Friends, readers, everyone: did you know that right now, at this very moment, you can go on Ebay and—for the astoundingly low price of three American dollars—purchase yourself an original VHS copy of The Phantom, starring Billy Zane, with a holographic 3D punching action cover? Trust me, it’s worth every penny, for what you will get in return are 100 delectable minutes of Billy Zane’s toned physique, Kristy Swanson and Catherine Zeta-Jones teaming up to kick ass, and some delightfully cheesy (if culturally insensitive) superhero clichés like shark pools, sky pirates, and an ancient gang of evil Chinese dudes.
Revealing my obsession with male beauty early in life, I forced my parents to rent The Phantom no less than twenty or twenty-five times between the ages of eight and nine. Why they didn’t just buy it for me, I’ll never know, but now that I am an adult with a meager income, this fine piece of cinema is now in my possession, and oh boy did it age like the finest of peanut butters. That is to say, that it’s maybe a little worse but still totally tolerable and safe to consume.
The story follows Kit Walker (aka The Phantom) as he tries to stop evil businessman Xander Drax from collecting three magical skulls that will give him unlimited bad guy powers. Along the way he reunites with his no-nonsense college sweetheart Diana Palmer, and must do battle with The Sengh Brotherhood, the aforementioned Chinese gang. I say the film follows Kit, but that’s kind of just a technicality; poor Billy is mostly there as eye candy. The character’s backstory is muddy and poorly fleshed out, he has no emotional development, and with the exception of a few mediocre acrobatics, he doesn’t really do much. He gets beat up occasionally, but his finishing move is to make a frowny face and shoot a laser beam out of his ring to disintegrate the bad guy, which is kind of a letdown. At least he spends an entire conversation shirtless and glistening intensely.
The Sengh Brotherhood—who sort of compete with Xander Drax as the primary antagonists—are also rather poorly executed. Drax’s motives of money and power aren’t exactly the most original, but at least we get a bit of exposition throughout the film to establish just how much of a sleazy dick he is. The Sengh Brotherhood are alluded to in hushed, ominous tones every now and then, but none of them actually show up until the last few minutes, sporting fu manchus and wearing what the costume designers surely assumed were vaguely Chinesey-themed getups adorned heavily with dragons. They topple about about as easily as bowling pins, and the fearsome leader, Kabai Sengh, trips and falls into his own pool of sharks.
Without a doubt the real show-stealers are Diana and Sala (Kristy Swanson and Catherine Zeta-Jones). Any time she isn’t being physically held down, Diana spends the whole movie ruthlessly getting shit accomplished, shaking off pesky courtship at every turn. First, some guy named Jimmy Wells follows her around, teasing about “rescuing” her from a research expedition she had recently taken to the Arctic while the poor woman is just trying to have a sandwich. Then she spends an even greater part of the movie rolling her eyes at Kit, whether he’s in costume or not. When Kit “rescues” her from Sala and her all-female band of sky pirates, Diana makes the whole operation fairly moot by punching Sala out herself. When Kit informs Diana that he is trying to save her, she replies, “well thanks, you’ve done a good job, I’ll take it from here.” At the end of the movie when Kit “reveals” his identity, insinuating that he expects her to cozy up in the Skull Cave with him happily-ever-after style, she nopes right the fuck off back to New York.
Did I mention Sala and her all-female band of sky pirates? Because Sala has a tragically under-utilized all-female band of sky pirates that we only see for a few minutes in the film. Why she takes up with Xander Drax and his goons in the first place is anyone’s guess, because she thinks very little of him and seems to do just fine on her own. She ultimately teams up with Diana to help take Drax and the Sengh Brotherhood down. It becomes a very shippable situation.
Although The Phantom is generally considered one of the crap superhero films of the 90’s, with an embarrassing score of 4.9 on IMDb and a 43% on Rotten Tomatoes, I prefer to think of it as a diamond in the rough. It had the advantage of avoiding the really bad visual effects endemic to earlier superhero films, it had characters who fell just short of realizing their potential, and the 1930’s setting gave it a very unique dieselpunk flavor that was totally lost by the choice to spend so much time on a remote jungle island. With the renaissance of the comic book movie in recent years and and considering that the 1996 movie just barely missed the mark, I hold out hope that there might be a better-executed reboot at some point. So maybe nine-year-old me didn’t have impeccable taste, but come on, look at Billy Zane’s abs glisten.