I Forgot How Real Phantom 2040 Was . . . And Still Is
A fun personal fact about me; despite the DC/Metro area being where I had lived the longest between the ages of 7 and 15, I actually went to high school in the city of my birth, Montreal, Canada. Why is this important? Because during this time in the mid 1990’s, there was still a great deal of television programming in the United States that simply was not available to us fair folk in the Great White North. This primarily entailed making the request of my parents, who were still stateside, to videotape these shows, so that I could watch the episodes upon visiting. The shows were almost exclusively animated programs, and one that truly caught my attention was Phantom 2040. The main hook of this series of course, was its titular hero, adorned in a solid purple onesie, The Phantom. And even with the name of the series suggesting as such, it had not immediately occurred to me just how long this character had existed.
For those who came in late, The Phantom was created by cartoonist Lee Falk in 1936. That’s right kids, this was a costumed crime fighter who predated both Batman and Superman. In the jungles of the fictional Bengalla, Africa, the Phantom is the country’s protector against piracy and injustice in whatever form it may take. Having seemingly lived for almost 500 years, the people of Bengalla dubbed him “The Ghost Who Walks”, believing him to be immortal. In reality, The Phantom is Kit Walker, the descendant of a young boy who was with his father on a freight ship when it was attacked by a group of pirates in the 1500s. While the boy’s father was killed, he survived, having been thrown off the ship while at sea, and eventually washing up on the shores of Bengalla. There, he was nursed back to health and raised by the indigenous tribespeople of the nation. Trained over the next few years, he ultimately swore an oath on the skull of his father’s killer, to fight evil, and vowed that his sons and their sons would follow in his footsteps.
Though the majority of the character’s adventures in comics, movie serials, and a full-length feature starring Billy Zane in 1996, followed the exploits of the 21st Phantom, Phantom 2040 centered on young college student Kit Walker, Jr., who reluctantly takes on the mantle as the 24th Phantom in the city-state of Metropia, after discovering an expansive underground wildlife preserve known as the Ghost Jungle. Ironically, this jungle grew as a direct result of a toxic waste spill in a subway station in Metropia 16 years prior, during which Kit’s father disappeared. Together with his father’s former partner Guran, his great aunt Heloise, and a collection of other allies, The Phantom must fight to stop mega-corporation Maximum Inc. from hatching a plan to eliminate a majority of the Earth’s population, with the exception of only its most affluent citizens.
I could certainly write an entire article about Phantom 2040 with regards to its overall aesthetic, due in part to Aeon Flex creator Peter Chung, who did character models for the series. I could even write about its star-studded cast, which included Margot Kidder, Mark Hamill, Leah Remini, Ron Perlman, and even guest appearances from Blondie frontwoman Deborah Harry. Instead, I wanted to focus primarily on the series’ place in animated media as a criminally underrated piece of late-era cyberpunk fiction.
As a sub-genre of science fiction, cyberpunk has always explored the idea of “high tech/low life”, as advancements in technology only contribute to creating greater disparities between classes of people, while having a measurably negative effect on the planet’s ecosystem. For those who can afford it, virtual reality can provide a refuge from a brutal and unforgiving world. Cybernetic body modification can be as much a prison as it can be a gift. Characters within these stories are often forced to ask questions about their own reality and humanity, ultimately realizing that there are no concrete answers to be found. Is the real world even worth fighting for? Is it better to live in a simulation? Are we only destined to only fall on one of two extreme ends of a socio-economic spectrum, and nowhere in between? Why is there so much goddamn neon everywhere?!?
Although, I suppose it is important to highlight how Phantom 2040’s visual language set it apart from some of the familiar aesthetic tropes we often associate with the cyberpunk genre, while still reinforcing its core themes. As some have criticized in the past, cyberpunk fiction has had a tendency to lean heavily on Asian iconography. This was initially inspired by a fear of eastern industrialization overtaking the western world, but has casually morphed into outright fetishism over time. No doubt the rise in popularity of Japanese anime in the west between the 1980s and 1990s, namely the accessibility of films like Akira and Ghost in the Shell, proved to be a contributing factor.
The fact that none of this is present in Phantom 2040 is obviously a welcome change, as it takes more inspiration from European graphic novel artists like Moebius, as well as Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. Buildings, vehicles, and other technology feature more fluidity and curvature to their designs, while harkening back to the post-war era of the 1940s, imbuing Phantom 2040 with a retro-futuristic edge which served to convey all the necessary tenets of cyberpunk, but do so by far more visually imaginative means.
To this end, Phantom 2040 posits a bleak future where there is an ever-widening gap between the wealthy and the less fortunate, as areas of the world have been consolidated into massive city-states, run by the few “mega-corporations” that survived the “Resource Wars”; a time when these mega-corporations engaged in armed combat, explicitly to control the few remaining natural resources on the planet. There was no political subterfuge to mask this conflict’s intent, just a naked, unapologetic desire to gain control of whatever was left on planet Earth, that could be hoarded and commodified by and for the top 1%.
At the center of all of this is Maximum Inc., and let me preface this with a statement I am sure will have fandom shooting looks at me like Victorian daggers . . . I put Margot Kidder voicing Maximum CEO Rebecca Madison above her playing Lois Lane in the Christopher Reeve Superman films. I will dig my own grave to die on this hill. Her performance throughout the series was a masterclass in scenery chewing, and an element of Phantom 2040 that perfectly accentuated the core villainy of the character. As conniving as she is delusional, Rebecca Madison is a brilliant distillation of corporate avarice. She has a rationalization and justification for everything she’s doing, and even at her most cartoonish, it’s not hard to see her as a natural evolution of today’s corporate landscape.
A prime example of this can be seen in the entirety of Maximum’s labor force being robots known as “biots”. They work in the factories, serve as private security, provide administrative and medical support, and given their lack of agency, are often treated as disposable, with damage occasionally inflicted upon them for no discernable reason other than shits and giggles. Compare that to going into your local CVS or grocery store, where self-checkout kiosks are ubiquitous, and eliminate the need for pesky human cashiers that companies would have to pay. To say nothing of scooter and bikeshare programs in major cities, where said scooters and bikes are often discarded haphazardly after use. Citizens of Metropia even have personal analytical programs to share information with them and control their homes, with simple vocal commands. Okay Google, stop me if this is getting too real!
Phantom 2040 recognizes this apathy with the introduction of Heisenberg, a shapeshifting “fractal biot”, comparable to the T-1000 from Terminator 2: Judgement Day, and not to be confused with the alter ego of Breaking Bad’s Walter White. Designed by Rebecca’s son, Maxwell Madison, Jr., the character was initially presented to be an enemy of the Phantom, only to be damaged during their first confrontation, and left with no memory of his creation or purpose. Befriended by a homeless saxophone player named Betty, Heisenberg eventually develops his own sense of identity, and while becoming an ally to the Phantom, embarks on his own personal quest to help all biots in Metropia gain their own autonomy.
While most of us look at any instance of news with regards to advances in artificial intelligence with an air of apocalyptic dread, it is refreshing to look back at the care and detail put into Heisenberg’s story and overall character arc in Phantom 2040. The exploration of this character was rich and multifaceted, acknowledging ideas touched upon in science fiction, going as far back as the 1950s; what if a machine became sentient? What would it do with its newfound autonomy? How should society view such an entity?
Throughout Phantom 2040s two-season run, there is an explicit attempt made to delve deeper into ideas of identity, self-awareness, and purpose through the ever blurring lines between humanity and technology. Pervasive ideas involving the integration of human consciousness and technology made for fertile ground to tell a variety of stories across Phantom 2040’s 35 episodes. In the episode “Three Into One”, the minds of three separate individuals are linked into a collective consciousness, granting them unpredictable powers. In “The Gauntlet”, The Phantom’s youngest alley, Sparks, discovers the truth about the parents he grew up believing had abandoned him; when he was still a toddler, they were taken by Maximum Inc. and experimented on to see of their combined consciousness could be integrated into the security system for an advanced compound known as Cyberville. In both instances, individuals involved are terminated, not only for fear of what danger they could potentially cause, but at least in the case of The Gauntlet, to end their suffering. This was an emotionally devastating moment in the series for its youngest character, one for whom such a burden as losing his parents twice, the latter time by his own hands, he should not have had to endure.
Even Phantom 2040’s requisite shock-jock, Dr. Jak is revealed to have a disturbingly tragic backstory. He began the series as a representative of everything many in the genre of science fiction, and specifically cyberpunk, feared would become of corporate news media. Dr. Jak is loud, egotistical, and frequently omits important details from stories to better a serve a corporate-sponsored narrative. The character ultimately sees his own evolution, as he is revealed to have once been an overly-principled and legitimate journalist. When the toxic waste spill that created the Phantom’s Ghost Jungle claimed the life of his wife, whom he would eventually model his biot assistant after, he opted to have an underground procedure that would cybernetically bond him with an artificial intelligence probe that would search for information about who was responsible for the incident. Unfortunately, the police force in Metropia known as the Enforcers interrupted the procedure, leaving Jak mentally, morally, and emotionally unbalanced.
Of course Dr. Jak is positively level-headed when compared to Maxwell Madison Sr. The former CEO of Maximum Inc., Maxwell was killed in that same toxic waste spill that killed Jak’s wife, and created the Ghost Jungle. His brain waves kept alive by Rebecca, he is essentially a ghost in the machine, a disembodied spectre constantly trying to make sense of its new existence. This often makes communication with him immensely challenging, as he only speaks in ominous wails, rarely giving straight answers to the questions asked of him. Occasional responses to queries may even include movie quotes or show tune lyrics.
Again, Phantom 2040 is asking a hard question about what it means to exist, to live. Is this truly Maxwell Madison, Sr., or merely a facsimile that we needn’t regard as a sentient being. If we believe the former to be true, are we now plagued with the implications and realities of his existence as human consciousness within a computer? Even as Rebecca makes a number of attempts to transfer her husband’s “brain” into a physical body throughout the series, she is clearly content with acknowledging him as if he is still a human being, but still blissfully unaware of the living hell her husband may potentially be going through. Of all the selfish acts Rebecca commits to achieve her goals, this may honestly be the most egregious.
In addition to exploring such deeply philosophical ideas, Phantom 2040 also made ample time to explore the political and ethical implications of corporate dominance in all walks of life. The police are easily corruptible. Pop singers are essentially held hostage by the cybernetic enhancements gifted to them by mega-corporations, and forced to include subliminal messages in their performances. College athletes granted scholarships by those same mega-corporations are injected with experimental nanotechnology to increase their performance output. Even orbital space colonies are forced to rely on corporate support.
A leader of the Free Orbital Nations, Sean One serves as a secondary recurring villain on Phantom 2040, and it’s important to acknowledge the levels of complexity present in this character. Although he cannot be entirely likened to the space exploration endeavors of billionaires like Jeff Bezos or Elon Musk, often expressing his disdain for mega-corporations, Sean One’s messiah complex is still blisteringly apparent. As the first human being born in space, he feels no connection to Earth, believing it devoid of any substantial value to humanity. Sean One represents the kind of dichotomy we see on social media on a daily basis. He is the outraged millennial shouting into the void with regards to what those in power have done to society and our planet, contrasted with a crippling ambivalence and belief that planet Earth is a lost cause. Of course, Sean One is the type to weaponize an orbital platform to use against Earth, and clone the hands of potential voters for the Free Orbital Nations’ independence, to achieve his goals. In reality, most of us are honestly just content to sit on a mountaintop formed out the proverbial moral high ground, and watch as Rome burns.
I certainly couldn’t be entirely critical of anyone who chooses to write off Phantom 2040 as merely innocuous fare, to be forever lost in the endless sea of syndicated animated programming that proliferated the first half of the 1990s. It was only recently that I was able to rewatch the series, as it had been made available via Comics Kindom’s YouTube Channel, and watching it as an . . . “elder millennial” (UGH!), I found myself mildly upset and unnerved. 2040 will be here before you know it, and there is already more than enough happening in our world to glean where we’re headed. Politicians are making it clearer and clearer who they want to prioritize as their constituency, moving forward. Social media continues to succeed only in dividing us into weaker factions and keeping us blissfully ill-equipped against a larger more powerful enemy. Corporations are inching that much closer to privatizing free will itself. Though in no way unique, it is incredible to look back specifically on Phantom 2040, an animated series developed for children in North America, and see it raise so many important questions that we would unfortunately still be asking to this very day.
P.S., The SyFy Channel live-action miniseries from 2009 is hot garbage that you should avoid at all costs.