The Big Picture

  • Sergio Leone, known for his Spaghetti Westerns, considered directing a superhero film, with The Phantom as his chosen hero.
  • Leone also had ideas for films based on Flash Gordon and Mandrake the Magician, but his plans for The Phantom never came to fruition.
  • The Phantom was eventually made into a film in 1996, which was a critical and commercial failure but has since gained a cult following.

When you think of the Western, you probably think of Sergio Leone‘s work. After all, Leone was the pioneer of the Spaghetti Western — the genre that helped cement the likes of Clint Eastwood and Franco Nero as stars, not to mention a good chunk of films that came out around the ’60s and ’70s. After all, Hollywood does excel at finding a popular genre and milking it for all it’s worth. But Leone could have tackled another genre before it became a big deal: the superhero film. Yes, there was a time when the legendary director was considering bringing one of comics’ classic heroes to the big screen. That hero was none other than The Phantom, better known as the Ghost Who Walks.

Sergio Leone Almost Directed ‘The Phantom’ and Two Other Comic Projects

The Phantom holding a gun in King Syndicate's The Phantom comic
Image via King Syndicate

Created by Lee Falk, the Phantom was the alter ego of Kit Walker. Kit was the 21st in a line of heroes who swore to eradicate piracy, greed, cruelty, and injustice wherever they found it. Due to the fact that each Phantom came from the same lineage, as well as the tactics of subterfuge and deception that they used in battling their enemies, the hero would earn the moniker of “The Ghost Who Walks.” His exploits would serve as the precursor to more famous superheroes like Batman and Captain America, but the Phantom proved to be quite a compelling character for Leone. He met with Falk, intending to craft a Phantom film that was just as epic as his Spaghetti Westerns.

Prior to crafting The Phantom, Leone was considering doing a film about another pulp hero: Flash Gordon. Producer Dino De Laurentiis approached Leone with the intention for him to direct. However, Leone turned down the film as he felt that the screenplay wasn’t faithful enough to the original Flash Gordon comic strip. He wasn’t the only director who ended up not getting the part; George Lucas, unable to get the rights from De Laurentiis, ended up crafting the science fiction/fantasy epic that would be Star Wars (which drew elements from Flash Gordon). Leone also wanted to make a movie based on Falk’s other famous creation, Mandrake the Magician, who was said to be the first ever superhero. But soon Leone would move on to film Once Upon a Time In The West, and his plans for The Phantom would never come to pass.

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‘The Phantom’ Went Through a Number of Directors and Script Changes

Billy Zane as The Phantom, in costume holding up a glowing skull ring
Image via Paramount Pictures

Though Leone never got the chance to direct The Phantom, other directors would attempt to put their own spin on The Ghost Who Walks. Among them were Joe Dante, whose take on The Phantom was…out of left field, to say the least. According to an interview with Den of Geek, Dante’s script took a more tongue-in-cheek approach to the material and introduced supernatural elements such as a giant demon. When Paramount decided to push the film back a year, Dante ended up leaving to do other films, but was still attached as a producer. “Many unintentionally funny moments were cut after a raucous test screening and I foolishly refused money to take my name off the picture, so I’m credited as one of a zillion producers,” he recalled during the interview.

Joel Schumacher was considered for the film (which is ironic, given that he’d eventually direct Batman Forever and Batman & Robin) but eventually it went to Simon Wincer. After a lengthy audition process, Billy Zane ended up winning the role over Bruce Campbell, and the film was released in the summer of 1996. It turned out to be a critical and commercial failure, and may have contributed to the decline of the superhero genre in the 1990’s. However, in recent years, the film has gathered a cult following — and for good reason. Zane’s portrayal of the Phantom as a straight-edged defender of good hearkens back to Christopher Reeve‘s portrayal of Superman, while the story feels like the kind of swashbuckling adventure that the original comic strip was built on — albeit with supernatural elements. Throw in a supporting cast that includes Treat Williams, Catherine Zeta-Jones, and Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, and the end result is a fun romp that’s worth a Saturday afternoon watch.

Sergio Leone Could’ve Had a Superhero Universe With ‘The Phantom’ and Other King Features

Flash Gordon wielding a golden sword
Image via Universal Pictures

One thing connects The Phantom, Mandrake the Magician, and Flash Gordon aside from Leone’s desire to adapt all three heroes. The comic strips for each hero were published by King Features, who also published popular comic strips like Popeye and Beetle Bailey. All three of these heroes predated the more popular caped and cowled champions that inhabit the Marvel and DC Universes, and even had traits that would pass onto said heroes. The Phantom is a skilled fighter who uses myth to intimidate his enemies, much like Batman. Mandrake the Magician uses mysticism to fight evil, long before Doctor Strange became the Sorcerer Supreme. Flash Gordon was saving the universe long before Green Lantern or the Guardians of the Galaxy.

Interestingly enough, all three of King’s superhero properties would unite in the animated series Defenders of the Earth. Together with their progeny, as well as Mandrake’s assistant Lothar, the trio would stop Gordon’s archnemesis Ming the Merciless from conquering the universe. Ironically, the series was produced by Marvel Productions, long before the House of Ideas would make its own heroes into box office behemoths. Marvel’s involvement also extended to the comic adaptation, which was published under its short-lived Star imprint. Stan Lee even wrote the lyrics for the theme song! Though The Phantom eventually made it to the big screen, one has to wonder what would have happened if Leone got the chance to make his version as well as adapt Mandrake the Magician. Maybe he could have put his own version of Defenders of the Earth onto the big screen and pioneered the shared superhero universe.

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By mrtrv

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