I really enjoyed the first Flash Gordon serial, so I expected to like the second one too. Unfortunately, Flash Gordon's Trip to Mars was disappointing.
It started out okay. After the adventures from the first serial, Flash, Dale, and Dr. Zarkov have turned into a sort of super team, going out in Zarkov's space ship to defend Earth whenever trouble threatens. They're returning from some mission or other when a ray from Mars strikes Earth and causes a bunch of earthquakes, tidal waves, hurricanes and other natural disasters.
Flash, Dale, and Zarkov get back in their ship and zoom to Mars where they learn that the Martian Queen Azura is siphoning off gas from Earth's atmosphere. She needs the gas to develop weapons for her war against the Martian Clay Men and doesn't care that she's destroying Earth to get it. Flash and the gang quickly learn that Ming is on Mars and is the real mastermind behind the Earth's peril. He's out for revenge after Flash Gordon and is manipulating Azura to get it.
Which is all good, but unlike Flash Gordon, Trip to Mars tends to drag. Maybe the newness has worn off, or maybe the new characters aren't as intriguing as the earlier ones, but I got bored watching Flash race back and forth between Azura's city, the kingdom of the Clay Men, and the spooky forest of the Tree People. The first serial was full of whacked out monsters and man-animal hybrid races, but Trip to Mars sticks with just three and doesn't get enough mileage out of them.
There's some political intrigue as Ming works behind Azura's back to achieve his goals, but Azura's a nasty enough character herself that we never feel bad for her and the intrigue is inconsequential. It doesn't matter which bad guy comes out on top, because Flash is going to have to take down both of them eventually.
Dale's not as interesting a character here as she was in Flash Gordon. Not that she had a lot to do there, but we could see her and Flash starting to fall for each other and that was fun. Here, they're such an old couple that any affection they show for each other is more buddy-like than romantic. For most of Trip to Mars I was convinced that at some point they'd decided to be "just friends" and we'd just never seen the conversation. But then someone (not either one of them, by the way) mentions matter-of-factly that Flash and Dale are in love, so I guess they're still together. They've just lost the spark.
I might be a pig for saying this, but I wonder if there's a connection between the easiness of their relationship and the fact that Dale's quit dying her hair. It may have more to do with trying to get Jean Rogers to look more like the brunette Dale from the comics, but it amuses me to think that she no longer feels the need to go for the bombshell look she sported in the first serial. She also dresses a lot more conservatively this time around. I guess Mars is more modest than Mongo. This might raise an interesting discussion, but when a character is basically nothing more than eye candy, it's too bad when she doesn't even succeed very well at that.
Zarkov, on the other hand, has a lot more to do this time around. In the first serial he pretty much stayed in the lab, but here he's a bona fide partner to Flash and spends as much time throwing punches as he does throwing switches. I'd much rather have seen Dale in that role, but that might be a lot to expect from 1938. Even Happy Hapgood, a goofy reporter who stows away on the adventure (he'd be played by Steve Buscemi if someone decided to remake it), gets in on the action. He's played for laughs, but he's still a bigger part of the story than Dale, who's major contributions are to bomb the Tree People from the air and to be hypnotized into stabbing Flash. Not to dismiss her bombing the Tree People. That was pretty cool actually.
There's some other cool stuff in Trip to Mars. The Clay People generate a lot of pathos, there's a bridge in Azura's city that's made out of hard light, and Azura's soldiers have personal "bat-wings" built into their uniforms that they use as parachutes. The recap of previous episodes at the beginning of each chapter is also cool. They have a Martian soldier standing at a computer screen and turning a knob as comic strip panels scroll by and summarize what's come before. It's a nice homage to the source material.
But then there's the crappy music. It's obviously culled from a lot of different sources (I recognized Bride of Frankenstein, also produced by Universal) that seem to have been mixed into a single track and then looped over and over again. I can't tell that any thought was given to how the music might affect the mood of the scene it accompanies. There's light, ballet music over fight scenes and dramatic, "dangerous" music over simple exposition scenes. It's a mess.
By the end, there was enough cool stuff and enough frustrating stuff that I'm divided about my opinion of it. It didn't turn me off of the serials, but it did make me want to take a break before watching the last one, Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe. I liked it, but it was a disappointment after Flash Gordon, which I loved.