Review: "Justice League: The Flashpoint Paradox" - Dystopia Never Looked So Good
I distinctly remember the moment when Disney’s Aladdin completely sold me: when the thought flashed through my head, “Oh yeah, Robin Williams is in this movie, too, isn’t he?” when his casting as the Genie was the major reason why I had gone to see the movie in the first place. A similar thing happens in Justice League: The Flashpoint Paradox, except that in this case it’s that I came in looking for (another) Justice League movie and got so wrapped up in the Flash story that forms the extended opening sequence that I had the thought, “Oh yeah, the Justice League is in this movie too, aren’t they?” That is only the first of many surprises that makes Justice League: The Flashpoint Paradox strong enough to easily vault into the top-tier of the direct-to-video animated features on my personal list, right alongside Wonder Woman, All-Star Superman, and Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths.
The Flashpoint Paradox shares many “alternate universe” themes with Crisis on Two Earths, with both movies throwing superheroes into alternate universes. The fundamental difference is that Crisis on Two Earths is a mirror universe, where all our whites are black and the superheroes are supervillains, while The Flashpoint Paradox is a dystopian future, where the role reversals are less consistent but as a rule, the whites turn gray and the blacks get blacker. The Flash, a.k.a. Barry Allen, is defined by his super-speed powers and the loss of his beloved mother at a young age. After the thrilling opening sequence that establishes the Flash’s backstory and stages an excellent battle with his Rogue’s Gallery, Barry Allen wakes up one day with no super powers and a mother who is very much alive, while the world faces Armageddon. The United States is crumbling, while Europe has been absolutely devastated by a war between the forces of Atlantis (led by Aquaman) and Themyscira (led by Wonder Woman). Batman is a bitter, hard-boiled, and far more lethal superhero, packing twin pistols to dispatch enemies when he’s not just throwing them off high rooftops. Superman is nowhere to be found, with the role of inspirational superhero filled by Cyborg (who, despite his best efforts, proves inadequate for the task). The Flash and the alternate universe Batman are left with the dual missions of finding out what happened to Barry’s powers and to stop Aquaman and Wonder Woman from destroying the world.
Despite the title, Justice League: The Flashpoint Paradox isn’t a League story as much as it’s a Flash story that happens to involve other superheroes. I have to admit that I never cared very much for Barry Allen as a comic book character, since he never had as sharply-defined character traits as Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, or even the assorted Green Lanterns. I can’t say that The Flashpoint Paradox entirely escapes this problem, since this Barry still comes off as a mish-mash of Batman’s survivor guilt with Spider-Man’s misplaced sense of responsibility for the tragic incident that defines him (and, for that matter, that tragic incident seems a bit too staged and heavy-handed for my tastes). As successful as it is, this backstory for Barry has the strong feel of secondhand goods. However, for The Flashpoint Paradox to work he really only needs a sense of decency and an indomitable drive to fix the world he’s in and/or find his way back to his “real” world. The screenplay and the vocal performance by Justin Chambers is more than capable of making Barry sympathetic enough to win us over quickly. Even if I still find Barry Allen a little thin as a character by the end of The Flashpoint Paradox, I still find it extremely easy to cheer him on, especially at two key moments at the end of the film.
We also find it easy to root for Barry because the world he’s in for most of The Flashpoint Paradox feels so deeply, fundamentally wrong. By their nature, alternate universe stories rely more on familiarity, since the whole point of the exercise is to compare and contrast the alternate universe with the “normal” one. However, even those with little direct familiarity with the world of DC Comics’ superheroes will recognize that things are horribly, tragically wrong in the Flashpoint world. The Flashpoint Paradox may be the darkest direct-to-video movie this crew has done yet, outdoing even The Dark Knight Returns. This isn’t a world going to hell in a handbasket as much as it’s doing hell three or four circles better. The Flashpoint Paradox easily earns the PG-13 rating it was given, from the more extreme Batman (marvelously voiced with gravel and gravity by Kevin McKidd), the infidelity and bloodshed marking the Aquaman/Wonder Woman relationship, the revelation of the fate of Superman, and the concluding, climactic battle that is far more savage and final than most of these stories are allowed to be. The fact that it’s all set in an alternate universe might be what makes this more palatable to me, since I’ve long since run out of patience for most modern grim-n-gritty superhero comic book stories, but in this case the calculated shock value has the benefits of having a real purpose and being definitively temporary. I do find it mildly amusing that the grit and ugliness of the Flashpoint world is often the new normal in modern DC and Marvel superhero comics, except that it’s being presented as the norm instead of being a mark of the abnormal.
For The Flashpoint Paradox, casting director Andrea Romano has an interesting mix of old hands reprising roles and new voices. For longtime fans of these productions, it’s an interesting way to reinforce the movie’s alternate universe themes. It’s always welcome to hear Kevin Conroy’s Batman or Dana Delany’s Lois Lane, no matter how briefly (and Delany’s Lois gets one of the best lines in the film in her first scene). Nathan Fillion is also back for essentially an extended cameo as Hal Jordan/Green Lantern, and Vanessa Marshall returns as a steelier, harder-edged Wonder Woman than her earlier portrayal in Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths. Even Ron Perlman reprises his role as Deathstroke/Slade from Teen Titans. Kevin Conroy disappears quickly in favor of Kevin McKidd’s darker Batman (and the movie comes up with a chilling explanation for the difference between worlds), but bringing Dana Delany back to the booth ensures that longtime fans will feel like this Lois is a look at what would happen to the character from Superman the Animated Series if she had lived in this world from the start. Something similar happens with Nathan Fillion and Ron Perlman, and if the effect is not as pronounced with Vanessa Marshall it’s because she’s only played Wonder Woman the one time (though I certainly have little other than praise for her performance here). In an interesting twist, Sam Daly (son of actor Tim Daly) plays this movie’s Superman, although the role is small enough that it doesn’t provide much opportunity to compare father and son playing the same role. The rest of the casting choices are also all solid, with Michael B. Jordan turning in an excellent performance as the alternate universe Cyborg, and C. Thomas Howell chewing scenery with deliciously evil abandon as Eobard Thawne, the Reverse-Flash who is as evil as the Flash is noble and whose link to the events of The Flashpoint Paradox turns out to be another of the movie’s nasty surprises.
The visual design and animation is another way that the movie reinforces the ideas of the alternate universe. I think attempting to adapt Andy Kubert’s detailed and realistic art style to animation would only leave fans on both sides disappointed, though The Flashpoint Paradox does nod to Kubert’s style in its slightly more realistic and less stylized character designs by Phil Bourassa on earlier Justice League movies and Young Justice than classic “Timmverse” animated designs. They do quite nicely to place the movie in its own conceptual space separate from the other DTV movies. Animation is by Studio 4C, and their work probably provides the one major stumbling block I had with the film. While the overwhelming majority of the movie gets comparably beautifully animation as the other DC DTV movies, there are a few scenes in this one that feel oddly staccato, as though they were animated on twos or even threes. The problem is that the very first scenes in the movie gave me that sensation, and there’s enough movement in them that the jerkier animation felt really jarring and didn’t make a terribly good first impression. This doesn’t happen for most of the rest of the movie (and is definitely not something I picked up on in the action scenes), but I think spotting it so early in the movie meant I got more sensitized to it when it happened a few more times elsewhere in the film. It also seems to happen more often during the longer conversation scenes, suggesting that they got skimped on even though many of them turn out to be the most important scenes in the film. Still, I do have to give Studio 4C credit for doing some of the best super-speed animation I’ve seen, which is probably more critical to a Flash-centric film than being able to animate a conversation well.
As always, I have little to complain about with the audio or video on The Flashpoint Paradox‘s Blu-ray. The 5.1 DTS-HD soundtrack is especially impressive, most notably in the big fight scenes sprinkled throughout the movie, though I have to admit I miss the low-bass rumble that The New Frontier added to the Flash’s running sound effects. The soundtrack also nicely highlights the excellent score by Frederik Wiedmann, which always provides a superb bed running underneath the action on screen without being too obtrusive. The Flashpoint Paradox also has one of the best selections of bonus features, starting with the commentary track by director Jay Oliva, producer James Tucker, screenwriter Jim Krieg, and DC Chief Creative Officer Geoff Johns. The track is consistently entertaining and informative, never drifting into the commentators just repeating what’s happening on screen and elaborating nicely on behind-the-scenes information and details on the changes between comic and movie and why they were necessary. Of the two bonus featurettes, one focuses on the Flash and time travel, impressing me for the depth and accuracy of the science without dumbing down the concepts too much. It’s a great “science is cool” featurette and nicely dovetails with the way Flash comics would often throw in oddball science facts as an explanation for how the character could accomplish some super-feat. The other featurette focuses on the Flash’s Rogues Gallery, with comments by numerous comic book creators, and will probably be of more interest to longtime comic fans over the more casual fans (and I have to admit that I am left non-plussed at the description of the changes wrought by the “New 52″).
Four bonus TV episodes are also included: “Requiem for a Scarlet Speedster!” from Batman: The Brave and the Bold, “Legends” Pts 1 and 2 from Justice League, and “Flash and Substance” from Justice League Unlimited. All four episodes are excellent and fit nicely with the themes of the movie, though only “Legends” looks like it’s in high-definition (though in a high-def 4×3 framing rather than the oddly letterboxed version on the original Justice League Season 1 Blu-ray). The others look like they’re standard-definition up-conversions; “Requiem for a Scarlet Speedster!” looks the best but still suffers from numerous jagged edges, and “Flash and Substance” looks terrible. There is the usual look at the next DC animated feature (Justice League: War, coming this winter) which looks like an adaptation of the inaugural Justice League story arc from DC’s “New 52″ initiative. The work is getting Warner Bros Animation’s usual care and attention to detail, but as I’m sure I’ve written before, there needs to be a word for the creative bankruptcy that only seems interested in retelling origin stories over and over and over again, especially since this creative bankruptcy pervades American superhero comics and many of their derivatives. The preview is also hidden among the other trailers rather than being up front as it usually is; I suppose that makes sense but I guess it shows how long I’ve been watching these things because that specific “who moved my cheese?” thing threw me a lot more than you’d think it should. Finally, there’s a digital preview of the Flashpoint comic book along with an Ultraviolet copy of the movie (both things I find I have little affection for). The DVD with the Blu-ray combo pack comes with just the trailer bonuses.
Somewhere in the middle of The Flashpoint Paradox, it dawned on me that live-action superhero movies almost never show the kind of ambition and scope seen in this film, but even as a more Flash-centric story, I don’t think the live-action world would be willing to go as big or as deep as The Flashpoint Paradox. The Flashpoint Paradox is a movie I find I can admire for its ambition and adore for its execution, as it fires on all cylinders and goes flat-out across nearly all dimensions. It’s definitely a film that has more to offer longtime fans than newcomers to the universe, and I think anybody who doesn’t pay attention to the rating and assumes they can hand it to younger viewers is in for an extremely rude (and well-deserved) shock, but it’s still quite accessible and exceptionally successful.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this review credited Jon Suzuki and Dusty Abell as character designers instead of Phil Bourassa. Sorry about that Phil!