The classic Flash Gordon comic strip was one of the primary inspirations for Star Wars. In fact, as legend has it, George Lucas originally wanted to make a Flash Gordon film, but the rights were too expensive, which forced him to create his own original story. In one of those ironic twists of fate, Star Wars' phenomenal success sparked interest in making a Flash Gordon feature film. As a result, the 1980’s Flash Gordon was born, and was one of the first mainstream, big-budget comic adaptations. Now, 40-years later, how does the film stack up to other classic comic-book films? With a Flash Gordon 4K restoration coming to Blu-ray, now’s a better time than ever to take a look and find out.
One big component in Flash Gordon’s favor compared to other space adventure or superhero movies of the period is the score, which was largely composed and performed by the rock band Queen. This gives the movie a different feel from the old-school classical scores of Star Wars or Superman, which were both created by composer John Williams. The mostly instrumental rock soundtrack might be seen as a precursor to Prince’s songs for Batman, or even the Black Panther soundtrack produced by Kendrick Lamar. And in typical Queen fashion, it’s very difficult to get the main Flash Gordon theme out of your head once you’ve heard it.
If Flash Gordon’s campy sensibility seems familiar to you, it might be because you remember the 1966 Batman series. Both projects tried to capture their comic book/strip source material with an extra layer of humor and over-the-top ridiculousness. They also both share a screenwriter in Lorenzo Semple, Jr., who was almost certainly brought onto write the film’s screenplay thanks to his work on Batman. Fans who are used to the relative straight-facedness of Star Wars, Superman, or modern-day superhero movies might be put off by this campy sense of humor. But once you get on board, it can be a lot of fun, especially since the special effects and visuals are so strong. But, fans who like to see characters like Flash treated with gravity and seriousness will probably be disappointed by the film’s tone. It’s also interesting to note that less than a decade later, Tim Burton’s Batman would be distinguished by trying to get as far as possible from the 60's version of the character.
That said, it’s hard to imagine anyone being disappointed with Flash Gordon’s villain. Played by the great Swedish actor Max von Sydow, Ming the Merciless is Flash’s arch-enemy going all the way back to the original comic strip - if you’re not familiar, basically he’s the planet Mongo’s Darth Vader. Like Gene Hackman’s Lex Luthor or Jack Nicholson’s Joker, this is one of the first examples of a great and acclaimed screen actor stepping into a silly costume to play an over-the-top supervillain. And he’s arguably the best part of the whole movie.
At the end of the day, fans who are accustomed to superhero classics like Batman or Superman might be put off by Flash Gordon’s obviously comedic and campy tone. But for everyone else, the movie’s practical effects and killer Queen score give it a ton of charm and entertainment value. And thanks to its new 4K restoration, it's sure to look better than it ever.