Ah, the mid-to-late 1990s.
It was a new Golden Age for the cinema, and 1996 was a banner year: it brought us Barb Wire, Dragonheart, and the Billy Zane superhero film, The Phantom.
I have a soft-spot for The Phantom. Which should not come as a surprise, since my film collection runs the gamut from Seven Samurai and Lawrence of Arabia, to Cabin Boy and Army of Darkness (two more 1990s gems). My fondness for the film stems from Billy Zane — his performance suggests he was enjoying every second of the production.
Sure, Zane’s purple costume is rather laughable in a live-action film, but it works for the Phantom’s universe. It makes sense within its own reality, like how Heath Ledger’s Joker fits the Nolan Batman universe. Look at Xander Drax (Treat Williams) — he’s an over-the-top villain if there ever was one, and he fits the pulpy style of the film like a glove.
And let us not forget Patrick McGoohan as Zane’s Obi-Wan Kenobi-like father, nor a pre-Mask of Zorro Catherine Zeta-Jones as a bad girl air-pirate. Yes. Air-pirate.
The Phantom is a period-piece comic book movie, and that is something special, or at least interesting from a filmmaking stand-point. The Phantom was (at least) the fourth in a line of period-piece comic book films in the 1990s, following Dick Tracy, The Rocketeer, and The Shadow. With the exception of the Rocketeer (created in the 1980s), the other films take place during the time of the comic version’s origin (give or take).
The Phantom comic appeared in 1936, and predates Superman and Batman by only a few years (two and three, respectively). Yet, the modern adaptations of Superman and Batman, those predating and following 1996’s The Phantom, stayed away from the period-piece approach.
I would love to see a period-piece Batman film, although the 1989 Burton film hits close to the mark with its noir style. I would actually be excited to see a Superman movie if it took place in the 1930s (confession: I am not much of a Superman fan). What about Spider-Man in the 1960s? Period-piece comic book films are being made again: Watchmen, X-Men: First Class, and Captain America have all popped up recently (although, save for the first half of X-Men, I can’t really say I enjoyed these three that much).
But, why was The Phantom kept in the 1930s?
There is a fair amount of the supernatural weaving its way through the plot, which might be why it was kept a period-piece (the same goes for The Shadow). That sort of stuff fits a 1930s setting a bit better, perhaps because a film so far in the past is “different” to begin with. A world without TV, the internet, and Bone Thugs-N-Harmony is already alien to a modern audience, so I suppose ghosts and supernatural powers don’t stick out as much. Would Raiders of the Lost Ark been better if it were set in the 1980s? I doubt it (aside from any possible Reagan related humor, that is).
And that also might be why The Phantom was not modernized: The plot and action are very Indiana Jones-like, and by the mid-to-late 90s, 1989’s Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade was a fairly distant memory. It is worth noting that The Phantom and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull share a common plot point: the MacGuffin in each of the films are strange, ancient skulls with magical powers.
But, let’s get back to Billy Zane. He makes this movie.
The Phantom is fun only because Zane is having fun — and it shows. Zane’s casual, tongue-in-cheek approach is endearing, and is a far cry from the super-serious superheroes of today, especially Christian Bale’s Batman. Zane’s Phantom is a guy you want to hang out with as you swap stories over a couple pitchers of beer.
Plus, he punches people while wearing skull rings and has a pet wolf named Devil. What’s not to like? Slam evil!