Word came back last week that Thor: Ragnorak director Taika Waititi had joined 20th Century Fox’s plans to reboot Flash Gordon, reportedly as an animated film. Now that Disney owns Fox, this will likely happen. Disney has never met a franchise it didn’t like.
That’s not to say it will work. John Carter anyone? That wasn’t a bad movie, but Disney badly handled and financed it. Too bad, I left the theater with a massive crush on Lynn Collins as Princess Deja. Still, Disney will try anything. Marvel works. Star Wars creates controversy, but it also puts fannies in the theater seats. But for every Star Wars and MCU, the box office is littered with the corpses of failed John Carters and Lone Rangers.
Rebooting Flash Gordon has been fraught with peril since 1980, when Dino de Laurentis gave us an over-the-top Queen video. The flashy one-off movie has since become the definitive Flash Gordon. It may not have made Sam J. Jones’s career, but it certainly boosted those of Brian Blessed and future Bond Timothy Dalton. It didn’t hurt Max von Sydow’s career, either. but von Sydow’s role presents the franchise’s thorniest problem: Ming the Merciless.
Ming was created in the 1930s, at a time when the world feared a rising Japan. He was the quintessential yellow devil, making him a racist caricature. The movie serials cast white actors with taped-slit eyes as Ming. Von Sydow, however, gave the character a larger-than-life persona completely opposite of his Father Merrin performance in The Exorcist. He chews scenery, twirls his Fu Manchu, and comes off more as a Nazi in a kimono. So the 1980 movie overcomes the stereotype.
In the 2000s, Syfy tried rebooting Flash Gordon again in a typically bland production for that network. To overcome the “yellow devil” stereotype, they made Ming into an archetype perfect for the 21st century: The white CEO. Unfortunately, this lily-white corporate overlord came off as an insurance salesman. And the rest of the cast didn’t fare better. They changed Flash from a New York Jets quarterback to a marathon runner. The path to Mongo became a dimensional portal instead of a spaceship. And Mongo, despite suffering a water shortage (engineered by Ming, who apparently also runs Nestle), looks like suburban Vancouver instead of a third-world country. Only Zarkov worked, going from Russian scientist to doughy hacker nerd. (Note to Fox: Keep that idea. It actually worked.)
Flash Gordon could work for the 2020s. It will have been over 40 years since the 1980 movie by the time this thing sees the light of day. But Flash still has to be macho (not necessarily a Neanderthal.) If not a quarterback, why not a pilot or astronaut? Dale is pretty much a blank slate. As long as the actress isn’t bored by the scripts (as in the Syfy series), there’s room to make her the tough, cynical heroine popular today. And Ming?
A friend of mine suggested replacing him with a different villain. The original depiction still bothers him, but I have a suggestion. Ming is Ming, a power-mad tyrant prone to garish costumes and Alan Rickman-style flare. Retire Sydow’s version. Instead, use another now-Disney character who is the archetype of the mad, grinning supervillain. Find a British actor (since aren’t all uber-villains British now?), embue him with megalomania, maybe a touch of Vladimir Putin, and make him over to be his own thing. You can’t really go back without it become pastiche, but you can remake just about anything. Make him Palpatine, who did great evil with a twinkle in his eye and a wag of his gnarled finger. He’s already reinvented the archetype.
Oh, and try to hold onto the “Benevolent Father” bit from the Syfy series. That actually worked pretty well. One of the few things that did.
I don’t know how the new Flash Gordon will work. I think with Waititi on board, we might get something worthy of 1980 yet resonates with the modern world. That’s what the 1980 movie did.
Oh, and do try to get a cameo by Brian Blessed. While he walks the Earth, you can’t have Flash Gordon without him breathing, “Gordon’s alive!”
And dispatch War Rocket Ajax to bring me another cup of coffee. Blogging is thirsty work.