Call it the Silver Age of Comic Book Movies. Between 1989 and 1999, movies based on comics were weird, colourful and ornate — not beholden to an MCU-esque house style or a franchise lineage. As with all cycles, success was not always assured: sometimes you get Batman Returns, and sometimes you get Barb Wire. But somewhere in the middle was The Phantom, which turns 20 this year. Based on the adventures of Lee Falk’s 30s funny-page hero, the film starred Billy Zane as the titular hero. a masked avenger who must prevent a corrupt businessman (Treat Williams) from collecting three enchanted skulls that together, in true rollicking pulp fashion, give whoever holds them the power of a thousand suns.
Despite being the first adaption of Falk’s character to an audiovisual medium since 1943, the film does not move like an origins story. In true old-school fashion, it feels like viewers are joining the further adventures of the Phantom in medias res. The first visual as the movie starts is a title card: “FOR THOSE WHO CAME IN LATE…” Then Patrick McGoohan spends 90 seconds info-dumping the Phantom’s backstory. But it’s an info-dump done with flair, the kind that involves an evil brotherhood of pirates, a pyre of skulls and a magic ring (for reference, The Avengers, the crown jewel of the MCU, took 11 hours of shoe leather spread across five and a half movies to get the band together). It’s a perfect tone-setter: The Phantom trades out a serious examination of character, choosing instead to embrace the tone and briskness of the source material (i.e. early 20th-century genre fiction).
The elements ripped from the serials and yellowed paperbacks of yesteryear are the film’s biggest asset. Great pulp writing is when you can tell someone is a bad guy just by their name and their hair. So when Williams appears with a slimy moustache, identifying himself as Xander Drax, you know he’s the heel. Zane is a perfect choice to play a serial-style superhero: matinée-idol smile, square build and totally believable jumping from a biplane onto his snow-white steed while clad in purple spandex. There is all manner of pulpy pleasure to be had in addition: there’s a volcano hideout and a shark moat straight out of James Bond. There’s a treasure trove of zippy one-liners, closer to screwball comedy dialogue than contemporaneous tough-guy blather. It all adds up to a deeply fun cinematic experience, but it was clearly not for everyone: The Phantom made back less than a third of its $40 million budget. Plans for sequels were scrapped, and the Silver Age had another flop on its hands.
By 1996, the groundwork was already being laid for the twin giants of Marvelization and Peak Grit to to inherit all of blockbusterdom. The Crow, ground zero for humourless comic book angst, was a surprise hit. This begat Spawn, which begat Blade, which begat X-Men in 2000, kicking off the Bronze Age of Comic Book Movies (i.e. The Age of Self-Awareness) in earnest. Copious amounts of fuck-you money then filled Marvel’s coffers. This is even before the launch of their multi-billion-dollar Cinematic Universe in 2008, an event that, for better or for worse, fundamentally changed the landscape of popcorn filmmaking. It’s their world, and we’re all just living in it, each tentpole event existing as a springboard to the next, old serials on steroids. But a glance back at the Silver Age demonstrates that there was once another way.
Derek Godin (@derek_g) is a freelance writer from Montreal, Quebec. He is the co-founder and co-editor of Dim the House Lights, a graduate of Concordia University’s MA Film Studies program and a two-time WWE Intercontinental Champion (only two of these are true).