In any case, from the first time I watched one when I was about 10 years old (thanks to a Value City special VHS tape), I find pretty much everything about them sweet: From the cliffhangers to cheesy effects to the vast majority being about either superheroes or retro sci-fi goodness.
However I have found in my travels that there is a large majority of nerds and geeks out there that have never watched one. So these blog post is for you guys and gals: Here’s a list of 5 movie serials I can highly recommend popping up some popcorn for and enjoying the next time you have a couple hours to spare with nothing better to do.
1) Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe (12 chapters Universal):
My personal all time favorite serial starts off the list as not only the best written of the three Flash Gordon serials but the one of the most influential in terms of modern cinema.
Sure, the original Flash Gordon serial has sex appeal and matches best the original source material i.e. the comic strip, it begins to crumble under its own weight after about episode 8.
Conquers the Universe however is not only written well, but still manages to be relevant to a degree in modern times due to its grounding in real life concepts such as rebellion, bio warfare, and dictatorship.
In fact, George Lucas cited Conquers the Universe as a major influence on the concepts used in Star Wars, such as the opening crawl, the design of the faceless stormtroopers, and the desert filled with giant lizards and sand people. He wanted the guy that played Flash Gordon, Buster Crabbe, to even make a cameo in the Mos Eisley cantina as a sly nod to his work on Conquers the Universe.
I can’t recommend watching this serial enough. To me it’s one of the few of the genre that transcends itself at times.
2) The Masked Marvel (12 Chapters Republic):
This little known serial was released at the height of WWII when the US was paranoid and rightfully so about domestic terrorism and sabotage by enemy agents. Enter the Masked Marvel, an almost superhuman government agent and spy ring smasher who does battle with an evil Japanese mastermind and his army of anti American stooges.
Boasting some pretty spectacular stunts, the Masked Marvel also has one of the most extremely interesting hooks in all serials in the fact that the audience doesn’t know the Masked Marvel’s real identity. We are presented with four possible candidates and clues through out the series to help us put two and six together, but still its not until the last minute of the last episode do we finally get to know if our suspicions were right. To me that’s an absolute dynamite concept and a major reason I rank this serial so highly.
3) The Green Hornet (13 Chapters Universal):
Another great Universal serial is probably the best screen adaptation of the Green Hornet to date (including the Seth Rogen pic that got points for originality yet lacked any real menace or consequence).
The Green Hornet dismantles a criminal syndicate one piece at a time over the course of the 13 chapters, with nothing more than a gas gun and a pretty sweet car.
Although it can be a little formulaic at times, that is also one of its main strengths as the chapters are almost self contained giving the whole serial a TV show quality in which you are just watching single Green Hornet episodes tied together by a thin story arc. Sort of what they do now with a ton of TV shows in the modern post “Lost” world.
4) Zorro’s Fighting Legion (12 chapters Republic):
Like Flash Gordon, the character of Zorro actually had several serials made about him as he was a quality hero which could drive any number of western style stories. However Fighting Legion is by far the best.
When the mysterious super old timey villain Don Del Oro (“Lord of Gold”), an idol of the Yaqui Indians, emerges and attacks the gold trade of the Republic of Mexico, his plans to take over the land and become Emperor seem to be unchallenged. That is until Zorro rides into town, creates an army of his own and sets upon settling the Lord of Gold’s hash in dramatic fashion.
Like The Masked Marvel, Fighting Legion boasts some extremely impressive stunt work for a time when there was no CGI or green screen. And although it would later become almost a trademark of Republic serials in later years, the notion that the audience doesn’t know who Don Del Oro really is handled with a good deal of suspense and some very crisp writing.
The serial has horse chases underground cities and of course fantastic sword play from the title character, making this one of the most enjoyable serials out there.
5) The Adventures of Captain Marvel (12 Chapters Republic):
With a solid claim to what could be considered the first ever true “Superhero” movie, the Adventures of Captain Marvel is pretty much universally acclaimed as one of the best entries in the genre overall. It’s also along with Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe, one of the first serials any true comic book fan should attempt to digest.
It’s got pretty much everything you need: An origin story, a menacing super villain in “The Scorpion”, and magically imbued super weapon, and of course a super hero that can bend steel, fly, and throw gangsters off of rooftops (the latter of which the Big Red Cheese does a lot). I mean really, the only thing missing from the story is replacing Captain Marvel with Superman and you’d have yourself an all time classic.
It’s a shame too, as this was originally going to be a Superman serial until DC comics backed out at the last second, allowing Faucett to step in with their Superman clone. Ultimately, there would be a Superman serial made years later by Columbia, but its frequently thought of as much cheaper quality to the Captain Marvel serial, mainly due to Republic taking the time to create realistic flying sequences whereas Columbia just did cheap animation.