The legend of the Phantom starts when a young boy, the last survivor of a pirate attack, is washed ashore on a mysterious island called Bengalla. He swears to devote his life to the destruction of piracy, greed, cruelty, and injustice, in all their forms. When he grows to be a man, he adopts the identity of The Phantom, a masked avenger. The role of the Phantom is passed on from father to son through centuries, which causes people to believe it is the same, seemingly immortal man, giving him names like "The Ghost Who Walks" and "The Man Who Never Dies".
The film tells us the story of The Phantom's search for a weapon of doom, the Skulls of Touganda. He has to get the three skulls (one made of gold, one made of silver, and one made of jade) before madman Xander Drax (Treat Williams), a rich playboy, finds them. In the process of tracking down the skulls, The Phantom also meets his former girlfriend Diana Palmer (Kristy Swanson) while tracking down the skulls, who proves to be an invaluable help for him. The search for the skulls becomes even more complicated for the Phantom when he discovers that one of Drax's henchmen, Quill, is the killer of his father.
The film is loosely based on Lee Falk's first two Phantom stories, The Singh Brotherhood and The Sky Band. Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa plays Kabai Singh, leader of the Sengh Brotherhood (the name of the brotherhood was changed from Singh to Sengh in the movie), and Catherine Zeta-Jones plays Sala, leader of the Sky Band, a group of female air-pirates.
Billy Zane took his role very seriously, and pumped iron for over a year to fill the Phantom's tight spandex costume. Zane won the part after heavy competition from cult-icon Bruce Campbell and Kevin Smith (best known for playing Ares in Xena: Warrior Princess and Hercules: The Legendary Journeys). Director Simon Wincer cast the then relatively unknown Zane because he wanted the movie to be the main attraction, not the stars.
The film was shot in Australia, Thailand and Los Angeles, and had a budget of over 40 million dollars.
The movie suffered the same fate as two other period-piece comic book/pulp adaptations, The Shadow and The Rocketeer, and did not fare very well at the box office in the US (possibly due to heavy competition from films like Mission: Impossible and Independence Day), but in the years after its release, it has reached a wider audience due to good video and DVD sales and frequent airing on television. It also did well in cinemas in countries where the character is famous, like Australia, Sweden, and India. The movie was also, according to the actor himself, the reason why Billy Zane was cast as Cal Hockley in James Cameron's Titanic, the world's most commercially successful movie.
Despite of the film's failure, a new movie about the character is in the works, called The Ghost Who Walks. However, it aims to distance itself from 1996 film, and provide an updated take on the character.
- According to himself, this was the most dangerous, funniest and challenging film that Billy Zane ever did.
- Joe Dante was originally attached to direct, and he developed a draft of the script together with Jeffrey Boam. However, when Paramount pushed the film back a year, Dante left for other commitments, with Simon Wincer replacing him as a director. Dante ended up as one of the executive producers.
- Billy Zane pumped iron for over a year to play the Phantom. A Batman-like costume with fake muscles was reportedly made for him, but by the time filming started, Zane was so beefed up that he did not need it.
- Attempts at making a big screen Phantom feature film go back to the 1960s.
- The Palmer's butler is named Falkmoore. This name is derived from Lee Falk, The creator of The Phantom, and Ray Moore, The Phantom's first artist.
- One of The Phantom's trademarks in the comic strip, his striped "underpants", was tried on the movie costume, but reportedly looked too silly to use in the final film.
- When not filming, Billy Zane had a habit of running down to buy sushi in a store wearing his Phantom costume.
- To coincide with the premiere of the film, the Phantom was used as a part of the Got Milk? campaign.
- Hugh Hefner, creator of Playboy magazine, a fan of the Phantom comic strip, allowed the filmmakers to use his Playboy Mansion as the home of the wealthy Palmer family.
- Many scenes developing the romance between the Phantom/Kit Walker and Diana Palmer were cut to make the film more fast paced. Many of the scenes took place in the Deep Woods of Bengalla. An action scene featuring the Phantom wrestling a lion, was also cut.
- Billy Zane was displeased with the way the film was marketed. He said "the studio felt like they should sell a new Batman movie, and the Phantom was completely different."
- On reflecting in 2006 on why the film did not perform better at the U.S. box office, Billy Zane said that he thought the film may have been before its time.
- The Ghost Who Walks
- The Man Who Cannot Die
- Slam Evil!