The Phantom (1996)

My favorite movie in the Mummy franchise is The Phantom, but hardly anyone else seems to agree with me. “Nay,” says Naysayer, “you’re mistaken — Phantom is a superhero movie.” Though Naysayer’s rationale is increasingly appropriate such that one can visit a cinema and blindly say that’s a superhero movie and usually be correct, the film adaptation of the long-running Phantom comic strip seems much more at home in a category with The Mummy, Pirates of the Caribbean, Tomb Raider, Romancing the Stone and all of the other Indiana Jonesey flicks that muster at least a small degree of fresh fun. When asked to think of a superhero movie, it’s doubtful The Phantom leaps to mind. Is archaeology adventure an acceptable genre label? We know Naysayer’s answer.

But this was 1996, long before the homogenization of the superflick under the all-encompassing tyranny of the Shared Universe Model. Maybe in 1996 there was nothing at all to blink at: Phantom, a comic-strip costumed vigilante, is up on the screen saving people and slamming evil. This is a superhero. Maybe today there’s just a more rote formula for such a thing, and maybe calling Phantom otherwise is an act of desperation.

There is of course more to the subgenre than we’re disclosing, namely stuff like The Shadow and The Rocketeer. These and Phantom can legally be deemed superhero movies, and yet nearly all of their appeal is drawn from the fact that they’re not modern superhero movies, i.e. installments of more far-reaching franchises. If there were three, four, five films in each series it’s entirely possible that we’d be looking back on Phantom and Shadow and Rocketeer with scorn, huddling in the corner with Naysayer and talking about how sick we are of these characters.

Still, the sense of adventure and the swashbuckling suaveness of the hero really override the fact that Phantom originated in comics. It’s tough to picture Billy Zane’s Kit Walker popping up alongside the characters of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The Mummy, though? He’d fit right in. Heck, swap Zane and Brendan Fraser and you’d have the same movie. The far-flung exotic locales, the ’30s setting, the femme fatale(s), the ancient curses, the ridiculously implausible and never-ending action sequences — that’s all Phantom and Mummy. It’s Indiana Jones, too, though an esteemed co-Motion Stater had to ruefully acknowledge that The Phantom starts off as Raiders of the Lost Ark and ends up as Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.

Again, the playfulness and juvenility of the protagonist is the other thread connecting Phantom to these whimsical adventure films instead of to the superhero genre. Phantom, Rick O’Connell, Jack Sparrow — they’re all pretty damn immature most of the time. Granted, Phantom’s silliness is overshadowed by the silliness of Phantom‘s villain Xander Drax, a cartoonish megalomaniac played by Treat “I’m The Reason They Invented The Phrase Shit-Eating Grin” Williams. Consensus among a sample of film critics (me) is that Xander Drax must be a distant cousin of Hugo Drax from Moonraker, a theory which those film critics (me) never (okay, once) plan to use in a fan-fiction (okay, Drax: Origins). Come to think of it, Phantom’s lagoon hideout isn’t all that dissimilar from Scaramanga’s in Man with the Golden Gun. We’ll stop this line of questioning now lest we actually uncover another weird conspiratorial correlation with James Bond movies.

More evidence for Phantom’s status as a non-superhero? How about the Last Phantom series, which boasts cover artwork by the indomitable Alex Ross and casts Phantom as a vengeance-seeking bloodsoaked badass:

The Last Phantom (2010)
The Last Phantom (2010)

Admittedly, there are two points that may sway your decision on this debate and push Phantom into superhero territory, resistant as the movie iteration may be to that label. Creator Lee Falk initially considered calling his protagonist “The Gray Ghost”, a very superhero-y name that was in fact used later for a Batman character (in “Beware the Gray Ghost“, one of the best episodes of Batman: The Animated Series). The animated series Phantom 2040 makes sure to call attention to this, too. And, okay, yes, even The Last Phantom eventually sees the dude take up the mantle of a vigilante. It seems in every medium but the movie, Phantom himself desires to be considered a superhero.

But the second damning point? Yeah…

The Phantom (1992)
The Phantom (1996)

…okay, okay. Screw it. He’s a superhero.

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