The movie "Scream 2" contains a hilarious scene where a film class discusses film sequels that can be considered better than the original, one student tries to make a case for "House 2: the Second Story". A lot of serial fans who could make a very strong case for "Flash Gordon's Trip to Mars".
As the serial opens Flash (Larry "Buster" Crabbe), Dale (Jean Rogers, now a brunette), and Dr. Zarkov (Frank Shannon) return to Earth in one of Ming's rocket ships. After landing, they are hailed as heroes for saving the Earth from destruction.
While they are enjoying their celebrity, a strange beam hits the Earth. The beam starts drawing nitrogen from the atmosphere, which sets off a series of chain reactions that threaten to destroy the planet. Most of Earth's scientists speculate about natural explainations for the atmospheric problems, like volcanic activity or reverse polarity of the Earth's poles.
Zarkov discovers the real solution and believes the beam is coming from Mongo. He, Flash, and Dale decide to fly there and stop the beam. After taking off from a secluded area, Flash discovers that enterprising reporter Happy Hapgood (Donald Kerr) has managed to track them down and stow away aboard the rocket ship. They are left with no choice, but to bring him along.
Once in space, Zarkoff realizes he has made a mistake. The beam isn't coming from Mongo. It's coming from Mars. Changing direction, they head for the red planet. After entering the planet's atmosphere they are struck by the beam they had come to destroy. It disables their ship and they drop into a crash dive.
Zarkov manages to level out the ship. He is barely able to land the ship before the engine conks out. Looking the ship over, Zarkov says it will never fly again. While everyone is surveying the desolate area they are stranded in, Flash spots a Martian stratosled landing nearby.
He has everyone hide among the rocks, then creeps up to the Martian craft. While a troop of Martians are examining the wrecked ship, Flash overpowers the one guarding the stratosled. Boarding it, Flash captures the pilot and Azura, Queen of Mars (Beatrice Roberts). Azura proves to be a forminable opponent. She touches a large jewel around her neck and disappears in a puff of smoke.
Flash is startled, but quickly recovers. He forces the pilot, at gun point, to take off. As the stratosled is lifting off, Flash gets an even bigger surprise. He spots Ming the Merciless (Charles Middleton), who Flash thought had burned to death on Mongo, among the Martians left behind. Flash has the pilot pick up Dale, Zarkov, and Happy, then head for the palace city to destroy the beam.
The pilot bails out and uses his scalloped cape to glide through the air. Zarkoff easily learns to work the stratosled's controls. Flash finds a powerful looking Martian rifle. He decides to use it to destroy the beam. Before he can get off a shot, more stratosleds engage them in a furious dogfight and shoot them down.
The heroes land in a craggy area. They are chased by the Martian guards into a canyon. Flash uses his stolen gun to start an avalanche, blocking off the canyon's entrance. Momentarily safe, Flash and the gang seek shelter in a cave.
Dale screams, which alerts everyone to the eerie sight of several misshapen men emerging from the solid rock walls. These strange Martians chase the heroes through the tunnels of the cave. Happy whips out a revolver and hits one of the Martians, dead center. Happy gets laughed at by their pursuer, who shrugs off the bullet.
The heroes are chased into a dead end. Stalagmites and stalagtites merge to form a barred door. Trapped, they watch in horror as the jagged ceiling starts to decend toward them. Flash uses the remaining power in his Martian weapon to blast a hole in one of the walls.
Scrambling to safety they run into the Martian guards, who had found another entrance to the caves. Everyone engages into a furious fight. Flash, Zarkov, and Happy handily trounce their opponents. The cave suddenly fills with gas, putting everyone to sleep.
Flash and his companions wake up, and find themselves dressed in the outfits of the Martian guards, except Dale, who is in a trendy Martian gown. They are taken before a Martian who introduces himself as the King of the Clay People (C. Montague Shaw). He tells the Earth people about how he and his subjects were once normal, but were transformed into clay by the magic of Queen Azura. Since then, she has relentlessly waged war on them. Now that she has aligned herself with Ming the Merciless, the King fears she may wipe his people out.
He had thought that Flash and the others were also aligned with Azura, but after seeing them fight Azura's guards, he now believes they might become allies to the Clay People. Flash explains that he is on Mars to destroy the beam that ravaging Earth, and agrees to an alliance.
The King tells Flash that the Clay People can't leave the caves, sunlight is deadly to them. The reason they dressed Flash in the Martian garb is so that he can sneak into the palace city, capture Azura, and bring her back to the caves, where she can be forced to use her magic to return the Clay People to normal.
Flash, having seen her magic first hand, asks how he can deal with that. The King tells him that her power resides in her jewel, without it she is helpless. Flash and the gang agree to go but the King insists that Dale remain behind, not that he doesn't trust Flash, but he wants to make sure the Earth people don't suddenly decide to switch sides on him. Having no choice, Flash reluctantly agrees. Leaving Happy to look after Dale, Flash and Zarkov try to formulate a plan to capture Azura.
Their plan is deceptively simple. Flash, wearing the helmet and goggles of a guardsman, flies a stratosled to the palace city, where he presents Zarkov as a prisoner. This lets Flash get close enough to snatch Azura's magic jewel. Forcing her ahead of them, they head for the landing platform. Ming, not being slow on the uptake, fires one of his weapons at the platform to stop their escape, hoping that Azura will die as well, so that Ming could then take over Mars.
Flash saves Azura by swinging to safety on a cable. This exposure to Flash's awesomeness makes Azura decide Flash should be her king. Using some sleep dust, she puts Zarkov and Flash out.
When they awaken, she offers to let Flash live, if he will be with her. Being a one woman kind of guy, Flash says no. Azura turns the prisoners over to Ming. Ming plans to throw them into the Nitrogen Lamp, which will kill them instantly. Flash and Zarkov turn the tables and throw their guards into the lamp instead. Escaping, they grab Ming as a hostage and baracade themselves in Ming's lab.
Listening in on a televisor Flash learns that Azura is planning an all out assault on the Clay People, using nitron bombs Ming has created with the stolen nitrogen. A fire breaks out in the lab. Ming gets away from his captors by using his strange immunity to fire, and simply walking through the flames to safety.
Sneaking out a back entrance, Flash and Zarkov steal a stratosled and try to head off the bombing raid. When their guns prove ineffective against the bomber, Flash aims his stratosled into a kamakazi dive, then bails out with Zarkov before impact. Using the Martian wings they float safely to the ground.
Returning to the caves Flash discovers that, through some misinformation, the Clay King believes that Flash has betrayed the Clay People. There is now a new ultimatum. The constant exposure to the residual magic in the cave's atmosphere will turn Dale and Happy into Clay People at the end of one more day. Unless Flash can bring Azura to the Clay King before that, he will lose Dale forever.
Referencing from "Scream 2" again, Jaime Kennedy gives an exellent summery of how sequels work. Paraphrasing him, they must must contain more action and special effects than the previous film, which "Flash Gordon's Trip to Mars" certainly does. Most of the original cast from "Flash Gordon" (1936) returns, Larry "Buster" Crabbe, Jean Rogers (now a brunette to better tie in with the source material), Frank Shannon, Charles Middleton, and, later on in the story, Richard Alexander. Though they don't have the rich, deep characterization from the original, our familiarity with the characters themselves allows the serial to overcome this drawback.
The action sequences and special effects are much better in this offering. The fights scenes are more realistic, involving some thrown punches and opponents being flipped over the hero's shoulder, instead of two people just wrestling around for a few minutes before Flash strangles them into unconsciousness.
The special effects are a vast improvement. The Martian stratosled models look more aerodynamic than the original rockets. The shots of them taking off, landing, circling, and swooping down, while not totally realistic, are some what believable. The best effects are the Clay People emerging from solid rock, Ming's fire walking, and people crossing the light bridge (a bridge across a deep chasm between two buildings that looks like a beam of light) .
The acting is a mixed bag again. Jean Rogers still does little but look scared and scream. Beatrice Roberts as the evil Queen Azura simply looks hautily amused by everything. Donald Kerr, as the comedy relief, starts out annoying but eventually comes into his own. While never truly amusing, he does become likeable. When he is later wounded while saving Flash, which puts him on the verge of death and sinking fast, you feel sadness that he might die. Something many comedy relief characters never accomplish, like Lee Ford's Snapper from "SOS Coast Guard" (1937), who I found so irritatinging that my friends and I kept hoping Richard Alexander's Thorg would simply strangle him and be done with it. We even cheered him on when he was stalking the little guy, ony to be constantly disappointed.
Frank Shannon's Zarkov is more involved with the action in this installment. He gets to indulge in several fist fights when not whipping out a just invented, super scientific device when needed, while spouting off acomplicated scientific explaination with loose limb aplomb.
Larry "Buster" Crabbe again shows why his Flash Gordon is one of the greatest serial heroes of all time. Still the fearless man of action, Crabbe tones down the character's headstrong recklessness. Instead of just jumping immediately into a fight at the first sign of trouble, Flash now seems to be someone adept at thinking on their feet.
Despite Crabbe's charasmatic performance, the serial is stolen out from under him by Middleton. Ming the Merciless is even more ruthless and cunning this time around. Though essentially subordinate to Queen Azura, no one is fooled by his subserviant attitude while in her presence. This is made plain when Flash captures the queen and Middleton quips that she must be saved at all cost, his voice literally dripping with sarcasm, while he does everything possible to kill her in the process of "rescuing" her. He disgustedly shakes his head in disappointment when Flash saves her, then puts on his fawning servile act again. No one schemed better or put more menace into such a simple word as "Heh!".
Many fans consider this to be the best Flash Gordon serial Universal made. It is a great serial, but for me, the best was yet to come with "Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe" (1940), my personal favorite.