One of the oldest costumed superheroes, and arguably the first to wear the ever present skin tight costume, is Lee Falk's 1936 creation The Phantom. The Phantom, as a character and narrative construct, helped to establish the basis for the modern superhero tale. His origin, though it included some elements likely inspired by Burrough's Tarzan, can easily be seen as the model which has dominated the genre.
The 1996 film, starring Billy Zane as The Ghost Who Walks and directed by Simon Wincer, was produced during a time where Hollywood wasn't quite sure which direction to go with comic book characters. The films of the era -- Batman, The Shadow, and The Phantom (to name a few) -- were simultaneously serious and campy. Hollywood hadn't yet reached the point where it could trust that superhero narratives on the big screen could be presented "straight." One would think they would have learned the lesson from the Superman franchise, which had two excellent entries -- neither of which were particularly campy -- and two awful entries -- both of which were campy.
Of the three films mentioned above, Batman (directed by Tim Burton) was the least campy, but it did have its moments of campy awkwardness that seemed to clash with Burton's moody expressionist representation of Gotham. Burton's Batman is a great Bruce Wayne film, but it isn't a great Batman film.
The Shadow, though campier than Batman, is almost a perfect representation of the title character -- it's so close that fans can see what the film would have been if it had been serious. It would have been a great serious movie, but it is also an entertaining campy movie. The reflexive ironic jingoism of Alec Baldwin's character is wonderful, as is Margot Lane, leaving only the over the top Tim Curry (who I usually love) lessening the enjoyment of the film. Well...Tim Curry and the weird prosthetic makeup that Baldwin wore as the Shadow are what are wrong with the picture. Still it is an entertaining piece.
All three of the "transition" films were entertaining, and that includes The Phantom. One doesn't have to look past the one sheet to realize that the film falls more on the campy side of things than to the straight, which is a shame. Treat Williams and Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa would have been excellent in a straight version of the film. They are entertaining here as well, but by deciding not to update the look of The Phantom's costume, the film doomed itself to campville. As camp, the movie is a fun ride with some genuinely entertaining action sequences. It's also fun to run around shouting "Slam Evil," as my friends and I did while displaying our collection of Phantom rings (the promotional item used to promote the film).
Enjoy the film, but enjoy imagining what might have been as well.
RHI Entertainment, who brought us the excellent Tin Man and the horrible Flash Gordon, are working on a new television version of The Phantom -- the preview is below -- which looks promising. The RHI series looks like a combination of The Phantom, TNT's Leverage, and Remo Williams, but that could be fun...and at least they updated the costume.