Superman II 2.37: Another World

Everything seemed possible back then. If a movie about fishing could make $260 million and a movie about film-serial space battles could make $307 million — and now they were making a big-budget special-effects movie based on Superman, of all the crazy things — then maybe what people wanted was lighthearted, high-concept blockbusters. All they needed was a big idea, preferably somebody else’s.

“Comics Strip for Next Film Cycle,” Variety reported in 1978, proclaiming that “the next cycle of big budget films will be centered on comic book characters.” Then they rattled off a list of comics with a film in development — Flash Gordon, Popeye, Tarzan, Dick Tracy, Little Orphan Annie, The Phantom. They even mentioned a live-action movie based on Marmaduke the Great Dane, which seemed deeply unwise. It was like last call at Kevin Feige’s place.

The first of these productions to reach the screen was Flash Gordon, which after Star Wars seemed like the most obvious next step. It was a well-known sci-fi adventure strip from the 1930s, which had already been a huge success as a film serial. It had space rockets and pretty girls and exotic creatures that looked like people dressed up in animal suits, plus everybody already knew what it was. It was clearly poised to be the next Star Wars if they could do it right, which they didn’t.

Flash Gordon, released in 1980, is the story of a blond, brave and not very bright football player who falls up a rabbit hole into a dangerous alien world of violent people in glittery gowns who spend a lot of their time criticizing, challenging and trying to hypnotize each other. It’s very noisy. The plot involves Flash making contact with the major powers on the planet — i.e. the bird people and the tree people — and persuading them to join his battle against the planet’s sadistic emperor, who is not officially Chinese.

The only two questions that you ask about a blockbuster movie are how much money did it make and how hot are the people, and for Flash Gordon, the answer is not enough and not enough. It made $27 million in domestic release, in the same year that The Empire Strikes Back made $209 million. Flash Gordon was #23 on the year’s box office chart, below The Blue Lagoon and Popeye and Cheech and Chong’s Next Movie.

Sitting at #24 that year was a re-release of Disney’s Lady and the Tramp, which made a bit over $26 million. That’s how well Flash Gordon didn’t go; it just squeaked past a 25-year-old Disney cartoon.

It’s fashionable these days for people who like science-fiction movies to say that actually Flash Gordon is an underappreciated cult classic. It isn’t. It’s garish and stupid, with terrible dialogue, some shockingly bad acting, inconsistent character motivation and practically no plot construction to speak of.

There are individual scenes that are very enjoyable — you can take your pick, but I like the throne room football game, Flash’s fight with Prince Barin on the spiky floor, and absolutely anything that involves Brian Blessed as Prince Vultan. But trying to enjoy the movie as a whole requires a conscious effort that the American moviegoing public did not choose to make.

One problem is that the lead actor brings precious little to the table, charisma-wise. In the title role, Sam J. Jones is — and I use this term in the clinical sense — a doofus. The best thing that you can say about him is that he’s on screen a lot. He is theoretically handsome and well-muscled without actually being attractive, which is tough to pull off.

The picture above is what Sam Jones’ face looks like while his character is currently in the process of being executed. That’s what he does for the whole scene, just look mildly interested in the procedure. I’ve never acted in my life, and even I know that you’re supposed to pick at least one emotion per scene.

Making a bad situation worse, Jones actually got himself fired from the film during a Christmas break in the production, for reasons that history has not been able to adequately explain. Something about being rowdy and fighting with people, something about asking for more money. Also, he wasn’t very good. But there’s got to be more to it than that; firing the guy playing Flash Gordon from a film called Flash Gordon after principal photography has already wrapped is a level of self-sabotage that even movie producers are usually smart enough to avoid.

So Jones wasn’t around to do post-production on the dialogue, and they hired another actor named Peter Marinker to re-record all of Jones’ lines. This was not effective. I don’t know what Jones sounded like, but Marinker’s overdub is so bad that I can’t imagine what could have been worse. He makes Flash sound like his entire family suffered brain damage, all at the same time.

Melody Anderson has some good moments as female lead Dale Arden, especially in the scenes where they pretend that she’s Princess Leia. On the other hand, there’s also a climactic pillow fight between her and the Emperor’s space vixen daughter, observed by scantily-clad tittering handmaidens, at which point you lose the authority to be in the same sentence with Leia.

The thing that everybody talks about is the set and costume design, just because there’s so much of it. The way I understand it, production designer Danilo Donati ruled the production like a mad king. He didn’t speak English, he refused to read the script, and he didn’t communicate with director Mike Hodges. Stuff would just show up at the studio, and it was up to Hodges to figure out how to fit it together and make a scene out of it.

Donati’s vision was grand and whimsical, and mostly untethered from whatever point the scene is supposed to make. There are random hallways that are incredibly ornate, but any scene that has science equipment or computers in it looks like it was filmed in an empty parking garage. It’s an odd choice for a science-fiction movie, to display basically no interest in machines and just focus on an endless procession of gowns.

The gowns really are quite spectacular if you like looking at surprising things, and I like that more than almost anything. But it gets old pretty quickly, because they don’t connect to anything in particular. For example, the individual above, from the Fifty Shades of Grey production of The Wizard of Oz. What culture would dress themselves this way? How am I supposed to interpret that shot, besides an illustration of what happens when you let an Italian costume designer off the leash and off his meds?

One of the great visual achievements in Star Wars was that they made everything look old and worn out. All of the costumes and props and machines told the same story — that this is a real place, where people have lived for a long time before we happened to come along. But absolutely everything in Flash Gordon looks spotless and brand new, which tells the audience that each element was individually constructed for this specific moment out of pure imagination.

The entire storyline rests on the idea that Mongo has lots of little kingdoms and lands, and Flash needs to unite the different tribes to fight against the emperor. But visually, they don’t create enough separation so that we can tell the difference between them. The most distinctive costumes are on the Hawkmen, who are bodybuilder leather daddy gladiators with big heavy wings, and then there’s Prince Barin’s little green-clad tribe of Merrie Men. Besides that, everyone else could be from anywhere, especially the women, who all wear slinky harem lingerie no matter where they come from.

So the Hawkmen’s domain, Sky City, doesn’t look like a place, where people live. It looks like a set. The silver cinderblock curtains don’t look like they’re something that the Hawkmen would build; it’s a completely different aesthetic.

So I can appreciate the energy and the enthusiasm that went into creating these wacky sets, but they don’t help to tell the story, because apparently Donati didn’t even know what the story was. They’re just a series of elaborately overdressed platforms, with places for actors to stand.

Here’s what I think is the most baffling scene in this baffling film. General Klytus and General Kala are using a big mean laser machine to drain all of Dr. Zarkov’s memories out of his head.

Kala:  Reprogram now?

Klytus:  Yes. But don’t fill it with anything above level three. I doubt if the human mind could take it.

Kala:  I understand. Level three only.

Klytus:  There’s something I have to attend to. Will you be able to manage without me?

Kala:  I’ll try.

Klytus:  Good girl.

Klytus leaves. Before he’s even out of the room, Kala speaks:

Kala:  Begin to reprogram. Continue to level six.

Technician:  Level six?

Kala:  I gave you an order. Program the subject to level six!

As far as I know, there is no further discussion about the difference between level three and level six. Fifteen minutes later, Zarkov tells Dale that he wasn’t even memory-wiped in the first place, because he was thinking about the Beatles. That is what this movie is like.

I think everyone who knows the movie probably has their own little list of things that they like about it, because there’s so much stuff in it that if you like goofy science-fiction at all, it’s bound to stumble into something that appeals to you every once in a while, just by the law of averages. The Queen soundtrack is memorable, especially during the action sequences. There’s beautiful women dressed up like harem slaves, if you’re in the demographic that appreciates that. It never stays in one place for very long, so if you’re watching a bad scene then you just have to wait a minute, and there’ll be something else around the corner. It might be worse, but at least it’ll be different, and sometimes that’s enough to sustain you.

But it turns out there are fundamentals that you can’t ignore, like likeable lead actors and comprehensible story points, and you can’t skate by on interesting visuals and a memorable soundtrack. If I squint a bit, I can almost see what the cult is talking about, but camp is not all-powerful, and sometimes a bad movie with a bunch of good parts can’t add up to a good movie.

So Flash Gordon is part of the answer to the question of why they didn’t make a lot more superhero movies in the 1980s, and the rest of the answer is Popeye, which came out a week later. These were the first movies to come after Star Wars and Superman to test the theory that all you have to do is pick up some promising IP and spend a lot of money on it, and you end up with a chart-topper. After Flash Gordon and Popeye, studios were a little more reluctant to rush into movies about Batman, Dick Tracy and The Phantom. The really big blockbusters of the early 80s — Raiders of the Lost Ark, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, Ghostbusters and Back to the Future — were all informed by previous works of trash culture, but they weren’t direct adaptations of old IP.

The people making Flash Gordon said that they wanted to make the comic strip come to life, and they succeeded. Unfortunately, that meant projecting two-dimensional characters and newspaper-grade plot points onto the big screen, and sometimes you need to work harder than that.

2.38: A List of Things That Our Kryptonian Overlords Don’t Care About

Movie list

— Danny Horn

43 thoughts on “Superman II 2.37: Another World

  1. I never saw this one. As a kid, I remember thinking that it looked really colorful! Some other kids mentioned it had great music by Queen! That sounded appealing. And a guy’s eye got poked out by spikes! I wasn’t one of the gross-out gore-loving kids, so that didn’t sound appealing. Looks like I didn’t miss much!

    Your review make me now think this might be fun to just put up in the background, when I have some boring paperwork or something to grind through. When it doesn’t matter that I’m not paying attention. After all, the cast and crew didn’t, either.

    Looks like at least Flash actually had his red tank top and Space Lacross stick in the film, as promised by the poster. Unlike the Star Wars poster, which oversells Buff Luke, Sultry Leia, and Zillions of Fighters In Formation. Although it does accurately inform you that Darth Vader is on everyone’s mind these days.

    I saw Popeye with family and enjoyed it. We also saw the Phantom movie. I thought that one was a dud. Kinda boring, not worth trying to analyze what was wrong about it. Looking forward to your discussion of those films.

    “even I know that you’re supposed to pick at least one emotion per scene”
    If you flip the book around, you get the version for directors about how to set up shots.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. My heart is officially broken. I’ll go to my grave proclaiming that Flash Gordon is one of the greatest movies ever, I don’t care how bad it objectively might be. I agree with Danny on so much, but never, never on this.

    “He is theoretically handsome and well-muscled without actually being attractive, which is tough to pull off.” Again, I disagree, but maybe that’s because Sam J. Jones helped make me gay. And because I’ve seen his Playgirl spread from a couple years before. As for the execution scene, who’s even looking at his face?

    If you want to learn more about the making of Flash Gordon, why Jones exited the film at the end, and what the cast members (mostly him) went on to do, there’s a 2017 documentary that I only recently learned about called Life after Flash. I will note though, I became less of a fan of Jones after seeing it. But he’ll always live on as he was in my 13-year-old inner child.

    Liked by 5 people

    1. Jones is a reminder as to why I never found the blond surfer type attractive. He’s like Gertrude Stein’s description of Oakland: no there there. He seems to embody the jock stereotype of simply accepting that he’s Teh Bestest, and not trying beyond that.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. See, when I was a boy, I was mostly interested in girls, and always assumed I would end up married to a woman. As in fact I have done, and very happily so. It was a nuisance to me that I was, from time to time, sexually attracted to males. I hoped for a tidy, convenient personal life, and bisexuality reduces the prospect of such an existence to a very low order of probability.

        Worst of all, the males to whom I was most powerfully attracted were not like the witty, adventurous girls who excited me, but were dumb guys with whom it would be an excruciating chore to try to carry on a conversation. Imagine my embarrassment when I tried to watch this movie and was struck by a lightning bolt of lust whenever Sam J Jones was on-screen. I couldn’t even pretend I was the languidly troubled hero of some mid-twentieth century novel about terribly sophisticated people with terribly meaningful sexual desires. Whatever Sam J Jones did or didn’t do to make us believe in the universe of Flash Gordon, he was quite able to demonstrate that I did not live in the universe of Thomas Mann, but was just a horny, horny kid.

        Liked by 5 people

  3. “It’s fashionable these days for people who like science-fiction movies to say that actually Flash Gordon is an underappreciated cult classic.”

    Oh, and I’ll also argue this point. For a “bad” film, it’s had a huge impact on pop culture. Quite a lot of that is no doubt due to the soundtrack (maybe most), but we’ll see plenty of films on Danny’s list that are bad AND added nothing to pop culture and are barely remembered today, if at all. I think it deserves to be called a cult classic. It even inspired a cult-classic porn parody that is also remembered today.

    “Flash, I love you. But we only have 14 hours to save the Earth!”

    Liked by 5 people

    1. Just a quick note, since you brought it up. The cult-classic porn parody that you might be referring came BEFORE the “Flash Gordon” (1980) film – this was “Flesh Gordon” (1974) which certainly had its elements of camp, kitsch, and cult. (Danny, an acronym? CKC?)
      However, Flesh Gordon’s porn sequel WAS “Flesh Gordon and the Cosmic Cheerleaders” (1990), which was of course AFTER the non-porn “Flash Gordon” (1980), so maybe some “Flash” did inspire the “Flesh” sequel.

      Liked by 6 people

    2. And it had to be campy. Because you know what you get if you try to play a movie like this straight? You get the David Lynch version of Dune. And nobody wants that.

      Liked by 3 people

      1. Honestly, I always liked Lynch’s Dune; I saw it in the theater at nine years old with absolutely no idea about the story in any way, which is really the only way to appreciate it. And I do think the sandworm effects hold up.

        Liked by 5 people

      2. @goddessoftransitory: Lynch’s “Dune” does hold up well in some ways, even though it’s a bit of a storytelling train wreck. There are fan edits which fix some of the movie’s issues. There’s the Deluxe Edition, which runs 18 minutes longer and contains some deleted scenes that came out later (much like “Superman”, there are several cuts of the movie floating around which were created for TV, home release, etc.). It also fixes issues with pacing and a few poor choices by the editor (remember, Lynch didn’t produce the final cut). Then there’s the Alternative Edition Redux, which adds 41 minutes to the original movie, but the picture quality is all over the place because of the differing sources for the video. This is the best way to see everything that Lynch filmed, and some of this cut material is very much worth watching.


  4. #elaboratelyoverdressed

    “Flash! Flash! I love you!
    But we only have fourteen hours to save the Earth!”

    I know it’s not enough to make the whole movie worth it, but it’s still one of my favorite camp lines of all time (and not just because it’s in the song).
    And yes, I paid into that $27 million for a seat at the premiere. And bought popcorn, a giant frozen Coke, mini Butterfingers and Twizzlers. Now I think of it, that was probably more than the ticket was.

    Those were the days.

    Liked by 4 people

  5. I should note, under the terms of the Fundamental Accords of Internet Lingo, the name of the actor who plays Prince Vultan must always be written as BRIAN BLESSED–an exclamation point afterwards is considered optional, but recommended.

    Liked by 8 people

    1. That’s because BRIAN BLESSED! was born yelling. Not just the cry of a babe, but the lusty, full throated roar of the conqueror.

      Liked by 6 people

  6. Eesh! I see what you mean about the cheap effects in the futuristic computer-and-machine scenes, though, as contrasted to the elaborate home decor scenes! The illustration of that point looks as if they’ve been miniaturized and are sitting in front of a car dashboard.

    Liked by 2 people

  7. When you mentioned BRIAN BLESSED I realized I had seen this movie on tv. Nothing else is familiar, not even that fabulous mother-of-pearl-masked shaggy dog/Queen’s Guard who is wearing aluminum foil-covered Duplo building blocks down his chest. To be fair, BRIAN does tend to be the most memorable performer in most of the productions he’s in, except perhaps “I, Claudius”, where Derek Jacobi and John Hurt are equally memorable.
    Focusing on an endless procession of gowns is how I got through “The Phantom Menace”, a much larger-budgeted and profitable sci-fi movie. We could discuss Padme’s later romance with a guy she knew when she was a teenager and he was a little kid and why the filmmakers would think that wouldn’t be creepy at all. THAT was an odd choice for a science fiction movie.
    A couple of those screenshots look like behind-the-scenes shots from the set of an MGM musical. “I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise” could be the number they’re rehearsing.
    The costumes and the backdrop in that last shot would not be out of place at a Mardi Grad ball. Those visuals, Queen’s music and larger-than-life actor BRIAN BLESSED sound more entertaining than quite a few of our up-coming movies. By the time we get through the next six titles, I bet this one won’t look so bad.

    Liked by 6 people

      1. Flash Gordon: responsible for more seed and bugle bead shortages than even the most accurate costume dramas! Pity the poor seamstresses.

        Liked by 1 person

  8. I watched the original Flash Gordon on PBS and LOVED it, at least the first season. Years later, I saw this movie version of it, and it was so awful…Even the Queen music was goofy. From what I recall, the one good part was Riff Raff’s character.

    Liked by 3 people

  9. I maintain that if you can find the proper mindset from which to watch a movie, you will be entertained. In the end, isn’t that what we want?

    When I was young, I had a coffee-table book that reprinted the original “Buck Rogers” strips. It had an introduction by Ray Bradbury. Until I read “Dune,” I thought that was real science fiction. And that’s the universe, and the mindset, where “Flash Gordon” makes sense.

    Liked by 4 people

  10. According to an online friend who attended an early showing, Dino DeLaurentis was angry and confused about why people were laughing during his serious movie.
    I’ll see if I can convince him to retell the story.

    Liked by 3 people

  11. So what I’ve learned from this post is to NOT hire an unhinged Italian designer who has careened, most probably in a coke and Asti haze, through the swinging sixties and seventies European movie scene, blitzed on neo-realism and earlier attempts at comic strip films (see Modesty Blaise) that left all and sundry blinking and foundering in their wake.

    As you point out, Danny, Flash Gordon had all the same earmarks that Superman did: it was long running, had already appeared in multiple mediums, and had tons of visuals that would leap off page and screen. It had a seeming advantage, even, in “real” movie people and not Salkind con artists having their hands on the economic tiller.

    But it forgot to have people. That is, characters who have some kind of reason to exist: you get the distinct impression that before Flash showed up all of these various groups were simply standing around all day, leaving only for one of their fifteen daily outfit changes, then standing around some more. It doesn’t seem like Flash and cohorts have to do much to upset the status quo around here, just walk and talk.

    Liked by 2 people

  12. This is perfect: “if you like goofy science-fiction at all, [you’re] bound to stumble into something that appeals to you every once in a while.” Who can say how long the whole movie is, I refuse to believe anyone has ever sat through the whole thing, but yes, a lot of fun stuff.

    Liked by 2 people

  13. I only know the Queen song, and that’s plenty. I enjoy the old serials though. And this post was fun to read!

    That’s all the Flash Gordon I need.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I have the original serials on DVD; like old friends, whenever I watch I go back to the first time I watched with my Dad. Wonderful memories.

      Liked by 3 people

      1. How cool. I only saw the serials for the first time a few months ago, and I enjoyed them. Buster Crabbe was a lot of fun in the role, and as Buck Rogers, too.

        Liked by 3 people

      2. One of the things that made the serial so memorable was Buster Crabbe. He had such a likeable personality, and seemed so enthusiastic – – and of course very athletic. Sam Jones’s Flash just couldn’t compare, though he did give it a good shot.

        Liked by 4 people

  14. I’m actually sorry that I have to disagree with almost everything you’ve said here, Danny, and it’ll probably be the only time I really do. Flash Gordon is big and gaudy and dumb. Most importantly, it’s so, so much fun. It was the first movie I wanted to own, the first movie that got taped off of HBO. I’ve seen it so many times that I can recite the dialogue from beginning to end, and the only other film that comes close in terms of sheer number of views is Blue Velvet. Was I a weird girl? Maybe, but I know what’s ginchy and what isn’t. Flash Gordon is purely glorious, from beginning to end.

    It’s quotable to hell and back, it’s stylish, the costumes are amazing, it’s got Queen being bombastic, it’s a perfect movie. I’ve shown it to many people over the years, and for a long time it was a staple at movie night, and I don’t think I know very many people who will flat out say ‘this movie is awful’ because that requires they ignore the parts where they were having fun. I don’t even think it’s an acquired taste—if you’re looking to have A Really Good Time, it absolutely does the trick. If you want to pick at it and look at all the ways it doesn’t take itself seriously but prefers to be sexy and crazy, you can totally do that too, but it doesn’t stop being sexy or crazy.

    I could go on and on, especially about the influence the Italian designers and crew had on the look and imo the feel of the film, but I’ll stop wasting everyone’s time and simply say that I love it, there are many, many hot dudes to choose from, and Timothy Dalton is the best treeman in the history of treemen.

    Liked by 4 people

  15. I have the original serials on DVD; like old friends, whenever I watch I go back to the first time I watched with my Dad. Wonderful memories.

    Liked by 2 people

  16. Well, I have a soft spot in my heart for this movie as it was my first date with my husband-to-be. We were alternately gaping and gasping with laughter, and all I remember is “Flash! Ah-ha!” Which has had long and frequent use in our family.

    Liked by 2 people

  17. I saw this at the theater when it first came out. In my mind, it is labeled a sad waste of time spent with my best friend who would die in 1982 just several weeks short of her high school graduation.

    Add 40+ years and I find it a little more interesting. It’s eye candy and I’ve wasted a lot more time on much worse movies. Back when Netflix sent out DVDs in the mail, I got it into my head to dive to the lowest-rated horror movies and rent each of them one-by-one. Sanity eventually prevailed but I still lost a stupid amount of time to them without even remembering what I watched. Having said that, at least I did remember Flash Gordan.

    Here’s a worse one I can’t forget.

    My husband and my sister-in-law are both in it as extras/zombies. There is also one character at the start of the movie who shouldn’t have been killed. If the focus had shifted to him, it might have been a funny movie.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. But as a pedant, I must correct you and say that the proper line is “Bring me the bore worms”, intonated as though there were a period after each word. Followed by Ornella Muti’s extremely ott “No! Not the bore worms!”

      Liked by 1 person

  18. Last year I read “How Star Wars Conquered the Universe” which I highly recommend. Part of the early part is about George Lucas’s life. A part of the story is that Lucas was trying to make Flash Gordon. He couldn’t get the rights and so he made up Star Wars instead. So the book looked at Flash Gordon as a space fantasy a la Star Wars. not a follow up to Superman. I wonder if it was both or neither?

    Liked by 1 person

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