The Happy Hero

The Phantom delivers a comic-book masked guy from the days before angst

After wading through the angst of three doom-and-gloom Batman movies, wouldn't you like to see a masked superhero who enjoys his work? Who actually thinks battling bad guys is a grand and glorious adventure? Then take a peek at The Phantom, a rousingly old-fashioned and refreshingly uncomplicated comic-book movie.

Mind you, we're talking about the Ghost Who Walks, not the Guy Who Drops Chandeliers. Cartoonist/writer Lee Falk created the Phantom back in 1936 -- two years before the first appearance of Superman, three years before the debut of Batguy. And while the Phantom has long been surpassed in popularity by more flamboyant good guys, he continues to pound evildoers every day in more than 500 newspapers throughout the world. (You can still find him tucked into a corner of the Houston Chronicle's comics pages, under Snuffy Smith and next to Judge Parker.) In Australia, he's the star of his very own top-selling comic book. And in Sweden, there's an entire amusement park -- called, no kidding, Phantomland -- devoted to his exploits. Batman, by contrast, has to make do with tacky little variety shows at U.S. theme parks.

And just who, you might well ask, is this muscular fellow in the black mask and purple body suit? The people who made The Phantom answer that question in a prologue titled, appropriately enough, "For those who came in late ...." Four hundred years ago, bloodthirsty pirates of the Sengh Brotherhood attacked a merchant ship off the coast of Bengalla Island. (Don't bother looking for it on a map.) A young passenger watched in horror as the pirates killed his father. That same little boy was later washed ashore on the edge of the dense Bengalla jungle, where he was aided by native warriors who accepted him into their tribe. The lad grew up to be the very first Phantom, a masked hero dedicated to fighting for truth, justice and ... whoops. I mean, dedicated to fighting piracy, cruelty and injustice.

The Phantom had a son who took over the family business when his father died. The son in turn passed the job over to his own son. And so it went, one generation to the next. Since each new Phantom wore the same superheroic costume, and continued to behave in the same superheroic manner, everyone in and around Bengalla assumed that the same guy just kept on keeping on. That is, they figured the Phantom was -- and is -- immortal. Hence the nickname Ghost Who Walks.

Throughout The Phantom, director Simon Wincer (Free Willy, Lonesome Dove) and screenwriter Jeffrey Boam (The Lost Boys, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade) remain affectionately faithful to the Phantom mythos, even as they allow their actors to give an occasional wink to the audience. As a result, their movie sprints playfully along a middle ground between self-conscious camp and straight-arrow swashbuckler. Almost all of the humor is intentional, and much of it is very amusing. But when there is serious evil-bashing to do, rest assured that the Phantom can throw a punch or dodge a bullet with the best of them. And unlike Batman, who spends most of his time skulking about in the deep, dark shadows, the Phantom does much of his do-gooding in the middle of the day, galloping around on a great white horse. To be sure, he packs a gun. Two of them, as a matter of fact. But he always shoots to wound, never to kill.

In the title role, Billy Zane looks and sounds like someone who is flat-out having the time of his life. Whether he's precariously dangling from a seaplane's pontoon or commandeering a policeman's horse during an eventful visit to New York City, he (or his stuntman) is the very model of virile grace. And the sheer joy he takes in running through his paces as a larger-than-life figure is highly contagious. Even when he isn't wearing the Phantom mufti, when he's traveling incognito as clean-cut and ultra-wholesome Kit Walker, he has the same self-assured spring to his step, the same can-do optimism in his grin. You get the feeling that, unlike the Batmen of Michael Keaton and Val Kilmer, Zane's Phantom thinks that being a superhero is the neatest thing in the whole wide world.

Indeed, Zane's Phantom has a lot in common with Christopher Reeve's Superman. Like Reeve, Zane appears to be utterly sincere and completely at ease, even as he makes it abundantly clear that he, too, gets the joke. For the most part, Zane keeps his tongue out of his cheek and his elbow out of our ribs. Rather than hammer at a wisecrack, he prefers to lightly toss off a witticism. Early in the story, the Phantom helps heroine Diana Palmer (Kristy Swanson) turn the tables on Sala (Catherine Zeta Jones), a femme fatale who isn't quite as nasty as she wants to be. "You could tie her up," the Phantom suggests. Diana has a better idea -- she punches Sala out cold. Without missing a beat, the Phantom adds, "Or not."

Loosely based on story lines from the first Phantom comic strips, Boam's clever screenplay keeps our hero in the 1930s and, more important, places him in conflict with an altogether worthy opponent: Xander Drax, a malevolent multimillionaire played by Treat Williams as equal parts Howard Hughes, Clark Gable and Richard III on laughing gas.

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