Tuesday, June 4, 2024

First Contact: Flash Gordon

What do you mean, "Flash" is his given name?

Turn on the popcorn maker and turn off your brain: random nobody Flash Gordon (yes, that's really his name) is here to fulfill your male power fantasy. Enter a world of nonstop intrigue and adventure, populated by the cheapest monsters in the galaxy—either regular pet shop animals filmed really close to make them look gigantic or extras wearing bargain basement rubber suits. Experience a land of heroic fantasy where men are men and women are plot devices. Watch this all-American hero effortlessly defeat every Orientalist caricature in the book. Get lulled into mindless resignation by the tried-and-true screenwriting trick of being captured, running away, being captured, running away, being captured, rinse and repeat for thirteen frakking episodes. Fun for everyone!

While sitting through the first Flash Gordon serial, originally shown in theaters in 1936, I not only thought very seriously about my life choices; I also felt like I finally understood something key about Star Wars. I was mildly aware that Flash Gordon had been one of the main inspirations for Star Wars, but now I see how strongly the poison of nostalgitis was present in Star Wars since the beginning. Defeat the evil emperor, rescue the princess, avoid the emperor's laughably useless soldiers, have incongruous sword duels in a world of laser guns—it's all there. Pressing the specific buttons in your brain to make you relive your childhood was always part of the Star Wars DNA.

And oh boy was that childhood easy to impress. Maybe I'm too used to fiction that has something to say, a worldview, a stance, a point. I'm not sure what I wanted from Flash Gordon, but in retrospect, I should have been less surprised by its anxious coddling of the male ego. God forbid a female character has goals of her own! No, every speaking role played by a woman must be instantly obsessed with the protagonist, and for his sake she won't hesitate to scheme, manipulate, switch sides, plead for his life and faint. Gosh, so much fainting. Because, you see, our random nobody is actually very hot, and very strong, and very righteous. I knew that the male gaze directed at female characters was reductive, but the male gaze's treatment of men is an Ouroboros of self-fellatio.

Wikipedia tells me that a big part of the success of the Flash Gordon comic strips, starting in 1934, was the quality of the illustrations. That may be so, but Flash Gordon on screen, at least in this earliest version, looks cheap as dirt. My favorite editing trick was the scene where Flash strangled a tiger to death without actually showing us the tiger. (What athletic training does Flash have, you ask? He plays polo. I'm serious.)

I've called Star Wars the empty calories of science fiction; in this analogy, Flash Gordon would be a watermelon bubblegum: barely any flavor at all, more air than substance. Perhaps I would have been captivated by Flash Gordon in the same tender years when I was into Jules Verne. To build your own rocket and jump to space sounded more doable when "scientist" was the only title you needed and you didn't have to wait for a government budget. But Verne understood gravitas. It meant something to shoot yourself to the moon on a homemade capsule. In Flash Gordon the thrill of adrenaline is the whole point, and it's not even all that thrilling.

I'm left wondering how on Earth this became a beloved classic. In Flash Gordon I feel echoes of the most annoying bits of Tarzan and Conan, and in turn, echoes of Flash Gordon resonate in the most annoying bits of James Bond and Indiana Jones. It's yet another link in the long chain of daring hypermasculine men who solve all their problems by punching them, of token female characters who are only there to be lusted after, of exotic cultures that are only there to provide set decoration or loot (and it doesn't escape me how much the latter two items on this list resemble each other).

When bitter curmudgeons lament that science fiction has turned too woke, something like Flash Gordon is their standard for comparison. And I would be tempted to scoop out my own eyes if that were the only form of science fiction available. Our generation is so incredibly lucky.

POSTED BY: Arturo Serrano, multiclass Trekkie/Whovian/Moonie/Miraculer, accumulating experience points for still more obsessions.