Ask the common man on the streets who was the first comic book character to wear tights,have his underwear on the outside,and fight crime,and they'll probably answer "Superman" or "Batman".And this answer will be wrong.The first member of the long underwear club was actually created by Lee Falk for an adventure strip,and his name was the Phantom.For those of you unfamiliar with this character the Phantom was a young boy named Kit Walker on a ship during the sixteenth century who saw his father killed by the Zang Brotherhood of Pirates.Being washed ashore in an African beach he was rescued and adopted by natives.Years later he spotted the body of his father's killer washed ashore and swore an oath on his skull to fight piracy and evil in all it's forms.He adapted the guise of the Phantom,and at the time of his death passed on the role to his son,to continue the fight against evil.So each Phantom was succeded in death by his son,creating the illusion that the Phantom can never die.Falk's comic delt primarily with the 21st Phantom,Kit Walker,since the father's name is also passed down to the son.The Phantom was a very popular character worldwide since almost his first appearance,but surprisingly has been ignored by American mass media such as television.There was a disappointing serial in the forties[which I trashed mercilessly in issue two]and a failed t.v. pilot.In the eighties he had some measure of success in television cartoons as a character on DEFENDERS OF THE EARTH,costarring comic characters Mandrake and Flash Gordon.There was a less successful cartoon in the nineties about a Phantom in the future.But despite being the first "superhero",Phantom has never been given mass market exposure the way Batman and Superman have.That changed in 1996 when director Simon Wincer and Paramount Pictures made an attempt at bringing the purple drabbed masked hero to the silver screen in the wake of the succesful Warner Bros' Batman franchise.
The film opens with the first Phantom as a lad witnessing his father's death at the hands of the Zang Brotherhood pirates and his rescue by Bandar villagers.Their chief has three skull idols which seam to have strange powers as well as a skull ring,before the flashing title timeleaps us into 1938.Looters led by a man named Quill search for an ancient burial cave.They force Zak,a tibal boy and guide,to drive their truck over a precarious rope bridge.Zak refuses to go on because the jungle is prtected by a "ghost who walks" but Quill,who sports a skull shaped scar on his right cheek,dismisses it.Finding the cave the four looters begin to rummage through the cave,until one of them finds the remains of the shaman still clutching one of the metal skulls,a silver one.The corpse all of a sudden chokes the man to death.As drums begin to beat the looters hightail it with the skull and the other treasures in the cave,only to be attacked by the Phantom and his pets,Hero the horse,and Devil,the wolf.A freaked Quill yelps he killed him already as the Phantom leaps on the truck.He and Quill fight and Phantom spots a "Zang Brotherhood" tattoo on Quill's arm.The skull rolls out of Quill's bag,distracting the masked man,which Quill takes advantage of and stabs him in the ribs.Quill takes the skull and jumps off before the truck rolls back onto the bridge.Phantom barely unties Zak before thebridge begins to tilt,spilling them out of the truck.Phantom grabs one of the robes and swings them to safety before the truck drops to the bottom.As the other two looters are rounded up by the Jungle Patrol they try to warn Captain Horton of the Phantom,who dismisses it as the looters chewing on the wrong jungle growth.In the Skull Cave Kit consults his ancestors' chronicles and learns of the Skulls of Touganda,one gold,one silver,and one jade,that when put together will harness a powerful explosive power.However the skulls were scattered when the Zang Brotherhood attacked the village of Bandar.His father appears in the cave to chew out Kit but when Goran enters the room the elderly Phantom vanishes.
In New York Diana Palmer returns to her uncle Dave's mansion after a trip to the Yuchon.While Diana's suitor Jimmy Wells makes a lame attempt at hiiting on her Dave Palmer is confronted by Xander Drax in front of the police commisioner and mayor.Drax isn't too happy that Palmer's newspaper reporters are poking around in his personal affairs,but Palmer claims that Drax is involved in organized crime.Drax threatens to buy the paper out from under him.Palmer knows Drax is after something in Africa related to the symbol of the Zang brotherhood,and was to go to Bengala to meet up with Captain Horton,but with Drax threatening to take over thepaper Diana agrees to go in his place.The police comissioner tips off Drax,who arranges for Zalaand her female sky pirates to force her plane to land and kidnap Diana.Captain Horton has a visit from the Phantom in his office,and the captain informs him of the kidnapping.Phantom momentarily lets his guard down when he realizes it is the Diana Palmer he met in college in New York.Zak leads Phantom to the boat where the baddies are staying in.Phantom sneaks on board the ship and drops in through the laundry chute where Zala is holding Diana.Zala hits on Phantom but Diana punches her out.As the two try to leave the ship Quill and his men attackthem,but they are saved by Devil.As the two flee in one of the seaplanes it's hit in the fuel tank.They escape by jumping onto a galloping Hero,only to be chased by Quill and his men on a truck and horseback.Phantomevades them with the help of some friendly natives.Back in the Skull Cave Diana shows Phantom and Horton the Zang Brotherhood symbol,but get's very little information before being sent back to New York.
Back in New York Drax recieves the skull from Zala and Quill and then chews them out for letting Diana escape.Quill tries to explain about the Phantom saving her,and how he once killed the Phantom but he has come back somehow.He shows Drax the gunbelt he took from the Phantom,showing where he stabbed him in the back.Drax isn't worried about some jungle legend a hald a world away.Meanwhile Kit Walker drives up into a taxi to Dave Palmer's newspaper building.When the cabbie Al complains about being paid in Bengalan money Kit gives him a sac of jewels saying he'll require his services for the rest of the day.Back in his office Drax has a meeting with his associates and explains about the skulls of Touganda but when crimeboss Ray Zefro complains about the plan Drax stabs him in the back with an African spear.Drax names Zefro's underling Charlie the new boss of bosses. Diana walks into her uncle's office and finds her old flame Kit Walker.Kit explains Drax is after the Skulls of Touganda,and Jimmy Wells claims he's seen one in the Museum of World History.As Al drives Kit and Diana to the museum Diana asks why Kit up and left.Kit claims his father "died suddenly and had to take over the family business".Diana shrugs it off saying she's moved on.At the museum Kit breaks into the display case but runs into Drax and his thugs.When the two skulls are placed together a beam shoots to the map on the wall,pinpointing the location of the third skull in the Bermuda triangle.Back in his office Drax tries to get answers from KIt.When he doesn't answer Quill punches him with brass knuckles.Reeling from the punch Kit notices he's wearing a Phantom gun belt.Kit is taken to the observation deck to loosen his tongue,but he shakes off his pursuers and switches to the purple tights.Quill locks the Phantom in the deck,but he escapes through the elevator shaft,narrowly avoiding being crushed by an elevator.As Drax,Quill,Zala,Charlie and a dragged along Diana head to the harbor to board a seaplane Phantom tries to get into Al's cab by explaining he's a friend of Kit Walker.The cops try to pull him out of the taxi but instead he steals a police horse.Motorcycle cops chase him but he gives them the slip in the Central Park zoo.Al picks him up and drives him to the harbor.His father once again pays hima visit in the taxi and is happy to know Kit finally has a woman.Arriving at the harbor Phantom manages to swim onto one of the planes pantoons and hang on for the rest of the ride.When they reach the island they find an underground passage but are taken prisoners by the Zang Brotherhood,who have their hideout in the underground passage.Zala tells Diana that the women should "stick together" since the pirates seem a bit on the "peckish" side.After Charlie pulls a gun on them their Kabai Zang has him shot with the cannon.Drax tries to trade Diana for the third skull the pirates hold but Phantom breaks up the party.The Kabai Zang realizes since Phantom is afraid of being stabbed he's an ordianry mortal,but before he can run him through with his sword Phantom dodges and the pirate falls into a pool of sharks.Phantom,Diana,and Zala find a room with a mini sub and torpedos.Phantom puts the women in the sub but before he can launch it he's attacked by Quill.Phantom drops the third skull,which Drax combines with the other two fires an explosive ray.As Phantom wails on Quill he retrieves his father's skull belt.As the thug tries to escape he get's fried by Drax's ray.Drax tries the same with Phantom,but Phantom deflects the ray with his skull ring,back to Drax who blows up.The explosion ignites the torpedos,which cause the island's volcano to erupt,but Phantom escapes in the sub.Back at the skull cave Phantom places his father's belt in it's rightful place and explains the Phantom legend to Diana.Diana wants to see his face but he's reluctant.The question is mute since Diana has already guessed he's Kit.Phantom says he can only show his face to the woman he will marry.So setting up the continuation of the Phantom line.
Although Paramount Picture's THE PHANTOM was the biggest budgeted adaptation of the character,it was still small potatoes compared with other films of this type.Paramount put little investment into the film,releasing it with little fanfare and only ca campy slogan to promote it.Billboards and posters shouted "SLAM INTO EVIL!",a goofy catchphrase more suited for cartoons.The film came and went and was largely ignored by the audience.Another reason for the film's failure was the absence of name actors.Billy Zane as the Phantom was starring in what was perhaps his biggest role,he had previously starred in very low key films or played supporting roles in bigger films,but he was never a name actor.Although he had the physical characteristics to play the part his portrayal left something to be desired.In the comic The Phantom is a rather grim and mysterious figure,while here he smirks and makes wisecracks like any other nineties action hero.Diana Palmer is played by Kristie Swanson,an actress who broke into the business by getting into Luke Perry's pants.,so it shouldn't be surprising that her acting leaves ALOT to be desired.Treat Williams plays Xander Drax as an eighties yuppie rather than a thirties dictator wannabe.Perhaps the most interesting cast member is Catherine Zeta Jones as Zala.This was before her breakthrough role in MASK OF ZORRO,or before hitching up with Hollywood powerhouse Michael Douglas,or her oscar win for CHICAGO.Looking at this film one has to wonder HOW she won an academy award.The worst aspect of her character is that her character change from evil to good is never explained or led up to,leaving the audience scratching their heads.Patrick McGoohan brings a small touch of dignity to his role as the twentieth Phantom,thankfully we never see him in tights.He is perhaps known for his role in the cult t.v. show THE PRISONER.James Remar plays Quill and his performance is stereotypical thug,a part he seems to play alot of.Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa plays yet another asian villain,something he's been typecast in.His biggest part was as Shao Tsung in the film adaptation of the popular video game MORTAL COMBAT.All in all the cast must have wound up owing alot of money to Ameritech because they mostly phoned it in.
What saves the film is that it actually remained true to the comic inspiration.The majority of the Phantom mythos was left intact and very little was altered.The film had chase scenes and narrow escapes from death like the serials of the thirties and forties.There was actually more footage of the Phantom in the jungle fighting animals like snakes and a lion but the footage wound up on the cutting room floor.The film eschews the talky drama that many modern day comic book movies suffer from,instead going for rapid paced action sequences,keeping the film from being bogged down and getting boring.THE PHANTOM is a decent superhero film,but due to the poor performances,can hardly be considered a classic.Two and a half stars.