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Flash Gordon: The Anti-Modern Hero

Dane MH

Flash Gordon: The Anti-Modern Hero

The vast majority of “heroes” in modern media are subversive takes on the traditional hero archetype. The irreverent and quippy Marvel hero, the reluctant and brooding scoundrel—there are few protagonists who don’t have a slew of unheroic traits.

Even many modern villains are just the traditional hero flipped on his head. Think Homelander: a powerful, handsome, patriotic boy scout who turns out to be an insecure psychopath.

The traditional hero has been deconstructed so many times and in so many ways that he barely exists outside of some vague collection of tropes. The word “antihero” has lost all meaning because of this; antiheroes are just another flavor of the ignoble protagonists that fill mainstream stories today.

However, there was a time when the traditional hero really was the mainstream. No hero exemplifies this archetype in recent cultural memory than Flash Gordon.

The comic hero got his big screen debut in the 1980 movie of the same name, which is now remembered as an energetic, but gaudy and cheesy space opera that served as a predecessor for the more serious and successful Star Wars. However, reviewed in a new light and contrasted with the protagonists of modern film, I argue that there is more to Flash than meets the eye. In a culture that is glorifying victimization and degeneracy more and more, Flash represents a beacon of strength, intelligence, charisma, and above all, vitality: the purest source of a heroic nature.

By no means is Flash Gordon some kind of genius film. It’s not complicated. But its straightforwardness is its key. While it’s easy to deride the movie as corny and shallow, it’s hard to deny its magnetism and charm. It’s an experience that relies on its brazen aesthetics, electric score, and bombastic action to inspire. There’s no room for misinterpreting which side is which, good and bad.

For those who haven’t seen the film, I will very briefly rehash the plot here. Star quarterback Flash Gordon and two other earthlings, female travel agent Dale Arden and mad scientist Hans Zarkov, end up on the planet Mongo, ruled by Emperor Ming the Merciless. Ming rules the princedoms of Mongo with an iron fist, and is set to destroy Earth. Flash ends up inciting an uprising against Ming by inspiring the two rival Princes, Barin and Vultan, to set aside their differences and rebel against Ming. Flash crushes Ming’s military forces in battle, and slays him; in doing so, he saves the Earth, liberates Mongo, and wins the heart of Dale.

Like Flash Gordon’s Sword and Sorcery counterpart, Conan the Barbarian, the story is one of a great man, reminiscent of the Germanic or Greek warrior-hero archetype, vanquishing darkness in a stunning display. Both stories, incidentally, pit their protagonists against a depraved, ambiguously Oriental society, whose characteristics further highlight the nobility of their respective heroes. While Conan has endured as the more popular of the two, due in no small part to the star power of Arnold Schwarzenegger, Flash deserves his share of the limelight.

Flash exemplifies the physical qualities of a hero. He is a handsome, young athlete in the prime of his career. He not only has a great physique, but he is able to keep up in a variety of combat situations with Ming’s troops, and even bests Prince Barin in a deadly duel. Like a Beowulf or Achilles, Flash is automatically one of the most physically capable men in any group he is in.

More subtly, though, Flash also proves to be an intelligent hero. The jock stereotype has too often been presented as being all-brawn, no brains: part of the illogical separation of physical and mental prowess the modern media push. While Flash certainly isn’t an erudite character, he has a remarkable ability to read people and situations while adapting to them accordingly. He is an aspiring pilot and quickly learns how the alien technology of Mongo works, well enough to operate most anything he comes across, including Ming’s gargantuan flagship, Ajax. He is quickly able to ascertain the nature of Ming’s rule, and that the various nobles of Mongo are kept in line through fear and petty disputes rather than any true loyalty to the Emperor.

The greatest heroes of myth and history are not marked just by martial prowess or sharp wits, but by their ability to inspire and lead their fellow man. While the people of Mongo may not be earthlings, Flash still wins their hearts and minds and leads them to victory. His defiant spirit (and aforementioned sharp looks) are enough for Ming’s daughter, Princess Aura, to save him from his execution and spirit him away. He then wins over Prince Barin and Prince Vultan. He earns their respect with his bravery and skill. He shows courage and cunning when forced through their cultural rituals of manhood, and persuades them to abandon their feud with one another to topple the man they really hate: Ming. He turns out not just to be a demagogue, but a capable commander, leading the nascent insurgency to triumphal victory over Ming’s vaunted naval and guard forces, mortally wounding the once unassailable Ming in the process.

All these traits are but manifestations of the quality that really sets Flash apart, both from his enemies and from the protagonists of modern media. That is his vitality. Flash is possessed with a burning spirit of life that is entirely natural. The best men do not have to force themselves to be anything: they simply are. They are guided by a deep intuition, instincts automatically tuned towards nobility and greatness. Flash never makes himself become a hero. He has no fear of death. He just acts—not irrationally, mind you, as he is well aware of his limited chance of success given the dire circumstances he is thrust into.

That’s just it, though. In the face of a hostile, technologically advanced xeno-empire, Flash continuously finds the best way to keep fighting to save his friends and the Earth. He does this not because of some emotional motive or stringent sense of morality, but because he has the soul of a hero and that is simply his nature.

The closest Flash ever comes to falling off the path is when Aura, a temptress, attempts multiple times to seduce him. Ultimately, though, he ends up not just resisting temptation, but actually leveraging it to further his chances of success in his greater quest. This is where the vitalistic quality of Flash separates him even from the values of the trad right. While Flash certainly does not indulge himself in the pleasures she offers, he is certainly turned on by her allure and reciprocates enough that she continues to aid him. The trad morality would have him entirely unfazed by her, practically asexual. A vitalistic spirit intrinsically has great sexual force, and it is a sign of energy and power to have it. It’s a key component of a man, perhaps even greater than violence. Flash is not a limp-dick, nor does he have to struggle to repress his urges: he effortlessly harnesses them into his heroics the way he does everything else.

Flash as an embodiment of the traditional hero shines greater because of the nature of his enemy. Ming the Merciless is a sadistic, decadent ruler with no redeeming qualities. He has no honor, torturing the hapless denizens of Earth with his natural disaster-inducing superweapon. He is not a warrior, relying solely on the power of his terror-weapons and soldiers. He is a slave to his carnal desires. His court is a humiliation ritual for all the minor polities of Mongo in his thrall. His enforcers, chiefly Klytus and Kala, are equally power-hungry and perverse. While the film does make a superficial comparison of them to the Third Reich, they function much more as corrupt Soviet apparatchiks, devoid of any values outside of furthering their personal station and satiating their cruelty. Ming himself is reminiscent of some of the worst Roman and Chinese emperors, in both action and aesthetic sensibilities.

In the morally gray, eternally subversive and deconstructive state of modern media, Flash Gordon is starkly different. Flash is an archetypal hero the Marvel-pilled brain simply cannot comprehend. There are no hot takes to be had about who is morally right—Flash or Ming?—no midwit essay delving into the “complicated morality of Flash Gordon” to be written. There is only vitalistic excellence pitted against pathetic wickedness. And is that not the story of our time?

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