Underrated: The Phantom

This is a column that focuses on something or some things from the comic book sphere of influence that may not get the credit and recognition it deserves. Whether that’s a list of comic book movies, ongoing comics, or a set of stories featuring a certain character. The columns may take the form of a bullet pointed list, or a slightly longer thinkpiece – there’s really no formula for this other than whether the things being covered are Underrated in some way. This week: The Phantom.

First appearing in newspapers on February 17, 1936, the Phantom was the first character to wear the skintight costume that has become emblematic of the superhero (inspired, it turns out, by stage productions of Robin Hood). He was also the first character to wear a mask with no visible pupils; the Phantom’s creator, Lee Falk, explained  that Ancient Greek busts inspired the idea of the not showing the Phantom’s pupils when he was wearing his mask, incorrectly believing that the statues had no pupils, when instead it was just that the paint had faded over the centuries. But Falk felt the pupil-less eyes gave the statues an inhuman, awe-inspiring appearance – ideal for the Ghost That Walks.

The Phantom has been in continuous publication since he debuted as a newspaper strip in 1936, with Lee Falk continuing to write the character until his death in 1999 (let that sink in for a moment. That’s sixty three years on the same character), although before he died, Falk dictated his final Phantom story to his wife from his death bed.

The essence of the Phantom is that he is an undying ghost destined to protect the fictional country of Bengala, located in Africa, from the evil Singh Brotherhood – originally a gang of pirates, though they manage to evolve with the times. The Phantom’s reputation as The Ghost That Walks comes from his longevity – Bengala has been protected by the Phantom since the early 1500’s, but it hasn’t always been the same man. Son takes over the mantle from father, over and over, giving the impression of immortality to his enemies (establishing the character as the first true legacy hero in comics).

The reason I’ve gone in to such detail about the character is because I have finally found the 1996 movie on DVD from Amazon. I say finally because I’ve been looking on and off for this movie for quite some time. It hasn’t been on any streaming service that I subscribe to, and it comes and goes from online stores – usually for more than I want to pay for a Blu-ray. In the end, I needed to bulk up an Amazon order for free shipping, and the DVD was $7* or so – well worth the price for the movie.

*(Before you ask, my wife has Amazon Prime, so I could have gotten free shipping, but for some reason the item I wanted, a low end drawing tablet, gave me a coupon and not her so in the end the DVD was closer to $2 – which is an absolute bargain).

It had been nearly twenty years since I had seen this movie, and after the glut of big budget super hero films, and so I was curious as to whether it would hold up as more than a nostalgic diversion or whether it would still be a good film in its own right. Billy Zane’s performance is solid enough, though the script doesn’t give him much to do; Treat Williams commands the screen as a wonderfully camp comic book villain with just enough of a sinister bent to make you nervous; Kirsty Swanson and Catherine Zeta Jones are both able to play strong, if fairly one dimensional characters; and James Remar is James Remar – an actor who will never give a bad performance (you may see a bad movie with him in it, but it wasn’t bad because of him).

You might think that I’m going to start ragging on the movie, but I genuinely enjoyed it. It was exactly what I hoped it would be, and indeed remembered it as; a good movie that stuck to the core concepts of the Phantom (as I remembered them); the Phantom doesn’t shoot to kill, his horse and wolf are in the movie, the stunts and effects haven’t aged brilliantly, but they’re still not terrible (the only time that you really notice anything is anytime a vehicle crashes into a ball of flames; everything else is forgivable or still holds up).

Yes, it’s a kitschy movie, and the Phantom isn’t the one man wrecking machine that super heroes have become in movies today – which oddly keeps the flick pretty grounded – but it is a really fun film.

I am absolutely going to watch the movie again. And again.

If you’re curious about the Phantom in the comics, well although the character has been in continuous publication in newspaper strips from the 30’s, The Ghost Who Walks has also appeared in several comic books throughout the last few decades – the most recent of which was Dynamite Entertainment’s The Last Phantom, a fantastic 12 issue modern take on this legendary character that I highly recommend. You can find the issues collected under The Last Phantom: Ghost Walk and Jungle Rules

Join us next week when we look at something else that is, for whatever reason, Underrated.