In 1989, Michael Keaton put on a terrible-looking rubber cowl with ears, got dropped onto fantastic looking sets with Jacks Palance and Nicholson, Jerry Hall and Kim Basinger, and the world went bat-shit. Warner Bros. made a ton of money off not just the movie, but the merchandising. Batman, overnight, became America's favorite superhero.
All the studios scrambled to see what else that looked like a comic books that they could exploit, but without spending a ton of money (this was a pre-CGI era). And for about 10 years, man, there was a lot of stuff coming out. A lot of stuff of varying quality.
I'm actually a fan of The Shadow from 1994 or so, and I love Disney's The Rocketeer. Both super fun movies, even if The Shadow kinda hams up, then softens up the whole concept. Marvel, for their part, laid some eggs in their straight to video Captain America and Punisher films, circa 1990.
During this era, a vision in purple spandex strode onto screens across America. And, for reasons I cannot put into words, felt compelled to see this movie then and a few times since. The Phantom (1996)!!!
Based on the long-running newspaper strip, comic books, movie serials and radio show, The Phantom was the latest incarnation of The Ghost Who Walks, originally a comic strip by Lee Falk, featuring a super paternalistic white guy who defends deepest Africa/India/South America from other white dudes, mostly, and from behind a mask! And wearing a purple body stocking for reasons never fully explained!
It was also one of the last non-Batman superhero movies for a stretch there. The fact that my brother and I were two of about seven people in the screening we went to that first week told me all I needed to know about how this thing was going to perform.
Friday night, Stuart and Katie, Jamie and Randy all joined me on the twitters and, together, we watched the movie on Netflix, where it is now streaming.
I, myself was girded with a cocktail I made up on the fly ten minutes prior to the movie. I'm calling it The Phantom Martini.
|it wasn't quite as bad as you'd think|
- 2 parts vodka
- 1 part gin
- 1/2 part Creme de Violet
I added two ice cubes to make sure it stayed cold, even though I keep my gin and vodka in the freezer. Also, it's springtime and we should all be getting more water.
Billy Zane plays the titular Phantom, who goes by the name "Kit Walker" when not in spandex. Zane is an actor I absolutely do not understand how he's not a bigger deal then or now. He's actually really pretty good in an understated way, he's handsome as all get out, and back then, he was built like a cover for Fitness magazine.
Our villain is played by Treat Williams in scenery-chewing mode as a guy, Xander Drax (it's not a plaindrome. I checked.), who is really pretty perky about his whole world domination plan. Why can't Dr. Doom be this chipper as he tries to subjugate reality?
The female lead/ romantic foil is played by the lovely Kristy Swanson, the original Buffy. As I hadn't seen the movie in some time, Kristy Swanson in riding boots was about 85% of what I remembered about the movie. She's the very model of the capable woman in a world not ready for capable women and the only kind of woman who would interest a superhero.
|you can't go wrong with jodhpurs and riding boots and being Kristy Swanson|
To give you an appreciation of how much I remembered those boots, this movie also features Catherine Zeta Jones, which I had completely forgotten, even though I remembered there was sort of a bad-guy-aviatrix somewhere in the movie.
There's a multi-part MacGuffin made of skulls. It does something terrible and shoots special FX around. Treat Williams wants it, and thus Kristy Swanson and The Phantom do not want him to have it. Time is an issue, as are pirates straight out of a 1940's swashbuckler. Toughs who look like background characters from a movie serial (intentionally) abound.
The movie moves along at breakneck speed, flying from one action sequence to the next. We don't monkey with much of an origin story, just a quick "this happened, then this happened, and that guy became The Phantom, and so were all his descendants. Here is one of them.". It helps to keep the character mysterious while giving you a framework. Some folks (Spider-Man) are their origin story, while others are multi-generational family-business types and there's room for both.
The movie does have some issues that make it downright confusing - such as: where are they? India? Africa? Why are we looking at South American monkeys? They set up Kristy Swanson's character as a promising teammate for The Phantom and then place her in a traditional damsel-in-distress mode for a good chunk of the movie. They play fast and loose with race in the movie, kind of making anyone who is not white simply "not-white" or, at best "this guy is definitely supposed to represent old school Yellow Peril villains".
Honestly, I think I'd seen this movie once in the theater and once at some point shortly thereafter and not much since, so it may have been almost fifteen years or more since I last watched this movie.
What I was most surprised to find was that my cynical old heart actually quite liked this movie, dated updates of even more dated concepts and all. It looks great, with the bright color palette of the Sunday funnies from which it was sourced. It's a toybox full of fun stuff, has a non-tortured lead who is a man on a mission, a spunky lady to contend with, and lots and lots of action. It's not going to win any Academy Awards, and it's a misfit for the current crop of superhero films, but it stands alongside The Shadow and Rocketeer as worthy installments in superhero filmdom. And, just like those two movies, this one was probably worthy of a sequel, but somehow the 90's just couldn't muster the audiences. Superheroes were still looked upon as kiddie stuff, and if the kids didn't already know The Shadow or Phantom, mom and dad had no real reason to take them to the picture show.
But, yeah, I turned up for all of these.
As an interesting final note - as booze was deeply involved in our livetweet of the movie, I ended up talking a lot about the virtues of Kristy Swanson's Kristy Swanson-ness, and was horrified to find she had been reading our chain of tweets and liked a few of them.
So, here's to Ms. Swanson, who is a sport and had to put up with our nonsense. And, for being a genuine highlight in a movie that's already full of very good stuff.