Phantom Histories: The 2004 Film

The 2004 Phantom of the Opera film has a fairly large fanbase, and I think that mostly reflects the fact that Gerard Butler is a sexy man. My opinion is…less enthusiastic.

This film is a result of director Joel Schumacher teaming up with Andrew Lloyd Webber. Schumacher’s career was still recovering from the debacle that was Batman and Robin, and Webber had lost whatever magic he once had. The result is a lot of pretty sets but a story that has very little substance.

Notably, this film is an adaptation of the Broadway musical, not the original novel. Even so, I deem it to be markedly inferior, dropping the ball as a love story and making just enough changes to render the plot of the musical nonsensical.

Gerard Butler

Let’s get this out of the way right now: I don’t have a problem with Gerard Butler. Nothing he’s done as an actor has really blown me away, but I’ve never walked out of a film thinking he stunk it up, either. This movie didn’t suck because of him; he did what he was told to do. The problem is that he was horribly miscast.

The movie did everything possible to emphasize his sex appeal, including turning the Phantom’s legendary disfigurement into the equivalent of a bad sunburn. As I’ve said time and again in these essays, I think making the Phantom sexy ruins some of the story. If the audience isn’t repulsed by the character, then they don’t understand Christine’s plight. If you want Gerard Butler’s sexy body all over your film, you cast him as Raoul, who is supposed to be attractive.

Gerard Butler is also way too young for this role. In the film, Madame Giry explains that she met the Phantom as a child. That would place him at leasy in his 50s or 60s. Butler was 35 in this role, and the makeup crew made him look younger, not older.

Antonio Banderas was in the running for the Phantom, but Webber and Schumacher went in a different direction. Banderas, for the record, is about 10 years older than Butler but has more range to him as an actor (possibly because he’s had more experience). He’s also got sex appeal out the wazoo, but more due to natural charisma than rugged good looks. In other words, he could have done a Phantom who had some sex appeal while also playing somebody who is physically ugly.

Of course, the miscasting doesn’t really matter all that much, because…

The Phantom is a Schmuck

The plot of The Phantom of the Opera doesn’t work if the Phantom doesn’t present any sort of credible threat. While the original story and most of the adaptations present a guy who is a sinister mastermind, the 2004 Phantom never does anything to show that he’s a danger to Christine and Raoul.

Case in point: written into this movie and not appearing in previous adaptations is a swordfight between the Phantom and Raoul in a graveyard. The idea of such a showdown is a decent one, but the execution is dumb beyond belief. In this duel, Raoul bests the Phantom, but Christine begs him to spare the Phantom’s life. Raoul winds up walking away with Christine, leaving the Phantom in the graveyard.

Now, there are two big problems with this scene:

First, it occurs just before the final act, where the Phantom is supposed to be at his most dangerous. Nothing takes the teeth out of a villain more than an early defeat. At a point in the plot where the Phantom is supposed to be unstoppable, we’re left wondering how he got this far. He’s not able to best Raoul in a fight and he hasn’t shown any real cunning. Oh, we’re told that he’s very dangerous, but all we’ve been shown is that the Phantom is a whining, petulant loser.

Second, the movie itself fails to adapt to this added scene. Raoul has the Phantom right there, dead to rights! Why not tie him up, knock him out, or otherwise subdue him? Don’t say it’s because of Christine, because she doesn’t do anything in this film but whine! If this guy is supposed to be such a threat, why are you just leaving him to his machinations? If the freaking protagonists of the film can’t be bothered to care about the villain, why should the audience?

To make matters worse, the very next scene goes back to the plot of the musical, with Raoul trying to figure out a way to trap the Phantom. Hey, I have an idea: why don’t you beat him in a duel and then capture him when he’s at your mercy? Oh, wait…you could have five minutes ago, but that would have required a major change to the plot and nobody felt like rewriting the ending. The whole scene is lazy writing and lazy filmmaking. It also takes the teeth entirely out of the Phantom. But that’s just another example of the fact that…

So Many Parts of this Movie Make No Sense

There are just a bunch of small parts of this film which are baffling, and they all add up to a movie where the creators just didn’t seem to care. We’ve already touched on the discrepancy regarding the Phantom’s age, but here are a handful of other examples:

  • It is suggested that Carlotta sucks at singing, to the point where people plug their ears during her solos. If that’s the case, why is there such resistance to replacing her? If the opera owners want to turn a profit, they should get a lead singer who doesn’t suck.
  • The film also tells us that Christine is some sort of singing prodigy…except that the singing voice Emily Rossum uses in the film is actually a poor fit for the opera, where something more in line with Carlotta’s singing is more appropriate.
  • Madame Giry tells Raoul to “Keep your hand at the level of your eye,” as in the book…except there is no explanation given for why this is. Moreover, Raoul holds his hand upright for about five seconds before dropping it and running through a labyrinth without defending himself. Had the Phantom half a brain, he would have killed Raoul with the Punjab lasso and made off with Christine well before the end of the film.
  • The Phantom was in a freak show when Madame Giry found him and brought him to the opera. So how does a guy with no education whatsoever become the maniacal genius people consider him to be? Then again, maybe this origin explains why Butler’s Phantom is so unsubtle and ineffective in this film…
  • As an extra minor gripe, what the heck is with the molded scowl on the Phantom’s opera mask? Did the costuming department not know what an opera mask looked like, or did they think they were making another Batman movie for Schumacher?

Overall, it seemed like Schumacher had one vision but Webber had another, and neither of them conveyed their vision effectively. The result is an incoherent mess that just completely misses the point behind Leroux’s classic.

Although the 2004 version of The Phantom of the Opera has plenty of fans, it is my personal least favorite adaptation of the film. Even the fairly bad Robert Englund film had a sense of vision and coherence about it. About the only good thing you can say about this movie is that it’s at least better than Webber’s misguided sequel Love Never Dies…and that is the very definition of damning with faint praise.

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