Before Capes Were Cool #10: Flash Gordon (1980)

One of the big problems of bringing superheroes to the screen has always been, “How do you keep the audience from just laughing at the inherent absurdity material?” Last time, we talked about how the 1966 Batman TV show and movie decided to beat the audience to the punch and make fun of itself. And it worked pretty well, becoming a mainstream hit still fondly remembered today. So it’s not a surprise that, for decades after the series ended, TV and movies kept going back to the “campy1 superheroes” well because it’s dependable and low-risk; to producers, it’s “The Thing We Know Worked At Least Once Before.” If nothing else, you can just call it “pop art” and punt to the critics.

That’s certainly how Flash Gordon2 seems to have begun its life: an irreverent, postmodern reframing of a vintage pop culture icon.3 Producer Dino De Laurentiis initially wanted Fellini to direct, then Nicholas Roeg. In the end, Mike Hodges directed, and Batman screenwriter Lorenzo Semple, Jr., was called upon to write it. Seems pretty straightforward, right? Just take what Semple did for Batman and do it in space!

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But if you’ve seen Flash Gordon, you know that’s not exactly it. Flash Gordon is less explicitly playful with the source material. It lacks some of the ironic distancing of Batman; there are fewer “gags.” As a result, some audiences don’t quite know what to make of the movie the way they do with Batman. Is it trying to be a “good movie”? Is it ironic? It’s a movie of contradictions, and this is not entirely an artistic choice. In a Starlog interview, screenwriter Semple talks about confusion in tone:

Dino wanted to make Flash Gordon humorous. At the time, I thought that was a possible way to go, but, in hindsight, I realize it was a terrible mistake. We kept fiddling around with the script, trying to decide whether to be funny or realistic. […] Dino had a vision of a comic-strip character treated in a comic style. That was silly, because Flash Gordon was never intended to be funny.4

Yet, for me (and I suspect many other viewers), it is the abrupt shifts in tone and focus that make the movie so endearing. Who didn’t feel a strangely satisfying whiplash when your understanding of the outwardly cartoonish Hans Zarkov is challenged by his memories of an apparently deceased wife and Nazi Germany? Batman is very focused on being what it is, the result of the producer, writer, actors, director, and designers all working from the same page; Flash Gordon is wilder and woolier. There is a messy exhilaration to the film that you don’t quite get from the carefully stage-managed irony of Batman.

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Part of this thrill, it has to be said, comes from the strong sexual elements running throughout the film. Batman has kinky undertones (skintight costumes, frequent bondage elements) and subtext aplenty that you can choose to engage with or not, but on its surface, it’s fairly chaste. Even Bruce Wayne’s hilariously desperate horndogging over Miss Kitka in the movie is buttoned up. But Flash Gordon has muscles and oil and Ming’s harem and Princess Aura and Prince Barin’s violent, angry passion. Where Batman is wink-wink, nudge-nudge, Flash Gordon is sweatier, more primal.

But we can’t just talk about Flash Gordon as being in the same spiritual company as Batman. We also have to talk about the other pop culture elephant in the room, and that’s Star Wars,5 which forms a sort of counterpoint to this film. George Lucas famously wanted to make a Flash Gordon movie but couldn’t get the rights from De Laurentiis and evidently couldn’t sell him on his vision, so he made his own space opera—with blackjack and hookers! And Star Wars came out first!

In theory, they are the same movie: a modern, big-budget remounting of old 1940s sci-fi serials and comics. But of course, they execute this idea in very different ways. In some ways, it might seem like savvy branding that Flash Gordon is so different from Star Wars because it makes it a distinct entity. Star Wars may have given Dino De Laurentiis the kick in the butt to finally get Flash Gordon made, but you couldn’t really accuse Flash Gordon of being a ripoff of Star Wars in a meaningful way.

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Star Wars is a gritty update of its source material; everything’s dirty and run-down, the famous “used universe” aesthetic. The iconic “hero” spaceship, the Millennium Falcon, is immediately dismissed as a shitty rustbucket by two out of three of its main protagonists. Flash Gordon, by contrast, goes directly to the source and translates its sleek, riveted rocketships from the comic strips directly to the page. Star Wars doesn’t care much that spaceships wouldn’t make sounds or go up in fiery explosions or need to bank in the vacuum of airless space, but it still presents space essentially as science understands it; you get the sense that if Luke went out the airlock, he’d float and run out of oxygen and freeze and die. Flash Gordon makes no attempt to arrange Mongo into any kind of remotely logical or realistic planetary system; it appears to be a world with moons suspended within its breathable atmosphere of churning red clouds, and Flash is able to zip from moon to moon to Mongo unaided on his rocket cycle. Basically, Star Wars wants you to essentially believe its special effects and its world in a way that Flash Gordon doesn’t really care about.

But it’s not just a matter of visual aesthetics. The storytelling is very different, despite coming from the same sort of source. Star Wars was celebrated for its old-fashioned gee-whiz swashbuckling aesthetics, but compared to Flash Gordon, it looks downright understated and formal. There is no sober Obi-Wan mentor figure in Flash Gordon; its elders are quasi-mad scientist Topol and full-on madman Brian Blessed. Max Von Sydow’s Ming the Merciless fairly revels in the deliciousness of his evil, which calls into focus the ruthless, straightforward efficiency of Darth Vader. All the Star Warriors are played in a very down-to-earth way,6 whereas Flash and Dale are big and flat. What it really comes down to is that Star Wars is telling an ultimately inward-looking spiritual story, whereas Flash Gordon is telling a story about the innate greatness of humanity expressing itself amongst the stars: “That must be one hell of a planet you men come from!” It’s the difference between scoring your movie with classical-style orchestration versus having Queen sing the name of your main character.


NEXT WEEK: Well, speaking of “visionary filmmaker wants to adapt a superhero but can’t get the rights so he goes off and does his own thing,” I was going to do Sam Raimi’s 1990 Darkman next week—only to find that the AV Club’s Age of Heroes feature is doing the same damn thing. So I’m going to grumble and shelve my thoughts till I see what’s going on over there, and instead we’ll look at the sad case of Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, a movie with a very good heart that frequently manages to peek through through its crumbling body.