Pop Culture

The Shared Superhero Universe No One Is Talking About

The Shared Superhero Universe No One Is Talking About
Screencap from Defenders of the Earth
Once upon a time, what every studio wanted was a Lord of the Rings. More accurately, they wanted a Harry Potter they could squeeze eight surefire hits out of. That’s not the case anymore. Now, it’s all about shared cinematic universes. Marvel is the undisputed king, of course, with Disney slowly turning Star Wars into the next one. Warner Bros keeps trying to make the DC Cinematic Universe happen with mixed results. Contrary to popular belief the 2016 Ghostbusters wasn’t really a flop, but it was a failed attempt for Sony create a new Marvel-esque mega property. Universal is desperately attempting to make the Dark Universe happen… which is doubly sad because there’s already a highly successful horror shared universe series based around Insidious and they’d be better off looking at that than trying to make Dracula a superhero.

What baffles me is that there is actually a superhero shared universe just sitting around not being utilized by all these desperate studios. Where in the name of all spandex is Flash Gordon?

In case you’re just familiar with the 1980 cult film, Flash Gordon was also a popular comic strip series that began publication in the 1930s. Created to compete with Buck Rogers, it was the story of an Earth sports star and his friends who ended up having interplanetary adventures. The original strip was highly influential. It’s possible that without the innovative art of strip creator Alex Raymond we never would have had Superman or Batman.

The strip has never really gone away, and adaptations of it have been made as recently as a Sci-Fi Channel live action series that started in 2007 starring Eric Johnson that was quickly cancelled. Reportedly, 20th Century Fox is looking to reboot with a film directed by Matthew Vaughn, though it’s been a while since we heard anything.

Most people think of Flash Gordon as this semi-competitor to Star Wars that just didn’t have the legs to compete with the original trilogy, but when I think of Flash Gordon I think of the Defenders of the Earth cartoon from when I was a kid. It was literally the Avengers 30 years early.

Defenders of the Earth is exactly where I hope Fox might be going with their reboot, albeit with a less-copyright infringement-y name. The series paired Flash with two other contemporary pulp heroes, The Phantom and Mandrake the Magician. Admittedly, it wasn’t a terribly good cartoon, but the idea was solid. Three very different superheroes come together to fight threats bigger than all of them.

It’s a ready-made universe just waiting for the next collection of bright young directors to take on. Here are some basic ideas.

*Flash Gordon – Start with your most popular hero and introduce his supporting cast with Dale Arden and Dr. Hans Zarkov. Bring back the Red Sword fascist group Gordon and co. fought in the 1940s, and give them space technology that is eventually revealed to be supplied by Ming, who is set up as the series Big Bad. Post-credit scene, Zarkov traces advanced counter weapons back to Skull Cave, home of…

*The Phantom – Make the latest incarnation of the Ghost Who Walks literally anything other than a white dude. Update the hereditary hero’s abilities to include technology smuggled from Mongo by people who fled to Earth in order to escape the Ming dynasty rule and they serve as the Iron Man of the group. The enemies can the Sky Band, the all-female sky pirate group that was a recurring villain in the comics. Have The Phantom also guarding a MacGuffin Ming needs to secure his rule, with Zarkov giving the Avengers imitative speech near the end. Post credit cuts to an afro-futuristic city and two men questioning a woman over her attempt to hack a computer system called Octon. They are…

*Lothar and Mandrake – Lothar is the incredibly strong and brilliant king of a loose confederacy of African nations. His best friend is Mandrake the Magician, a sorcerer and hypnotist who met Lothar while trying to thwart the terrorist known as Cobra and Mandrake’s former friend and colleague Aleena the Enchantress. The two villains are after the Crystal Cubes, more Mongo technology that grants superpowers and has been in the hands of Lothar’s people for generations. The invasion by Ming has prompted the powerful artificial intelligence used by Lothar to govern to become corrupted and threaten the world if not stopped. The two heroes use science and magic to fight the haywire AI, along with a reluctant Aleena as the anti-hero. Post-credit scene has Ming declaring his intent to fully-invade Earth, with Gordon and The Phantom watching from their respective headquarters.

*Defenders of the Earth – Your two-part epic. It begins with a battle on Earth between the Defenders and the combined forces of Mongo and various villains. Gordon allies from other planets such as the Hawk Men and the Lion Men come to help. Possibly another classic pulp hero such as The Shadow, Doc Savage or Mr. Moto joins the team. The second film involves the counterattack on Mongo itself versus Ming, with some sort of spin-off between the two to tide people over.

There’s enough rich history between the three main serials for at least two films per property as well as the crossover. Since the turn of the century there have been numerous proposals to resurrect virtually every property I mentioned. I expect individually for any that actually get off the ground to go the way of John Carter. It would be nice if instead we combined all these relatively low-powered and more human heroes into a new superhero universe that is neither the overblown Marvel one or the grim-dark nightmare that is the DC one. Something more pure and pulp, like Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow. Wouldn’t that be more fun than the Dark Universe?
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Jef Rouner is a contributing writer who covers politics, pop culture, social justice, video games, and online behavior. He is often a professional annoyance to the ignorant and hurtful.
Contact: Jef Rouner