This review originally published here.
I saw the world premiere of the latest DC Universe animated movie last weekend in Ballroom 20 at San Diego Comic-Con, and I'm still reeling from what I saw.
Justice League: The Flashpoint Paradox represents yet another leap forward for DC Animation, as they continue to "earn the PG-13", pushing the boundaries of the shape and scale of stories that they tell from feature to feature. In many ways, this moving and profound parable of loss and grief is by far the most complex and darkest yet take on the DC animated universe. Believe it or not, Flashpoint Paradox is darker than The Dark Knight Returns.
In the opening sequence, we watch a defining, tragic event in the life of The Flash (Justin Chambers). In this case, our Flash is Barry Allen, not Wally West. Barry looks back on his childhood and cannot help but feel stinging regret, thinking "If I had only run faster" to get home in time to prevent something that has shaped who he has been his entire life since. The story of how this weight came to be heaped on Barry's shoulders is told briefly, but with a full complement of gravitas, gently wrapping its fingers around your heart. That grasp grows tighter as the movie goes deeper down the rabbit hole.
We jump forward in time to the present day, where a team comprised of The Flash's core rogues' gallery, led by Professor Zoom/Reverse Flash (C. Thomas Howell), are attacking the Flash Museum. The Justice League appear to help Flash just in the nick of time. The events of the opening sequence play out with the dynamics of (and many voices familiar from) the Justice League cartoon series. Using the Speed Force, something in The Flash's past is changed. That one shift results in the remaking of the whole world. Think of the Flashpoint version of Earth as an exponentially more depressing dystopian world than the 1985 that Marty inadvertently creates in Back to the Future Part II.
In this new world, The Flash, Superman, and the Justice League have never existed. Cyborg (Michael B. Jordan) is the U.S. government's in-house, boy scout superhero. Batman (Kevin McKidd) is a bitter, grizzled casino CEO, and a far different man than we once knew. "Highball" Hal Jordan (Nathan Fillion) never became Green Lantern. Flashpoint's world in decline is at its knees thanks to warlords Aquaman (Cary Elwes) and Wonder Woman (Vanessa Marshall). The planet teeters on the brink of full-blown apocalypse.
"What if…?" is the inciting question of many of our greatest stories. That single question, in innumerable variants, founds the basis of how speculative fiction works. In our real lives, the same question can be the source of unending regret and self-inflicted pain. We ask it when a relationship ends, an opportunity passes us by, someone else wins the lottery, or when a loved one dies. We tell ourselves that we had some sort of control over a causal reality. The setup looks reductive written in digital ink, but these archetypal and elemental building blocks are the foundations of our most classic myths. There are nits to pick if that is how you choose to roll, like why Superman's capsule would have landed somewhere other than Smallville. Actually, let's take a closer look at that one.
The notion of Superman's capsule landing elsewhere is a favorite focus of more than one "Elseworlds" story in DC Comics. These days, many bring up Mark Millar's excellent Red Son story from a few years ago, where Kal-El lands in the USSR, but J.M. DeMatteis covered the same ground 20 years earlier in (the sadly out-of-print) Speeding Bullets, where he lands in Gotham. Kal-El is adopted by a couple named Thomas and Martha, and is named Bruce. He becomes a superhero who wears a cape and cowl, goes by Batman, has heat vision, super-breath, and can fly.
The reason I bring all of this up is that some pieces of the DC mythos like that are entirely in the hands of the chaotic causal world we live in. When that capsule hits Earth's atmosphere in any version of the story, it has gravity, the rotation of the planet, and the thrust of the rocket at play.Flashpoint is just as much a fantasy as it is a story of science, and the cross-section of the two allows the suspension of disbelief needed for an animated dystopian time-travel epic about death, dying, loss, and grief to work. The "what if…?" take is applied to all our favorite heroes and their supporting casts here, with fascinating and heartbreaking results across the board.
Now on the "Flashpoint" version of Earth, The Flash finds himself unable to control enough of the Speed Force to once again journey back across time. To find out why he can't and how he can fix things, he must gain the trust of and team up with the Flashpoint world's gun-toting Batman, Cyborg, and a multi-kid iteration of Shazam, along with various members of a group called The Resistance. Avoid IMDb to not be spoiled on various cameos (and some secret identities), but rest assured that you get decent appearances from Grifter, Deathstroke, and Etrigan of all things. The cameos are not limited speaking characters either. All told, I’d be shocked to be proven wrong in claiming that this is the biggest cast they’ve had yet.
The amount of carnage on display took me quite off-guard. Not only are there heaps of death abound (as I expected from the source material), but there are beheadings, murdered children, and headshots aplenty. One gunshot death in particular made me and hundreds of others in the room gasp.
These movies are very much PG-13 affairs now, but I would argue the violence is not without need or merit. Flashpoint Paradox is a dark, serious story played out on the slippery slope we find ourselves on when we get mired in thinking about how we could have made everything better “if only” we had done something better, or, at the very least, differently. Even these characters, no matter their superpowers, cannot escape the gravitational pull of regret. The Flash struggles against that pull for much of the story, until he contemplates that perhaps Robert Frost put it best in “A Servant to Servants”:
He says the best way out is always through
And I can agree to that, or in so far
As that I can see no way out but through.
Barry realizes where and what “Point A” and “Point B” are relatively early on, but his finding and accepting the path between them is his real journey, both in being a hero and in accepting a fixed point in his past. I’ve found these moving in the past, but the conclusion of this Flash/Batman team-up tale choked me up more than once.
This is another knockout from the DTV animation team, headed by director Jay Oliva (Dark Knight Returns Part 1 & 2), dialogue director Andrea Romano (with them since Batman: TAS, listen to my interviews with her here and here), and supervising producer (plus Superman Unbounddirector) James Tucker. Screenwriter Jim Krieg did an admirable job of condensing a massive serial narrative into a fast-moving 89-minute feature that feels long only in the sense of it being a richer, bigger narrative than you would expect from a DTV animated movie. A side note for fellow comics nerds: I don’t miss Booster Gold and other characters at all.
IMDb fails me for complete credits, but I must point out the work of the animation director and his team, who continue to iterate the look of superhero animation. Instead of trying to homogenize into a sort of house style, DC Animated Features have always forcefully pushed into different looks and details. This one drives much more in the direction of visceral, violent anime like Guyver, Akira, and Ghost in the Shell than much of anything they’ve done before.
Flashpoint Paradox is adapted from a very recent crossover that happened in the comics back in mid-2011, an event that catalyzed the "New 52" reboot across the DC comics universe. In keeping with that. Flashpoint Paradox leads nicely into the New-52-originating Justice League: Warfeature that WB has already announced for early next year. At the post-screening panel, they also announced Son of Batman, based on Grant Morrison’s bloodsoaked 2006 Batman and Son story, which introduced Bruce Wayne’s son Damien. Following that, they are making their first animated feature based in the world of the massively popular Arkham Asylum videogames. Flashpoint is one of the high points in the 20-year history of DC Animation marrying the best of animation and radio theatre, and I eagerly anticipate everything coming next.
The movie was made available for purchase on VOD immediately following the screening last week, so you can buy it right now on iTunes ($15/$20 SD/HD) or Amazon ($15/$20 SD/HD), or you can pre-order the $14 Blu-ray/DVD/Ultraviolet combo release that arrives this coming Tuesday. It will also be rent-able via the above links on 7/30.