The Big Picture

  • Superhero costumes are make-or-break and the worst ones can reflect poorly on the rest of the film. The Phantom has the dishonor of having the worst superhero costume ever created.
  • The Phantom’s costume didn’t work in the comics. The bland and unimaginative design, paired with the lack of gloves for an elusive character, made the costume unremarkable and ineffective.
  • When adapting The Phantom’s costume for the movie, the filmmakers replicated it with uncomfortable accuracy.


In this current period of superhero movie fatigue, with many praying for a few months without yet another comic-based epic, we can almost forget what a long, long road it was to the cinematic environment we’re in today. This can be reflected in the superheroes’ costumes. They can’t all be the genuine works of art created by Alexandra Byrne (The Avengers, Guardians of the Galaxy) or Judianna Makovsky (The Suicide Squad), but this is the first thing the fans will see when they look at a superhero, a make-or-break moment in promoting your movie. When talking about runners-up for the worst superhero costumes, which can reflect on the rest of the film, it’s a pretty tight competition, subjectivity aside. None of the worst-rated superhero movies of the 2020s make it close to the list (say what you will about those movies, but the costumes are generally solid). Going a little further back, Ryan Reynolds‘ CGI suit from Green Lantern (2011) caught a lot of flak, but the design was half-decent, the costumes from the first few X-Men movies gave no care to comic book accuracy and had no character, but they looked fine.

For the absolute dregs, you have to look to the 1990s. There are exceptions to this, as there are a handful of great comic book movies from the ’90s with great costumes to match—The Crow, The Mask, Blade, and Batman Returns among them. But, the worst ones are truly a sight to behold. Shaquille O’Neal’s Steel costume feels like it should be renamed “Rubber” or “Styrofoam.” Enough has been said about Batman and Robin‘s bat-nipples and codpieces, and the first attempt at Captain America‘s iconic suit in 1990 could be outmatched by a first-time cosplayer. However, there can only be one winner for worst superhero costume ever created, and that dishonor goes to The Phantom.

Billy Zane as The Phantom Poster

The Phantom

The Phantom, descendent of a line of African superheroes, travels to New York City to thwart a wealthy criminal genius from obtaining three magic skulls which would give him the secret to ultimate power.

Release Date
June 6, 1996

Director
Simon Wincer

Cast
Billy Zane, Kristy Swanson, Treat Williams, Catherine Zeta-Jones, James Remar, Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa

Rating
PG

Runtime
100

Main Genre
Action

Genres
Action, Adventure, Comedy

Writers
Lee Falk, Jeffrey Boam

Tagline
The Ghost Who Walks. The Man Who Cannot Die.

The Phantom Is the First Comic Superhero Ever Created

No not that Phantom. Released in 1996, The Phantom is based on the incredibly long-running comic strips originated by Lee Falk in 1936, making him the first comic book superhero ever. It’s a genre blend of superhero, pulp mystery, and lost world adventure, mainly following the 21st generation of a costumed crime fighter in a fictional African jungle. Its longevity is pretty astonishing, still running to this day and seeing extreme success in my home country Australia, which is something that has baffled me for a long time.

He’s proto-Batman (if he were a white savior), falling into every problematic pitfall of the lost world narrative. Nevertheless, he got a movie, with other pulp comics The Shadow and The Rocketeer having their turns on screen in the same decade. All three of these movies failed to get initial success and are now at best cult classics. Out of the three, The Phantom has the worst costume—The Shadow‘s is hard to get wrong and The Rocketeer‘s looks genuinely excellent, but I’ve never seen something not work on so many levels as this one.

The Phantom’s Superhero Costume Didn’t Even Work in the Comics

Billy Zane as The Phantom and Kristy Swanson as Diana Palmer
Image via Paramount

Simply put, the movie’s costume doesn’t work because the comic’s costume is dead on arrival. Purple is already a pretty tricky color for a superhero costume. Marvel’s Hawkeye is one of the few heroes to use it consistently, not to mention it’s been arbitrarily assigned as a “girl’s color” which, while stupid, absolutely affects why you don’t see it very often. A purple supersuit isn’t such a huge deal unless your main operations are in the jungle and your whole gimmick is being “The Ghost Who Walks,” as is the case for The Phantom. Ghosts and phantoms tend to avoid detection, and a Grimace purple suit would likely have the opposite effect.

There’s just not a lot to it. It’s purple and it’s pretty bland. And, having an elusive character who wears a mask and cowl but not gloves to hide his fingerprints is bizarre. This is fine, though, or it should be fine. After all, this character has existed for over 80 years now. Every superhero with such a long lifespan tends to have their costumes altered, either lightly or heavily as the years drag on. However, that is not so for The Phantom, whose look has remained completely unchanged since 1936.

The Phantom’s Costume Was Replicated for the Movie With Uncomfortable Accuracy

Billy Zane as The Phantom with a horse
Image via Paramount

Naturally, when it came time for a movie to be created about The Phantom, the costume was replicated for live-action with total accuracy. It’s as if it was ripped directly off the page. In truth, this is a problem. Many superhero costumes are altered for the screen as a matter of theory against practice; it’s why fashion design and comic illustration are two very different disciplines. It’s going to look worse on the screen than it does on the page, especially if you’re working with much older heroes. Some costumes strike that balance perfectly. Deadpool and Spider-Man’s costumes look great without making heavy alterations, while Batman‘s is usually subject to heavy changes on screen to make it work for the tone of whatever film it is. Billy Zane as The Phantom wasn’t so lucky.

The only differences are the shade of purple is only slightly muted, changing him from lean Grimace to man-shaped plum, and that he doesn’t have the stripey underwear on the outside anymore (as if that was the biggest issue). The suit is also adorned with “tribal” patterns, which puts it on par with some white guy getting tribal tattoos. Plus, outfits don’t tightly cling to muscles like they do in illustrations, either making it look even more like a scuba wetsuit or one of those morphsuits you buy online as a gag. Frankly, it looks goofy, with Zane looking more like a jackass here than he does in Titanic. This is rather odd considering the other costumes look good, fitting in with this Indiana Jones-esque adventure aesthetic, resulting in The Phantom looking even worse by comparison.

It’s doubtful we’ll ever see another adaptation of The Phantom on screen. The antiquities of the story and the white man’s burden (without any kind of revision) keep it from being a true classic of superhero mythos. The attempts at reboots—namely a miniseries on Syfy in 2009—go completely unremembered. Is there a way to bring The Phantom into the modern spotlight? After all, for the first costumed crime fighter in comic history, he should probably get a bit more attention. Is there a way to strike a balance between maintaining the fandom and inviting in a new audience? That’s unclear. But, I know fixing the costume is a good place to start.

The Phantom is available for streaming exclusively on Max in the U.S.

Watch on Max

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *