John Carter, the original character, is technically Flash Gordon’s senior by 22 years. Edgar Rice Burroughs gave birth to Carter in 1912, while Flash first arrived in the early ‘30s. Surely Gordon is a derivative of Carter. In fact, from what I’ve been told by more than one sci-fi nerd, most great science fiction -- in writing, in comic books, in moving pictures -- owes ERB immeasurably for the universe he so deftly imagined a planet away in the young years of the 20th Century.
Being a trailblazer doesn’t always age well, however. George Lucas cited both John Carter and Flash Gordon as key influences for his Star Wars mythology. But for my generation and those following, we see John Carter and Flash Gordon up on the movie screen and only see how much the movies have been influenced by Star Wars.
Or, to put it another way, Edgar Rice Burroughs and Lucas are in a saber duel, and Lucas says, “When I left you, I was but the learner. Now I am the master.” To be fair, when Lucas tried recreating the magic with his prequels, the tide had passed him by.
I was only eight when the Flash Gordon movie hit theaters, and it arrived at the perfect time in my town, as my friends and I had honed ourselves on a full year of campy Batman reruns after school on one of the local channels. The movie, like the Batman TV show, perfect Camp Seriousness, that mystical gray area between something so hokey it cannot be taken seriously, and something unhealthily committed to Seriosity. Prince Voltan, the winged viking brute and perhaps the most beloved character in the film, is the Jimmy Fallon of the set, regularly cracking up at the insane hilarity of it all.
Yet. When Flash sticks his hand into the tree trunk in the thrilling game of death with Prince Baron, and when the two of them duel again on the spinning rotating spikey wheel of fortune, those who love the film find ourselves taking those scenes with the utmost intensity. Hokey or not, we really believe life and death is on the line.
Both Flash Gordon and John Carter rely on a suspension of disbelief that is difficult in modern times. We know that Mars cannot sustain life, and certainly not life that looks like Princess Whoseywhatzits. And we know that Topaz cannot possibly fashion a penis-shaped rocket that could possibly take its passengers 15 feet off the surface of the earth, much less into an entirely new dimension or galaxy or wherever the hell Mongo is.
The “tale of the tape” between the films is so terribly misleading.
- Acting: Slight edge, John Carter
- Plot: Teensy edge, Flash Gordon
- Special Effects: Ginormous edge, John Carter
Yet despite being, measure for measure a better film, John Carter will never reach level of cult status of its predecessor, because it can find no campy joy in its pursuit. It expects us to take every moment of what is amusingly and distractingly absurd as sternly serious. Hell, the original trailer for the film played with Peter Gabriel covering Arcade Fire’s “My Body Is A Cage.” That’s not camp, my friends. That’s someone trying to make American Beauty in outer space. With Taylor Kitsch, bless his heart, trying to be Kevin Spacey.
What truly doomed John Carter, making what could have been a modestly enjoyable movie into something tedious, was the film’s nemesis. Instead of Ming, or Darth, or some clear-cut Very Bad Person, John Carter must fight… well, I’m not really sure. Three shape-shifting supernatural demigods whose motives and reasons for trying to puppeteer world domination of the red planet are nebulous, or stupid, or poorly explained. Take your pick.
The #BadGuyProbs don’t stop there, though. Why is one of them just chillin’ out in a cave on earth in the late 1800s? No clue. Why do they pick the biggest tool on Mars (a.k.a. Jimmy McNulty) as their future leader of choice? Because, apparently, he’s a moron and a tool. They behave like emotionally-wrecked versions of the three bad guys from The Matrix, except Agent Smith et al made a lot more sense, at least for a couple of movies.
Meanwhile, reporters live-blog their viewing of Flash Gordon. Flash will save every one of us. He stands for every one of us. John Carter will just save a bunch of Martians.