Principal photography began in October 1995 and concluded on February 13, 1996. The film was shot in California, Thailand and Australia.
In the early 16th century, a young boy helplessly witnesses his father's death at the hands of Kabai Sengh, the ruthless leader of the Sengh brotherhood who attacked their ship. The boy jumps overboard and is washed ashore on an island called Bengalla where he is found by tribesmen who take him to their village. There he is given the Skull Ring and swears to devote his life to the destruction of piracy, greed, cruelty and injustice. In adulthood, he adopts the identity of "The Phantom", a masked avenger. The role of The Phantom is passed on from father to son through centuries, leading people to believe in a single, immortal figure and accordingly nickname him "The Ghost Who Walks" and "The Man Who Never Dies".
In 1938, Kit Walker (Billy Zane), the 21st Phantom, finds a man named Quill (James Remar) leading a mercenary group in the jungle. The group is searching for one of the Skulls of Touganda, which grants its owner a tremendous destructive power. The Phantom saves the native boy they had kidnapped to be their guide and captures Quill's men, leaving them to be picked up by the jungle patrol while their leader escapes. Quill — revealed as a member of the Sengh Brotherhood, and the man who killed Kit's father (Patrick McGoohan) — flees with the Skull and returns to the United States.
In New York City, Kit's ex-girlfriend from college, Diana Palmer (Kristy Swanson), is a frequent traveler whose uncle, Dave Palmer (Bill Smitrovich), is the famous owner of the "World Tribune" newspaper. The paper has been investigating power-hungry business man Xander Drax (Treat Williams), a shady character with a reputation for having dealings with criminals. Mr. Palmer has managed to uncover that Drax is connected to a mysterious spider web symbol, which he traces back to the Bengalla Jungle. He sends Diana to investigate, and en route, her airplane is hijacked by female air pirates employed by Drax and led by the femme fatale Sala (Catherine Zeta-Jones). Diana is abducted and taken to their base on the waterfront in Bengalla. Having been informed of Diana's abduction by the Jungle Patrol's captain Phillip Horton (Robert Coleby), the Phantom rescues Diana and escapes from Quill and his men to his headquarters, the Skull Cave (with the help of his white horse Hero, his pet wolf Devil, and his jungle friends the Rope People). There, Diana meets with Horton, where she is informed by the Phantom and Horton that she is involved with the Sengh Brotherhood. The Phantom tells Horton to use the Jungle Patrol to take care of Diana and return her to New York while he goes after the Brotherhood.
Back in New York, Kit, now dressed as his civilian self, meets with Mr. Palmer at the Tribune building and once again meets with Diana, who has mixed feelings about him since his sudden disappearance several years before. Diana's would-be suitor Jimmy Wells (Jon Tenney) mentions he had seen one of the skulls in the Museum of Natural History. Kit and Diana hurry there and are captured by Drax and his men, who steal the second Skull from Kit and unite it with the first, revealing the location of the third Skull on an uncharted island known as the Devil's Vortex on the Yellow Sea. Kit sees his father's old skull belt buckled around Quill's waist and realizes that he is his father's killer. He manages to escape from him and his henchmen and, as the Phantom, evades the police outside the museum (Drax is allied with New York's corrupt police commissioner, who Mr. Palmer had informed of Diana’s trip). Meanwhile, Sala flies Drax, Quill and Diana (Drax's "Phantom insurance" after Sala reveals that Diane is his girlfriend) to the Devil's Vortex, not knowing that the Phantom has managed to hitch a ride on one of the plane's landing pontoons.
On the island, Drax meets with the pirate Kabai Sengh (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa), a descendant of the Brotherhood's original leader, who possesses the third Skull. Sengh warns Drax of the existence of a "Fourth Skull", which controls the power of the other three. The Phantom appears and battles both men, with Kabai Sengh killed by his own pool of sharks, as Diana and Sala cooperate to defeat the other villains. Drax unites the three Skulls and turns them against the Phantom, inadvertently killing Quill in the process. The Phantom uses the Fourth Skull — his own ring — to overcome the others and destroy both them and Drax in a powerful explosion. As the island is destroyed, the Phantom narrowly escapes with Diana and Sala.
In Bengalla once again, Diana reveals to the Phantom she has figured out his secret and his double-identity. Kit removes his mask, telling her that he is only allowed to reveal all of his secrets to one person, the woman he intends to marry, but she leaves again for New York. Kit's father laments his son's failure to pursue Diana, but states that she will return to the Phantom's jungle, and to Kit, one day.Billy Zane as The Phantom / Kit Walker
Treat Williams as Xander Drax
Kristy Swanson as Diana Palmer
Catherine Zeta-Jones as Sala
James Remar as Quill
Patrick McGoohan as The Phantom's Father (The 20th Phantom)
Radmar Agana Jao as Guran
Robert Coleby as Captain Philip Horton
Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa as The Great Kabai Sengh
Bill Smitrovich as Dave Palmer
Casey Siemaszko as Morgan
David Proval as Charlie Zephro
Joseph Ragno as Ray Zephro
Al Ruscio as Police Commissioner Farley
Samantha Eggar as Lily Palmer
Jon Tenney as Jimmy Wells
John Capodice as Al the Cabby
Rumours of a Phantom movie adaptation had first started to circulate when director Sergio Leone expressed his interest in the property in an interview. Leone had started to write a script and scout locations for his proposed film version of the Phantom, which he planned to be followed by an adaptation of Lee Falk's other comic-strip hero, Mandrake the Magician. The second project was never finalized.
Joe Dante was originally attached to direct a Phantom film for Paramount Pictures in the early 1990s, and he developed a draft of the script together with Jeffrey Boam. Dante and Boam's script was originally tongue-in-cheek in tone and the climax included a winged demon. When Paramount pushed the film back a year, Dante left for other commitments, and eventually ended up being credited as one of the executive producers. According to Dante:
I developed the script with the late Jeff Boam, who wrote Innerspace, as a kind of a spoof. We were a few weeks away from shooting in Australia when the plug was pulled over the budget and the presence of a winged demon at the climax. A year or so later it was put back into production - sans demon - only nobody seemed to notice it was written to be funny, so it was – disastrously - played straight. 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.
Joel Schumacher was considered to direct the film, but the job was given to Simon Wincer, who had been a fan of the character since childhood. When he traveled to Los Angeles to meet with Paramount executives, he discovered that they intended to release the film in July 1996. The Phantom was originally intended to be filmed in Hawaii, and the production schedule would go over budget by $10 million. Wincer decided to film it in New York City, Thailand and his native Australia, reducing the budget by $12 million as a result.
Wincer then cast Billy Zane, who had won praise for his work as a psychopath in Dead Calm, as the Phantom. Zane, a huge fan of the comic strip after being introduced to it on the set of Dead Calm, won the part after competition from Bruce Campbell and New Zealand actor Kevin Smith. After his casting, he spent over a year and a half to get the right muscular look of the Phantom. He also studied the character's body language in comic strip artwork, carefully imitating it in his performance.
Filming began on October 3, 1995, in Los Angeles at Greystone Park. For the exterior of the Palmers' English-style manor the mansion of Playboy magazine's Hugh Hefner, a longtime fan of the Phantom, was used.
The Los Angeles Zoo in Griffith Park doubled for New York City's Central Park Zoo, the setting for a chase sequence. Shooting continued on Hollywood studio backlot streets that recreated the 1938 version of New York City. Over fifty vintage cars were used on the streets, and four hundred extras costumed in authentic period clothing were employed.
In October, the production traveled to Thailand for seven weeks of filming there, with the country doubling as the Phantom's fictional home country Bengalla. Action scenes such as the Phantom saving a boy from a collapsing rope bridge were filmed here. Production designer Paul Peters changed a deserted warehouse in the town Krabi into a large sound stage, where the Phantom's Skull Cave abode was erected, including his Chronicle Chamber, vault, and radio and treasure rooms.
In December, the crew traveled to Australia, where production occupied eight sound stages at the Village Roadshow Studios in Brisbane, Queensland. At Stage 5, the Singh Pirates Cave was constructed, constituting the largest interior setting ever built in the country. The New York offices of Xander Drax were constructed on Stage 6. Filming in Queensland also took the production to the Brisbane City Hall, where the interior lobby was redecorated to resemble a New York museum, where Kit Walker finds one of the three Skulls of Touganda. Manor Apartment Hotel in Brisbane was used as a stand in for a New York skyscraper.
On the final day of shooting, the production relocated to Los Angeles, California to complete a scene that would ultimately end up deleted from the final cut of the movie, where the Phantom wrestles a lion. The movie wrapped on February 13, 1996.
The film features several elements from Lee Falk's first two Phantom stories, "The Singh Brotherhood" and "The Sky Band". Several of the characters in the film derive from these stories: Kabai Sengh (played by Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa), leader of the Sengh Brotherhood (the name of the brotherhood was changed to 'Sengh' in the movie, to avoid offending people named Singh), Sala (played by Catherine Zeta-Jones), leader of the Sky Band, a group of female air pirates, and Jimmy Wells (Jon Tenney), a wealthy playboy.
The more realistic plots of Falk's original stories were dropped in favor of an adventure tale that featured the supernatural "Skulls of Touganda". Falk's story "The Belt", where the Phantom fights the killer of his father, was also a major influence on the story; but the name of the murderer is changed from Rama to Quill, and the 20th Phantom, played by Patrick McGoohan, is portrayed as a much older man in the film than in the comic strip.
Many scenes developing the romance between the Phantom/Kit Walker and Diana Palmer were cut in order to make the film more fast-paced. An action scene featuring the Phantom wrestling a lion and one with him fighting a snake were also cut. A scene with the Phantom and his horse Hero rearing in the sunset was cut out of the film, but shown at the end of the 1996 A&E documentary The Phantom: Comic Strip Crusader.
To coincide with the premiere of the film, the Phantom was used as a part of the Got Milk? campaign, based on the character's drinking milk in the comic. Two different Phantom action figures were made by Street Player, and promotional Phantom-rings were also offered. Different sets of Phantom collecting cards were also available in countries such as the United States, Australia, Finland and Sweden. Movie theater popcorn tubs and paper soda cups featuring the film's poster were also used to help promote the film.
The film suffered the same fate as two other period-piece comic book/pulp adaptations of the 1990s, The Shadow (1994) and The Rocketeer (1991), and did not fare very well at the box office in the United States, debuting at number six the weekend of June 7, 1996. It has since sold well on VHS and DVD.
Reviews were mixed with Roger Ebert calling it one of the best looking movies he had ever seen, giving the film three and a half stars out of four. British critic Kim Newman wrote for Empire that the movie "has a pleasant feel - few superheroes have been as sunny and optimistic - as Zane breezes through chases and fights, stops for the odd quip - and pals around with a heroic horse, a dashing dog and the helpful ghost of his father", and gave the movie three out of five stars. Rotten Tomatoes retrospectively gave the film a 43% rating, based on 42 reviews.
Billy Zane's performance was praised by filmmaker James Cameron, who cast him for Titanic (1997) on that account.
Billy Zane originally signed up to do two sequels, but these were not made because of the disappointing sale of tickets for The Phantom in theaters.
In 2008, Paramount Pictures were considering creating a sequel to The Phantom, with Zane, Swanson and Zeta-Jones returning in their roles, because of the strong home video performance of the first movie. In December 2008, it was announced instead that a reboot of the Phantom series was in the works, called The Phantom: Legacy, to be produced by Bruce Sherlock (who was also an executive producer of The Phantom) and written by Tim Boyle. Sam Worthington was being considered for the lead role. By 2014, plans for this film had fallen through as well, and producer Mark Gordon was instead attached to a Phantom reboot.
A novelization of The Phantom was written by Rob MacGregor, the author of a series of Indiana Jones novels. This novel included a more detailed look at the backstory of many characters, and the origin of The Phantom. Several scenes that were omitted from the final cut of the movie are also included.
The Phantom was released on Blu-ray on February 9, 2010, by Lionsgate.
The film's score was composed by David Newman, who previously collaborated with director Simon Wincer on Operation Dumbo Drop, and performed by the London Metropolitan Orchestra under the composer's baton. A soundtrack album was released by Milan on June 4, 1996; La-La Land Records issued an expanded edition on July 3, 2012.