So what exactly is Superheroes Volume One? Good question! What it appears to be is the first two DVDs from BCI's The New Adventures Of Flash Gordon releases tossed into a boxed set alongside the first two double sided DVDs of BCI's Defenders Of The Earth collection. Granted, the series are related in a way in that both feature Flash Gordon and both were created by Hearst Entertainment, but it's a rather odd marketing decision on the part of BCI, who have released both series in their entirety on DVD already. Regardless, here's a look at what you get for the bargain price of $12.98...
Created in 1934 by artist Alex Raymond, Flash Gordon was originally a young athletic American man who wound up getting kidnapped and thrust into the middle of an intergalactic war between the various strange inhabitants of the planet Mongo and the evil, tyrannical Ming The Merciless who was bent on enslaving the planet's population. The comic strip was amazing popular throughout the years and was spun off into black and white serial films, comic books, a feature film and the animated series The New Adventures Of Flash Gordon from Hearst Entertainment that aired on NBC in the 1980s.
Series producer Lou Scheimer originally wanted to make Flash Gordon as a TV movie but the money just wasn't there and the feature film rights went to Dino DeLaurentis. As such, Scheimer opted to resurrect Flash through the cheaper and limitless option of animation and thus was born an animated TV movie which was followed by the Filmation animated series partially contained in this collection.
The series follows Flash as he's forced to crash-land his spaceship on Mongo. He soon learns that Ming The Merciless controls the area and that the various races and species that live on the planet aren't exactly happy about that. With the help of his fellow travelers, Dale Arden and Doctor Hanz Zarkov, he joins the fight against Ming and struggles alongside Thun The Lionman (a grouchy half man half lion fighter), King Vultan Of The Hawkmen (a fast moving winged warrior), and Prince Barin Of Arboria (a Robin Hood-esque archer).
The series played out very much like the black and white serial films that inspired it, with many episodes leading into the next to keep the young Saturday morning viewers of the day coming back for more. The series also through in a few other baddies for the good guys to square off against, including some evil Frog-Men, a gaggle of witches, some giant worms and even some dragons, all the while Ming schemes in the background. Ming's daughter, the sultry Aura, was also an interesting foil for the male characters on the show.
While the series is certainly an enjoyable sci-fi adventure, there are times when it repeats animated bits from other episodes too often and feels cheap because of it. The voice work is fun and some of the animation holds up well, but as the series plays out, some of the detail from the earlier episodes disappears and the show feels rushed. There's very little character development here, instead the focus is on action and adventure, and while this does keep things exciting, after a while you start to want to know more about the characters and their various plights, something which the scripts rarely delve into unfortunately. As such, you'll sometimes find yourself scratching your head wondering how the characters went from point A to point B without anything happening in the middle to get them there. Regardless, as mindless entertainment, the series is fun. Keep your expectations in check and remember that this was a series aimed at kids and it's hard not to enjoy the cartoons. They might not be deep and they might not be particularly intelligent, but they are fun.
The Flash Gordon episodes contained in this boxed set are:
Disc One: Planet In Peril / The Monsters Of Mongo / Vultan King Of The Hawkmen / To Save Earth / The Beast Men's Prey / Into The Water World / Adventure In Arboria
Disc Two: The Frozen World / Monster Of The Glacier / Blue Magic / King Flash / Tournament Of Death / Castaways In Tropica / The Desert Hawk
Defenders Of The Earth:
The second Filmation series in this collection, Defenders Of The Earth, is a more interesting show than Flash Gordon. For those who don't remember the series, Defenders Of The Earth was essentially a Justice League type show that saw King Features' characters Flash Gordon, The Phantom (a mysterious jungle warrior who fights evil from his mysterious cave), and Mandrake The Magician (a crime fighting magician) and his bodyguard Lothar teaming up with their teenage kids to battle, you guessed it, Ming The Merciless. You see, this time around Ming isn't nearly as interested in conquering Mongo as he is the planet Earth.
Like the Justice League (or the Super Friends if you prefer), the Defenders Of The Earth usually worked out of a single base of operations, a headquarters that they built inside a giant volcano - somewhere no one would think to look! Here they've built a giant supercomputer nicknamed Dynak X. This computer contains the essence of Dale Arden's brain. See, Dale, Flash's wife, was kidnapped by Ming who wound up killing her while trying to brainwash her. Thankfully, however, she still sort of lives inside this computer, which comes in handy from time to time.
The teenage characters are: Flash's son Rick (a brilliant inventor), the Phantom's daughter Jedda (who shares her father's powers and abilities and who controls a pet panther), Mandrake's adopted son Kshin (who has trained with his father in the mystic arts) and Lothar's son L.J. (a karate expert). Although there is an obligatory 'cute character' in the form of an alien named Zuffy, he isn't as overbearing as, say, the Thundercats' Snarf. The new characters help to bring the classic King Features characters into the modern age and ground the series in a way that kids of the eighties could relate to and while it might sound like a corny idea, the fact of the matter is that the series actually works really well. Whereas Flash Gordon got to be repetitive after a while, the different characters used in this series allowed the writers to branch out from the formulaic scripts a little bit more and create a series that was actually rather unique. The characters all come from different backgrounds and a lot of times the plots play them off of one another nicely and it's interesting to see old fashioned characters brought into modern times where they not only have to deal with Ming but also the various technological weapons and gadgets he's had created to cause problems for our heroes.
Flash is the main hero in the series but again, he isn't developed all that well and we wind up learning more about the teenagers and the other heroes than we do about him. His relationship with his son, Rick, is pretty superficial and given little back story. It doesn't progress as the series continues; it simply stays one dimensional throughout. Mandrake is fairly well written, however, and his witty dialogue and interesting characterization make for a more interesting hero than the shallow Flash. Mandrake's relationship with his son and with his bodyguard flesh him out well and he's one of the more enjoyable aspects of the series. Lothar fares just as well as Mandrake does and while it might seem stereotypical to cast the tough black guy as the white man's bodyguard, he's fleshed out just as well as any of the other heroes here and he's as much a lead character as Mandrake is.
The real favorite of the show, however, has got to be The Phantom. His history is intentionally mysterious and it's interesting to watch as a lot of times, he doesn't really seem to fit in with the other heroes. His methods are different, he's more accustomed to working alone and a lot of times the episodes wouldn't play out any differently if he were completely removed from the storyline. However, there's something neat about the character and he's an interesting hero. When the scripts are smart enough to give him something to do other than throw a random punch at a random bad buy now and then, they really shine. He doesn't get as much character development as he should, but the jungle warrior in the purple suit does star in a couple of stories and when he does, it's fun to learn more about him and the history of 'The Phantom' as a series of heroes rather than any single one person.
Both Flash Gordon and Defenders Of The Earth share the same villain - Ming The Merciless. He's a pretty diabolical cat prone to all manner of super villain clichés. While it might have helped the show to delve into 'what makes Ming so merciless' he remains a fairly superficial bad guy here. He's rivalry with Flash Gordon is well established and obviously stems back to Gordon's time on Mongo, and we know he wants to take over Earth because he's exhausted all of Mongo's resources, but that's about all the background that we get on him. Building up Ming's back story would have been a big boon to the show, but sadly the writers don't quite ever go there. Bonus points to Ming for having a neat robot army and all manner of wacky bad guy tricks up his sleeve, however. Ming also had a few interesting bad guys help him out from time to time, such as a metal octopus named Octon, and a giant snake named Mongor.
The series was done in conjunction with Marvel Comics (who published a fun comic book adaptation of the series under their Star Comics line of periodicals aimed at younger readers... anyone remember Peter Porker, Spider-Ham?) and featured one of the catchiest theme songs of the day. The show's look is very much 'comic book' through and through and it suits the material well. The series holds up quite well, more than two decades after it was originally shown, and animation or superhero buffs should enjoy this material quite a bit. It's also interesting to note that the series is set in the future of 2015. Judging by the world of 2008, we've got a long way to go before we get quite as advanced as the 2015 portrayed in this show!
The Defenders Of The Earth episodes contained in this boxed set are:
Disc Three - Side A: Escape From Mongo / The Creation Of Monitor / A Demon In His Pocket / A House Divided
Disc Three - Side B: The Sleeper Awakes / The Revenge Of Astra / Hall Of Wisdom / The Mind Warriors
Disc Four - Side A:The Mind Warriors II / The Lost Jewels Of Tibet / The Evil Of Doctor Dark / Diamonds Are A Ming's Best Friend
Disc Four - Side B: The Men Of Frost / Battleground / The Panther Peril / Fury Of The Deep
The Flash Gordon episodes are all presented in their original 1.33.1 fullframe aspect ratio and the video quality is... inconsistent. Aside from the fact that the material is interlaced, there's a bit of jitter evident throughout playback. Color reproduction looks very good on some episodes while on others it looks flat and dull. There's minor print damage evident throughout the series but thankfully, it's not too distracting. Edge enhancement is a sporadic problem though detail levels are pretty decent and there aren't any problems with mpeg compression artifacts to complain about.
The Defenders Of The Earth episodes are also presented fullframe, as it should be. The video quality for these episodes is about the same as it is for the Flash Gordon cartoons. Though the edge enhancement isn't quite as problematic, the material is also interlaced here. Color reproduction looks a little brighter and a little more consistent but these are still far from reference quality transfers.
Each and every episode in this set is presented in English language Dolby Digital Mono without any alternate language options or subtitles. As far as the quality of the audio is concerned, overall it's not bad at all. Dialogue is clean and clear and there aren't any problems with hiss or distortion to report. Every once in a while you might notice a faint pop or click on the tracks but they're few and far between and for the most part the audio is pretty good.
Disc One features a commentary track from moderator Andy Mangles, producer Lou Scheimer and assistant animator Daryl McNeil for the episode A Planet In Peril. They talk about the origins of Flash Gordon, and how this animated series came around. The talk about how the series did well when it was first broadcast on NBC and they also discuss how this series contains a very early computerized animation sequence. They discuss the use of models, some of the voice actors, and what it was like working for Filmation at the time this series was created.
Disc Three - Side A features a commentary track on the Escape From Mongo episode from Andy Mangles, supervising producer David Corbitz, producer/director Bill Haughton, story editor Bryce Malek, storyboard artist Michael Swanigan and voice actor Lawrence Lester. They discuss how the team got the rights to the various characters from the rights holders to bring together some of the major characters into one show, nothing that this was a co-venture with Marvel, a first for the famous comic company. They mention the involvement of Stan Lee, talk about the necessity of having a 'cute character' in the show, and what it was like working on the series using cell animation.
Aside from the two commentary tracks, each disc in the set features episode selection or a 'play all' option.
This is kind of a strange collection - it's part of the Flash Gordon set put out by BCI and part of the Defenders Of The Earth sets put out by BCI - but neither series is presented here in its complete form. Seeing as this is titled The Superheroes Volume One we can hope that further volumes will complete the runs of both shows. As it stands right now, if you've got the original releases you don't need to bother with this strange repackaging. That said, if you're a fan of this material and haven't picked it up, this is an affordable way to get started and you really can't argue with the price point. The cartoons hold up well and remain a lot of fun and even if things look a little dated visually, the material contains tons of nostalgic charm for those who grew up in the eighties when these shows were originally on the air. Recommended, despite the caveat.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.