Oh those heady days of 1996, directly between Batman Forever and the movie that destroyed not only a franchise but nearly a genre, Batman and Robin. That said, the history of this movie goes beyond that.
The Phantom is a newspaper adventure comic strip that was created in 1936 by Lee Falk, who worked on the daily strip until his death in 1999. first published by Lee Falk in February 1936. Based in the fictional African country of Bangalla, The Phantom is also known as “the ghost who walks,” and is the 21st in the line of Phantoms, as it’s considered a legacy identity. Falk had already been a success with another character, Mandrake the Magician.
That character was going to be turned into a movie by Sergio Leone, as was The Phantom, but that project never materialized. Then, Joe Dante was attached to the project, working on it with the writer of Innerspace, Jeff Doam. The project was pulled when the budget was too high, particularly because of a winged demon at the climax. A year later, the movie was back in production without the demon and the funny parts of the script were not played as comedy. Dante refused to take his name off the film, so he’s credited as an executive producer.
Originally, the Phantom was going to be either Bruce Campbell or Kevin Smith — Ares of the Hercules/Xena TV shows — before the role was given to Billy Zane. The story was based on three different Phantom stories: “The Singh Brotherhood,” “The Sky Band” and “The Belt.”
We start back in time, as a young boy watched Kabai Sengh (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, Shang Tsung from Mortal Kombat) murder his father. He jumps into the ocean and washes up in Bengalla, where he is given the Skull Ring and devotes his life to fighting crime. The identity of the Phantom is passed down from father to son, which leads people to think that the hero is immortal.
In 1938, Kit Walker (Zane), the 21st Phantom, fights a group of mercenaries led by Quill (James Remar, The Warriors) in the jungle over the mystical Skulls of Touganda. It turns out that Quill is the Phantom’s Joe Chill — he killed his father — and has escaped to New York City with the Skulls. Also, the Phantom’s dad (Patrick McGoohan — The Prisoner!) shows up from time to time to give him advice ala Obi Wan-Kenobi.
Meanwhile, Diana Palmer (Kristy Swanson) comes back into The Phantom’s life, as she was a college girlfriend. Her uncle owns a newspaper that has been investigating businessman Xander Drax (Treat Williams, Dead Heat) who is connected to all the business that the Phantom is battling.
That’s when we meet the most fascinating person in this movie, Sala (Catherine Zeta-Jones), a femme fatale air pirate who, in the newspaper strips, is in love with the Phantom.
Of course, the evil Kabai Sengh’s descendent is behind everything, leading to a battle in the jungle with the Skulls and the Phantom’s ring being the fourth skull that can stop them.
The Phantom feels like a movie out of time, much like The Rocketeer and The Shadow, earlier 1990’s films that failed to find an audience. That’s not a bad thing, but just the facts. People weren’t ready for sunny, happy heroes.