Writing Lessons from Bad Movies

In this series of posts I write about the things we can learn from bad movies.  I have mostly learned that the 90s were full of really, really bad films.

This time around I watched the 1996 Billy Zane classic The Phantom.  It has all the elements of a good adventure flick; masked heroes, secret organizations, a vengeance plot, a bad guy who constantly states his intentions.  It…wow it did not work on screen.  Elements worked and the movie is glorious in its campy fun, but for an hour and half it is mostly just shots of Zane’s belt buckle.

There’s a chance to learn something though!  Here’s what I took away:

Names Matter

The story’s bad guy is named Xander Drax.  It sounds cool.  It looks cool.  It is the redeeming factor of the character.   The hero is called The Phantom and The Ghost Who Walks, his secret identity is Kit Walker (I think I just enjoy the name is not alliterated like a Marvel hero).  There are evil henchmen named Quill and Sala.

I usually pick character names by clicking a letter at babynames.com and ruling out names of people I know.  These names, the movie names, give stories themselves.  Xander Drax has to be a bad guy, a power hungry, greedy bad guy.  “The Phantom” instantly lets evildoers know they won’t see the hero coming.  Names can help tell a story if done right.

Yes! Write an entire scene around one cheesy line

The Phantom does not make a lot sense.  I suspect this is because the script writers came up with lines they wanted people to say and built around that, instead of working around plots and story progression.  It kind of worked though.

Dialogue like:

“Who’s that?” -Nameless Bad Guy 1.

“Somebody I already killed” – Quill

“Guess what, he’s back!” -Nameless Bad Guy 1


“We’ll kill all of you one by one until she comes forward.” – Sala

“I’m Diana Palmer.” – Diana Palmer

“So quickly? How disappointing.”   – Sala


“History is about to be made and you’re all a part of it.  Not an equal part of course, but an important part nonetheless” – Xander Drax, on the cusp of victory and sending the audience into hysterical laughter because Treat Williams is a national treasure.

The dialogue is terrible, but the goal of the movie was not to make an award winning film it was to be a campy adventure.

There’s a scene where Drax is explaining to other evil businessmen his evil plan.  One evil businessman decides he wants nothing to do with the plan and leaves the meeting.  Drax throws a friggin’ spear through the guy! Straight up harpooned the one guy in the room with the good sense to not be outright end-the-world evil.  I don’t remember any of the discussion, any of the other characters or really the point of that scene.  I am fairly certain is exists just because the writers wanted to have a harpooning occur.

Write what’s fun.  The audience will probably show up.  I mean, they didn’t for The Phantom, but the first audience should be yourself anyway.

Related tangent:  Drax shouts, “Show me the power! Show me the power!” at one point.  This movie released six months before Jerry McGuire.  Did Cameron Crowe steal from The Phantom? No.  I would be hard pressed to be believe Crowe has seen The Phantom.

Repeated Exposition Makes the Audience Turn

Let me say that again, repeated exposition makes the audience turn against the movie…oh.

Go watch The Phantom.  Every time a character explains The Phantom’s story or the Sengh Brotherhood’s background, or just flat out repeats whatever was literally just pointed out, take a drink of whatever you have handy.  You’ll be either water logged or at the end of a bottle within the first act.

If exposition is done over and over the audience keys in that you’re filling pages/running the clock and will turn on the movie.

According to IMDB, The Phantom had a budget of $45 million.  By the end of its run it had brought in$17 million.  That barely pays for Zane’s appearance.  Toss aside the bad acting and the obvious sound stages, the writing of the movie made people feel like they were being treated like children.  Over and over with these bad movies I think it is over explaining that ruins them.

Trust the audience.  They’re pretty smart.

One last lesson:

Write Stories for Your Time

Why didn’t the movie work?  I mean, yeah it is a terribly dumb movie.  Campy without intentionally being funny, the character looks like a knock-off batman, the bad guy is motivated by curiosity more than anything, the henchmen are ludicrous.

I think the movie failed because it is so old.  The character originated in the 30s as a newspaper comic strip.  Story’s from pre-war America did not exactly resonant with the Clinton era.

There’s a reason the Borg did not exist within the original Star Trek universe.  There’s a reason Storm and Wolverine were not part of the original X-Men team.  Stories and characters are born of their own time, they reflect their own time.  The Phantom reflects an era no one in the 90s could understand.

The Phantom is basically a western; the lone hero out saving the day guns blazing.  Taking a look at the big hits of 1996, there were no lone heroes (let alone westerns).  Audiences wanted team work to save the day.  Independence Day, Mission Impossible, Mars Attacks, Star Trek: First Contact (audiences wanted aliens, I think that may have more to do with it), all these movies relied on teams to solve the problem and save the day.  The Phantom sucked because it was far from relevant.

Had The Phantom been updated to discuss issues of the time in an Atom Age throwback film, it could have worked out and maybe would have made back its budget.  It opted to tell a story meant for another time though, and I think that is ultimately what sunk its prospect of commercial and critical success.
So go watch The Phantom and let me know what you learned.
Thanks for reading!


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