Who was that masked man?

April 10, 2009

Pardon my rant, but recently on Newsarama they posted pre-production sketches for the costume designs from the proposed SyFy channel (stupid renaming) version of”The Phantom”. I don’t know when, or more importantly why, people have abandoned the basic working model of a costumed hero. It’s funny that if you go by success factors, the highest grossing super hero films are the ones that stayed the closest to the original look of their adapted characters. The Batman films, Spider-man, Superman, Iron Man- all look pretty much like they did in the comics. Sure they made Batman’s costume black instead of gray and blue, but Bob Kane said he originally thought of it being all black, but the colors were a technical decision based on printing issues. One can’t say that because a film failed it must have been the fault of the costume. You can’t get any more basic than a guy in a trench coat with a big hat, that’s about as realistic as it gets, so explain how Batman did well and the Shadow bombed? You can’t say leotards fail when Spider-man was a huge hit. Films fail because they don’t work as a story, not because of a costume. Granted you can make any costume look silly on film, but treated with even a little respect most translate fine. It’s seems counter productive to me to take an established character, the rights for which you’ve purchased because of the recognition factor, then turn around and tear away all of its built in branding. It’s the same as losing the “S” on the man of steel, or dropping the spider from the wall-crawler.  Why not just make up a new name if you’re going to change the character’s history and costume anyway?

Here’s the original Phantom costume from the comic strip.

comic_phantom2Ok, I admit I’ve never been a big fan of the striped shorts, but it was a practical way of avoiding drawing anything that would later be blasted on the big screen ala Watchmen (if you get the point). To me the biggest issue is the mask, it works; simple, classic, and translates easily to the screen. Even back in the 30s they knew this, not just from the adaptations of the Phantom, but to the original masked men, Zorro and the Lone Ranger!


So why is Hollywood trying to punk it up? They’re heroes fighting crime, and a secret identity is vital. OK, I won’t go into the practical issues, forget that, they’re mysterious! They’re supposed to be that way! Don Diego wouldn’t work as a hero if we knew he was Zorro, Capt. Ramon would just have him shot in the street while getting groceries- end of problem! Last thing a costumed hero wants to hear is “Oh, it’s you”. There’s thousands of opinions on this, and this isn’t intended to be a debate. Those discussions are the center piece for Marvel’s Civil War, and before that the DC series Secret Identity by Brad Meltzer. All of that doesn’t matter to me, what does is when I sit down to watch my heroes on the screen, ones that I loved in comics, I want to see them; not some half-baked version. It’s like tofu pepperoni on a pizza. What?! Exactly.

The first thing I thought of when I saw this design was that they were trying to appeal to the Smallville audience by copying the Green Arrow hood. That’s the problem of moving away from your source material, and swiping from the third and fourth generation version of an idea. The Green Arrow hood is based on the comic version, but that was supposed to look medieval, not like a snowboarder.


Then Smallville hips it up, but instead of going back to the source, the SyFy guys take from Smallville and push it further away from the source. Now it just looks silly. When I saw the design I had the funny feeling I had seen it before. It looked like the lizard guy from the lousy Flash Gordon film of the 80s, something that never made sense to me even as a kid. I could never figure out, was it supposed to be a mask? Was his face inside his own mouth? If so, how does he eat without getting stuff in his eyes? Silly Hollywood.