As I promised in my look at The Shadow, I’m here for another installment of Was It THAT Bad? and taking a look at another pulp character adaptation from the 90s. During this decade, Hollywood thought that older era heroes would be the new rage and alongside the likes of The Shadow and Disney’s The Rocketeer, Paramount Pictures distributed the adaptation of Lee Falk’s comic strip The Phantom. It was received to mixed reviews from the critics and, although VHS sales did go well when it was available for resale, it didn’t do so hot at the box office. Now, I’m here to call into question if the mixed reviews were correct and ask the question: Was The Phantom THAT Bad?
Deep in the heart of African exists a hero called The Phantom. He has existed for ages and is believed to be immortal—Buuuut he’s not. It’s just a title that has been handed down. Anyway, the latest man to wear the suit is Kit Walker (Billy Zane) and he stumbles upon a crazed, power-hungry business man by the name of Xander Drax (Treat Williams). Not only does Drax have a very cool sounding name that would automatically make him destined to play at the X-Games had he been born during a different time period, he is also on the hunt for three magic skulls that promise endless power. Of course, The Phantom ain’t going to put up with that kind of nonsense and will do everything he can to thwart Drax’s plan.
So, what it THAT bad?
Short answer: No.
There are some issues with The Phantom but nothing about them really keeps the film from delivering on its intentions. For example, the story isn’t the most exciting thing you’ll see and it’s hampered by a lack of development on some of the characters. Additionally, the fight scenes aren’t the most polished thing I’ve ever seen and some of these moments come off a bit awkward and clunky. Finally, there are some really goofy moments that are too easy to laugh at. Moments like dramatic zoom-ins that look far less dramatic and more satirical and there’s even a really ridiculous moment where Drax has the skulls together and they are shooting out some laser beams and he proceeds to do a Smooth Criminal type of Michael Jackson lean as he firing at The Phantom. I’m not entirely sure why it was decided to do that during the climax of the film but it happened and it was really hard to not laugh at it.
This aside, the film is a fairly entertaining action adventure that, from the moment it starts, hits the ground running with a decently developed tone and atmosphere. The film also has a habit of making up in some areas because of things it lacks in different parts. For example, where it falls flat with action, it makes up with really cool stunts. Additionally, The Phantom has a great cast that also features the likes of Kristy Swanson and Catherine Zeta-Jones. The film also never takes itself too seriously and is capable of riding the line of being a superhero film with some decent conflict and something that realizes it’s here to entertain and be a bit funny. It’s like the Marvel films long before Iron Man kicked things off.
Ultimately, though, I think the strongest thing about this movie is the performances from the protagonist and antagonist. Billy Zane is incredibly charismatic as Kit Walker/The Phantom and it’s very refreshing to go back to watch a superhero film where you have a hero who is spitting out cheesy one-liners and actually has a smile on his face. I don’t hate gritty superhero movies but with how unnecessarily dark DC is going, seeing how The Phantom was handled is a nice change of pace. Adding to that is Treat Williams as the film’s bad guy and he is doing a marvelous job of balancing on that razor thin line of being over-the-top. The character is always chewing scenery but I never found him annoying or hard to deal with. He was, to sum it all up, just fun in his role.
The Phantom is clearly not a perfect film and not one that has a lot of replay value or any true potential of becoming a cult classic anytime soon but there’s no denying that it has its charms and is a fairly well put together movie. The story is decent, there are some cool stunts and the cast is excellent and while this 90s adaptation may not have been a success to critics and audiences or a studio’s bank account it definitely shows that this is a property that can be handled properly and might be something to consider for a reboot or, considering the nature of the hero, a sequel produced for today’s audiences.