.
This big-budget adaptation came out in the midst of the mid-1990s big screen superhero revival following the Tim Burton Batman (1989). Here at least is one screen adaptation of a comic book where fans of the original have no reason to complain. Purists will no doubt quibble about the Phantoms lack of striped underwear and why he has strange tattoos on his tights but the rest of the mythos is there on screen from Devil the Wolf to the Sheng Brotherhood, Skull Cave, the skull-crested ring and The Phantom origin story. And it has all been very nicely mounted. The 1930s period sets look handsome and there is some lovely location photography in Thailand.
Why then does The Phantom not work? The film has all the elements of a grand serial-styled adventure exotic jungle locations, a quest for mystical artefacts, pirates, a feisty girl reporter love interest and a masked hero. It clearly seeks to emulate the high-adventure thrills of the Indiana Jones films. Yet for all its high adventure ambitions, the elements of the plot never seem to come to life. There feels something dreadfully predictable to the films moves the villain naturally takes the heroine prisoner (in fact, she rarely seems to spend any other time in the film except being taken prisoner); naturally the planes fuel tank gets holed by bullets after takeoff; the pirate island has to go up in a volcanic eruption at the climax; while the quest for the skulls is only something there to hang the rest of the plot on. Crucially, the action never gets terribly exciting. There is a decent set-piece with Billy Zane trying to save a young boy caught in a truck hanging upside down from a rope bridge and an okay sequence jumping from a biplane onto horseback but no more than that. The climax with the hero and the villain waving coloured beams of light at one another is incredibly wimpy. What The Phantom needed was something that approached the visceral kinesis of the venture into the Chacopayan temple in the prologue to Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981).
The most fun to be had in the film comes from watching the actors cast as the villains chewing the scenery. Treat Williams overacts terribly but he is the one in the film who seems to be having the most fun. One also rather liked Catherine Zeta Joness bad girl flier who smoulders with innuendo this was well before Zeta Jones became an A-list star and married Michael Douglas although the film does an appalling job of redeeming her at the end. In comparison, the people on the side of good are a terribly bland lot. As usual, Kristy Swanson projects no personality on screen.
The impossibly handsome Billy Zane holds up well in the action scenes but offers absolutely no depth to the character. This is largely the reason The Phantom does not work. The way that the Tim Burton Batman revolutionized the modern comic-book screen adaptation was to take the masks and the costumed villains down into dark emotional recesses where the heroes and villains were not just characters on their way to a fancy dress party but driven by psychological necessities. Unfortunately, The Phantom fails to take Batmans lesson and whatever lies behind The Phantoms mask remains an enigma we learn nothing about what drives The Phantom, he is just a guy in a mask. Billy Zane smirks handsomely but there is no feeling that there is a real person there. This Phantom comes exactly like a serial hero where their stolid presence on screen was meant to convey heroism simply by dint of their being placed there and where any characterization of their stolidity was regarded as extraneous. That unfortunately is the crucial failing of The Phantom without going behind the mask, the film is merely an old-fashioned adventure film of stolid black-and-white divides. Understandably, not too many people seemed interested in going to see the film and it died at the box-office. Although what killed it could equally have been the lame advertising campaign a poster with The Phantom punching the screen and the deadening byline of Slam Evil!
The Phantom was an Australian co-production (Australia is apparently the country with the highest Phantom readership in the world). Australian director Simon Wincer also made films such as Phar Lap (1983), the tv mini-series Lonesome Dove (1989) and Free Willy (1993), as well as the genre likes of the psycho-thriller Snapshot/The Day After Halloween (1979), the fascinating Harlequin (1980) about an enigmatic magician, the childrens film D.A.R.Y.L. (1985) about an android boy and the Cyberpunk biker film Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man (1991). Screenwriter Jeffrey Boam has also written the genre likes of David Cronenbergs adaptation of Stephen Kings clairvoyance thriller The Dead Zone (1983), Joe Dantes Innerspace (1987), The Lost Boys (1987) and Steven Spielbergs Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989), as well as the scripts for the first two Lethal Weapon sequels. The film was Executive Produced by Joe Dante, director of The Howling (1980) and Gremlins (1984), who laboured for a number of years to bring his own adaptation of the strip to the screen.
A further film version was announced over the next decade, which finally emerged as The Phantom (2009), a film for the Sci-Fi Channel starring Ryan Carnes, which made the drastic mistake of trying to modernise The Phantom and in so doing throwing all the familiar elements of the comic-strip out.
(Nominee for Best Supporting Actress (Catherine Zeta Jones) and Best Cinematography at this sites Best of 1996 Awards).