(SPOILERS) It’s curious how perverse many of the comic adaptations were in the wake of Batman. Some of this was obviously down to rights and development hell (how to get Spidey webslinging, how to bring back Supes), but the likes of The Phantom, The Shadow and Dick Tracy – even, or especially, with Warren Beatty vouching for him – weren’t exactly the kind of iconic figures studio execs ought to have been imagining punters flocking to see. The Phantom wasn’t enormously expensive, but still not cheap (about $77m adjusted), and in fairness to Paramount, there was still speculation over what would work, outside of the DC icons; by the time it came out, there’d been successful recent outings for both goth Batman and camp Batman, so maybe a guy riding a horse in a purple leotard, with a pet wolf, would be just the ticket. There’s also the small detail that the movie that was made wasn’t the one that was envisaged.
Lee Falk’s comic strip first appeared in 1936 and has been running ever since, but that doesn’t mean it ever mustered mass audience appeal. Certainly, screenwriter Jeffrey Boam (who died in 2000) hadn’t heard of it. It was, however, a likely influence on Batman – appearing three years later – with its crimefighting non-superpowered playboy. Like Batman too, lineage plays an important part, although here, it’s the passing down of Phantom duds from generation to generation since the sixteenth century. The Phantom has his own (skull) cave, but it’s in jungle-infested Bengalla (rather prettily visualised as The Man with the Golden Gun’s Thailand island), rather than Gotham. The Phantom also carries a pair of hand guns, not very Bats (at least, not the Bats we mostly know).
As far as the movies are concerned, there was a Sergio Leone version brewing at one point; it appears he was interested in making it during the 1970s (and that he turned down Flash Gordon, due to dislike of the script) before Once Upon a Time in America took precedence.
Then came Joe Dante, increasingly looked at askance by studios, owing to his movies either not fitting the pigeonhole of their tastes or not doing the business they wanted or both. After The Mummy fell apart – why, oh why, oh why did we have to get the Stephen Sommers when we could have had Dante – Joe signed on as The Phantom’s director in mid-1994, prepping for an Australian shoot. Unsurprisingly, his collaboration with Jeffrey Boam (Innerspace, later Indy and Lethal Weapon sequels) was conceived as “a kind of spoof”. In Joe Dante by Nik Baskar and Gabe Klinger, it was cited as postponed for cast and or weather reasons. Talking to Den of Geek, Dante suggested “the plug was pulled over the budget and the presence of a winged demon at the climax”.
Dante suggested the remounted picture failed because “nobody seemed to notice it was written to be funny, so it was – disastrously – played straight”. However, it appears new director Simon Wincer had Boam change the script to a tone and style closer to the Falk original. Boam mentioned no spoofery or wrangling in an interview, simply that the source material worked (“I figured if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”). Boam was having his own run-ins with things that were broke at that time, of course,
His involvement in Indy IV purportedly involved the Roswell UFO crash or the Soviets establishing a missile base on the Moon or both. It sounds as if this followed Jeb Stuart’s draft (that’s the one named Indiana Jones and the Saucer Men from Mars), and that it would have all been filmed a decade earlier than it was – despite being as terrible an idea then as it was later, no matter how many writers tried to ameliorate the mess – if not for Independence Day (interesting too that Boam was confirming right at the start that it would be pretty much based in the US for filming, aside from maybe Honduras).
The Phantom links to Indiana Jones are worth noting, though. It was set in the same period as classic Indy. The plot of both this and the fourth Indy movie revolve around skulls of great power. There’s a phantom in the title (okay, that one’s Star Wars). Boam wrote The Last Crusade. Wincer, the eventual Phantom director, jobbed for Young Indiana Jones. As Simon Wincer tells it, The Phantom’s renewed movie life occurred thanks to Val Kilmer and the delays – read: massive reshoots – on The Saint. Paramount needed to fill a summer slot (The Saint eventually surfaced in spring 1997). The Phantom is generally very sub-Indy, what with its jungles, fedoras (James Remar’s Quill is a bad Indy, basically) and indigenous tribes.
Wincer’s the very definition of the journeyman; a reliable TV director (Prisoner: Cell Block H), albeit he made oddball Robert Powell supernatural thriller Harlequin early on, along with several respected Australian period pictures (Phar Lap, The Lighthorsemen) and several less-respected US ones (D.A.R.Y.L., Quigley Down Under, Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man) before Free Willy made him freshly bankable in the early ’90s. Mostly, he was cheap, reliable, and wouldn’t say no when a studio wanted something on time, on budget and in a hurry; when The Phantom flopped, studios stopped calling. Crocodile Dundee III was his next movie.
And unfortunately, whatever Dante says, it’s the director, not the tone of the screenplay that’s the biggest problem. There’s no flair or panache or pace to Wincer’s work. If you’re talking television, and this were an episode of Zorro, that would be fair enough. Dante’s right about one thing; if you’re going to have a guy in purple on a horse in New York, with a wolf, he needs either to be shot by Zack Snyder or not taken entirely seriously.
That’s a shame, as a fair bit else here is working. Billy Zane’s pretty good; he absolutely looks the part, he’s bulked up, he’s smart enough to do the Adam West deadpan. He isn’t however, really a leading man, no matter how much he’s a cool guy. Wincer seems to suggest he was part of Dante’s plan for the picture (“Originally, when they were gonna make it some years earlier in Australia he had already been cast and Paramount liked him. So he was pretty much attached when they decided to revisit”). Others rumoured were Bruce Campbell – probably Boam’s influence, owing to The Adventures of Brisco County Jr – and a different Kevin Smith (the Oz factor?)
By the same token, Zane’s not out there enough to make the picture more than it is; he’s simply a solid fit. Quite why they got Patrick McGoohan as his dad, I don’t know, as he’s entirely underused (he’s in about two scenes) and too old to have been a recently active Phantom; he may even have been there just to ensure a bookend narration. He was apparently infuriated by Zane (“Occasionally he would pump up before a take and it used to drive Patrick McGoohan crazy”).
The rest of the cast and crew do their jobs. Treat Williams is having a ball as villain Xander Drax, relishing every OTT line. Catherine Zeta-Jones shows she has Hollywood chops as villain-come-sympathetic Sala (she’d largely fail to fulfil that potential, perhaps because she’s better being a bitch). Kristy Swanson was at the back end of failing to make it as a lead post-Buffy bombing. Remar’s hissable. Zane Back to the Future co-star Casey Siemaszko appears, as does Samantha Eggar. David Newman delivers a serviceable score. David Burr makes Thailand look pretty.
But it looks like what it is too; a strictly functional, mechanical attempt to adapt a superhero movie, without any passion, zest or enthusiasm. None of the tropes carry any weight, be it in terms of hereditary peerage, the skull symbolism, the fake-out of immortality, the ruthless Sengh Brotherhood or even the ghostliness of dad. I’ll readily admit I was unclear if McGoohan was supposed to be an actual ghost or Billy’s imagining. And because Wincer’s so routine in approach, it’s easy for things to slip by. Like wondering why Diana (Swanson) is telling Kit Walker (Zane) it’s six years since they last saw each other when they shared the previous scene. Duh, because he was the Phantom in that scene, stupid! The Clark Kent convention of failing to recognise threw me for a moment.
Inevitably, The Phantom has earned cult status in some circles. Which is fine. It’s not unlikeable. But it’s anaemic where it counts. I’ll admit I’d much rather have seen Dante’s Batman than his The Phantom, but if it had been half as good as Innerspace, it would have been about three times as good as The Phantom we got.