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He preceded them by two and three years, but the Phantom has never had the pop-cultural cachet of Superman or Batman. Lee Falk’s creation vies for attention with such other second-string costumed heroes as Green Arrow, Green Lantern, and the red-suited Flash. The Phantom is barely mentioned in either Jules Feiffer’s The Great Comic Book Heroes or Les Daniels’ Comix: The History of Comic Books in America. And he was completely left out of Judith Krantz’s latest novel. Though the character has been around since 1936, the filmmakers felt it necessary to begin this tale with an explanatory preface titled “For those who came in late.” Such is the lot of pioneers: The glory goes to those who follow.
And so the film Phantom follows at some distance the live-action adventures of his spiritual heirs. And while The Phantom doesn’t quite match the spark of Christopher Reeve’s Man of Steel series, neither is it mired in the distractingly modern psychobabble that has plagued the Caped Crusader of late. The Phantom remains surprisingly true to the spirit of its source.
The world has changed much in the 60 years since the Phantom’s first appearance, however, and at the center of the story is the serious problem presented by yet another white figure lording it over dark-skinned natives. No matter that he’s a benign and beloved figure who stands for truth and justice, the paternalistic protector act doesn’t play quite the same as it used to.
To their credit, the filmmakers have not tried to disembowel their character to fit present thinking. That option rarely works. Instead, they just ignore the entire question and hope that charm carries the day. For the most part it does, even though the Jungle Patrol is still manned entirely by blithe Brits, and the final confrontation pits the pale heroes against Evil Orientals of the like not seen since Ming the Merciless. (At least these villains are played by true Asians.) Except for the preface and one scene where the local tribe provides a timely rescue, the Bengalla Jungle is a melanin-impaired place that might as well be an overgrown Club Med.
The filmmakers also avoid the problem of cultural imperialism by moving the story to Manhattan for the middle of the film, where a guy in purple leotards doesn’t draw as much attention.
Some concessions have been made. There is one clever reference to current concerns, which I won’t spoil. And the two women—the good Diana Palmer (Kristy Swanson) and the bad, bad Salla (Catherine Zeta Jones) are back-talking, roundhouse-punch-throwing, groin-kicking nonvictims, even when they’re captive. Palmer is not the type of debutante who is going to succumb to such blandishments as “Gosh you look pretty in those woodsy flannels!” She wears those woodsy flannels with an intense seriousness of purpose. And Salla leads her all-female fighter-pilot squad with a swaggering gusto as rare in its day as, well, all-female fighter-pilot squads.
I have avoi—er, somehow missed—all of director Simon Wincer’s previous work—Free Willy, Operation Dumbo Drop, Quigley Down Under, Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man, D.A.R.Y.L. (Though his TV effort, Lonesome Dove, is reputedly a high point of the genre, I don’t watch miniseries.) Based on this résumé, filmgoers may be tempted to somehow miss The Phantom. But Wincer also directed many episodes of the short-lived television program, The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles, and though I also never saw any of those, his association with George Lucas has paid off, for The Phantom has a kind of Raiders-lite breeziness.
Set in a stylish 1939, the plot concerns a—what else?—ruthless businessman, Xander Drax (Treat Williams), who is bent on locating three ancient, enchanted skulls, which if united possess “1,000 times the power of anything known to man.” Of course, one is in the Bengalla Jungle—the Phantom’s turf. When the Phantom fails to thwart the robbery attempt (excitingly so, left dangling over a canyon), his father (Patrick McGoohan), the previous Phantom, materializes to scold Sonny Boy into action. The rest of the film is a chase to prevent Drax from completing his quest.
The Phantom is foremost a creature of mystery. His nickname, “The Ghost Who Walks,” was earned because the purple suit has been a constant presence for 400 years, the crime-fighting legacy having been quietly passed down through 21 generations. The Phantom never kills his opponents. They meet a worse fate, forever marked by a punch from his ringed fist. When he doesn’t have an answer, he goes to his library to research the problem.
But there is little mystery in The Phantom. The jungle scenes are filmed in bright daylight and resemble a romp in the village square. Williams plays the villainous tycoon so happily that, while fun to watch, he doesn’t convey much sense of menace.
Feiffer divides the superhero universe into two camps: Superman or Batman. He explains the difference thusly: “With Superman we won; with Batman we held our own.” The Phantom, though a mere mortal like Bruce Wayne/Batman, operates under the optimistic Superman paradigm: He is the absolute power in his world—power being maintained partly via enigmatic mythologizing—and justice always prevails.
Unlike Tim Burton’s neurotic Batman, we never see this Phantom brooding on his Skull Throne. Indeed, Billy Zane was probably cast for his uncanny resemblance to an overheated 12-year-old’s drawing of a superhero—all impossibly inflated muscles and exaggerated handsomeness. That is to say, he looks the comic-book part perfectly. He might be better suited to the next L’il Abner film, however, for Zane plays the role with an aw-shucks exhilaration: His Phantom is a likable fellah who seems intent on inviting any stray passer-by into his supposedly secret lair, the Skull Cave, for biscuits and a long chat.
The score by David Newman (of the composing Newman clan) solidly follows in the John Williams–epic tradition, but works hard in its own right. A minor-key motif suggests a painful triumph that the script and acting only hint at, but which lie at the core of the Phantom’s character. Writer and co-producer Jeffrey Boam also scripted Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, and The Phantom shares similar father-and-son themes with that film.
It is nearly touching when the latest—and unmarried—Phantom lets a possible bride fly away. Of course, the reasons have more to do with sequel potential than dramatic logic. Their marriage will be arranged when the series has run out of all other steam.
Everything in The Phantom has been done before, often to greater effect. But like the print counterpart, this Phantom is an honorable also-ran who deserves better than to be lost in the jungle of banal summer blockbusters.CP