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Josh Reviews the latest DCU Animated Adventure: The Flashpoint Paradox

August 20th, 2013
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After the dreadful Superman: Unbound (click here for my review), I am very pleased that the latest DCU direct-to-DVD animated movie, Justice League: The Flashpoint Paradox, is a very solid, entertaining adventure, one of the strongest DCU animated outings from the past several years.

It is certainly a much stronger adaptation of the source material than the last several animated films, which include Superman: Unbound (an adaptation of Geoff Johns and Gary Frank’s Brainiac story from Action Comics), the two-part adaptation of Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns (click here for my review of part 1 and here for part 2), and an adaptation of Frank Miller and David Mazzuchelli’s Batman: Year One (click here for my review).  The less said about the dull, childish Superman: Unbound the better — the animated film totally abandoned everything that was great about the original story-line from the comics.  And while there was a lot to enjoy in the adaptations of Frank Miller’s two famous Batman stories, and while I respect the ambition of tackling those two complex, iconic tales, I think the animated movies, while enjoyable, lacked a lot of the nuance and sophistication of the source material.

The original Flashpoint, a five-issue mini-series written by Geoff Johns and illustrated by Andy Kubert and inkers Sandra Hope and Jesse Delperdang, is a much simpler story than, say, The Dark Knight Returns or Batman: Year One.  Perhaps that is why it fares much better being adapted into an animated film, as the action/adventure aspect of the story might have proven to be easier to turn into a compelling animated movie than the more introspective, internal Frank Miller tales.

Flashpoint, published in 2011, is famous for marking the end of the DC Comics universe as it had existed since 1985-86’s Crisis on Infinite Earths. At the end of the series, DC completely relaunched their entire superhero universe, re-starting every one of their comics with a new #1, and starting almost every character’s story over again from the beginning, calling this reboot “The New 52.”  But Flashpoint really isn’t about all that.  Instead, it’s a classic alternate-universe tale in which the Flash wakes up in a terribly altered timeline, in which Aquaman and Wonder Woman are leading their respective nations (the underwater kingdom of Atlantis and the Amazons of Themyscira) in a war with one another that threatens to destroy the globe.  Robbed of his super-human abilities, the Flash must try to figure out how and when the timeline was changed, and how he can possibly change things back.

At this point, dark alternate-timeline stories have become incredibly cliche.  It’s been a long time since my mind was blown watching “Yesterday’s Enterprise” on TV (back in 1990) — there have been quite a lot of these stories in books, movies, and TV shows in the years since.  What makes Flashpoint work is that a) Geoff Johns made this dark alternate timeline very compelling, with interesting variations on the familiar DC characters that were both emotional and surprising, and b) the twist of what had happened to cause the alternate timeline was surprising and very emotionally powerful.  The only weak element of Flashpoint, in my mind, was the “New 52” stuff at the very end which, to me, read as a last-minute insertion not originally intended to be included.  As Flash races through the “speed force” attempting to restore the timeline, we get a weird narration about the 3 timelines (apparently a reference to three formerly separate DC-owned comic book universes: their superhero universe, Vertigo, and Jim Lee’s Wildstorm imprint) merging into one.  Then, in the epilogue with Flash and Batman, we see them in their “New 52” costumes.  But curiously, Flash doesn’t make any mention of the fact that the “restored” timeline he has returned to is different than the one he had left!  It’s very weird.  It really reads like the epilogue was meant to have taken place in the original timeline, fully restored, rather than in the new “New 52” timeline.

But I have digressed!  My point is that, putting aside one’s feeling about DC’s “New 52” universe-wide relaunch that followed Flashpoint, the mini-series was a great adventure story, and the animated adaptation is also very strong.  It’s a very faithful adaptation, preserving much of the structure of the comic book series and many of the series’ most important story-points and lines of dialogue.  Where the animated movie has diverged from the source material, those changes have for the most part been made for the better.  (Though I am a little befuddled why the simple title Flashpoint has been changed to The Flashpoint Paradox.  That’s not a bad title, it’s sort of intriguing, but I am not sure why the simplicity of Flashpoint was messed with.  But I digress again…)

In my review, I complained a lot about the flaccid, useless prologue added on to the beginning of Superman: Unbound.  The Flashpoint Paradox film also has an all-new prologue added in, but the difference with the prologue of Superman: Unbound is night and day.  First of all, for this story, it was immediately clear to me that a prologue was necessary.  Flashpoint begins with Barry Allen waking up in the alternate timeline.  But for this standalone film, it’s understandably more powerful to see the alternate versions of our characters only after meeting their original versions.  And so we get a prologue in which we see Barry Allen at the grave of his mother, along with his girlfriend Iris (clearly establishing those two important family relationships for the Flash) and then battling an alliance of his rogues gallery with some last-minute assistance from the Justice League.  Not only does this prologue make strong story sense, it’s also — in contrast to the rather stupid opening scene of Superman: Unbound — a nice little action-adventure beat with some good fight scenes and some nice dialogue.

Once that adventure is resolved, we cut to Barry Allen waking up from a nap — just like in the comic — to realize that his whole universe has changed out from under him.  His delight at the realization that his murdered mother is somehow alive is immediately undercut by his discovery that Iris is with another man (the animated film twists the knife even more than the comic, showing not just that Iris is in love with someone else, but that she has a child with that dude!) and also that his allies in the Justice League, rather than banding together to help save the world, are tearing it apart due to their vicious conflicts with one another.  The animated film proceeds much as the comic did, following Barry’s attempt to contact Batman.  The identity of this alternate Batman is a great twist — in both the comic and the film — as is Batman’s motivation for helping Barry.  I won’t spoil it here.  But it’s a strong emotional beat that is well-played in both the comic and the film, and my favorite aspect about both stories is the strange partnership these two men form.

The film nicely expands upon the big final battle, in which Aquaman and Wonder Woman’s forces collide in the ruins of England, with a variety of super-heroic and super-villainous characters caught in between.  I loved the depiction of Flash’s big battle with Zoom — the film does a great job depicting this battle between two super-speedsters, exploring that a lot more deeply than the comic did.  I loved the way the battle was presented visually (reminding me at times of the look of racing light-cycles in Tron).  I also liked seeing the other characters each get a little more spotlight in that final battle than they did in the comic (which mostly means seeing them each meet grisly ends).

The Flashpoint Paradox is a bloodier film than I had expected.  There’s a lot of death and carnage in the story, and as characters bought it I was surprised to see a lot more blood than I expected, even when seeing the cannon-fodder soldiers of Aquaman and Wonder Woman’s armies getting killed.  I thought the animated film might shy away from showing one of the Shazam kids getting killed, but it didn’t, and Steve Trevor’s death is even more gruesome in the film than in the original comic.  As in the comic, we see the full bloody effect of Barry Allen’s getting struck by lighting (in a failed attempt to restore his lost super-powers), and in the final battle we get a view through the head and brains of a character who has just been shot through the head.  Good times!  Of course, half the fun of these sorts of alternate universe stories is seeing characters meet fates that they never would in the “real timeline,” but the main reason I enjoyed the surprising violence of this film was that it gave the story an intensity that I find is often missing from these animated adaptations, in which the rough edges of the original story-lines have a habit of getting smoothed off for a more general audience.  One could easily check out and think that you don’t care what happens to the characters in the alternate timeline because you know it will all get erased at the end, but I found myself fully involved in the story from start to finish.

There were a few mis-steps.  An interesting aspect of the original comic was the grudge Captain Marvel had against Wonder Woman because of the wounds she had inflicted on him (revealed in an iconic splash page in which the kids say “Shazam!” to reveal the scarred Captain Marvel), but that story-point was mysteriously missing from the film.  Also, in the film as in the comic, as Barry spends progressively more time in the alternate universe, he finds his memories of the original timeline gradually getting over-written with memories of what his life would have been like in this new timeline.  But in the film, the first-time this happens, they decide to use that moment to show us flashbacks to the other Justice League characters, showing how things had gone awry for them all (Wonder Woman’s murder of Aquaman’s beloved; baby Kal-El’s rocket overshooting Smallville and crashing in the middle of Metropolis, killing thousands, etc.).  That might have seemed like a good idea on paper, but as it plays out it’s weird for Barry to be seeing memories of OTHER characters in his head, rather than his own.  It doesn’t really make sense.  Similarly confusing is that the film has removed a lot of the explanation for the connection between Flash and Professor Zoom (the “Reverse Flash”).  This isn’t a problem until the explanation of what really happened to change the timeline.  At that point, a savvy viewer might wonder why Zoom, like the Flash, still has his memories of the original timeline, something not really answered by the film.

Getting back to positive changes, The Flashpoint Paradox wisely avoids getting bogged down in any “New 52” complications.  There is no mention of three timelines merging into one during Barry’s climactic race through time and the speed-force.  And, as in the comic, the last scene with Flash and Batman is played as if everything has returned to normal.  Barry is in a slightly weird-looking different Flash costume for some reason — maybe as a nod to the “New 52” relaunch?  But it’s not really the look of the Flash’s uniform in the “New 52,” nor does Batman’s costume appear to be his “New 52” look.  All of which means that one can enjoy The Flashpoint Paradox without getting bogged down in the details of that universe-wide reboot, and anyone unaware of it will watch the end of The Flashpoint Paradox without asking any questions.  All of which is good.

Over-all, the animation in The Flashpoint Paradox is strong.  I was particularly impressed by the wealth of detail evident in all the backgrounds, particularly the rubble-strewn chaos of destroyed London in the film’s big action finish.  There’s also a sunrise-lit fight between Flash, Batman, and Cyborg with some government goons that is particularly gorgeous.  Really impressive stuff.  Less impressive, sadly, is the character design.  There’s an angular look to the characters that didn’t really work for me.  These last several DC animated films have gotten further and further away from the classic Bruce Timm simplicity of Batman: The Animated Series and the shows that followed, and taken a slightly Japanese-inspired look closer to what I remember from, say, The Animatrix.  It’s not a style that particularly appeals to me.  I’d rather they stuck closer to the Bruce Timm house style, or made a greater attempt to replicate the unique look of the artists from the original comic books they are adapting.

The voice cast is very strong.  I was delighted to hear a number of familiar voices among the mix.  The great Kevin Conroy returned to voice Batman/Bruce Wayne in the prime timeline, and we also got to hear Nathan Fillion as Hal Jordan (Mr. Fillion voiced Hal in the animated film Emerald Knights and subsequently reprised the character in several later films) and Dana Delany as Lois Lane (Ms. Delany voiced Lois throughout the run of Superman: The Animated Series).  I was bummed they didn’t get Tim Daly back to voice Superman, but they got perhaps the next best thing: his son Sam Daly!  The new voices were very solid too.  Justin Chambers and Kevin McKidd were great as The Flash and the alternate universe Batman, respectively, and I loved hearing Michael B. Jordan (Chronicle) as Cyborg.  Cary Elwes also was great as Aquaman.

There is nothing particularly ground-breaking about The Flashpoint Paradox, but the animated film is a very solid, well-made Justice League adventure.  A great story mixed with strong animation and a solid voice-cast combine to create one of the more fun, entertaining DCU animated films of the past few years.

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