Friday, July 26, 2013

The Cinema File 225: "Justice League: The Flashpoint Paradox" Review

Witness Reason #8652 for why Warner Brothers should just give up and let the DCAU crew write all of their live action superhero movies from now on. Justice League: The Flashpoint Paradox is based on the fairly recent mini-series Flashpoint, starring, as you might expect, the Flash. What you might not know if you're not that into comics is that Flashpoint, in addition to being a great story in its own right, is actually the final chapter in the last great era of DC comics, its time distorting premise paving the way for the lackluster and increasingly confusing New 52 continuity. Perhaps its fitting that such a useless world of comic books would be set up not by a tent pole hero like Superman or Batman, but by a second stringer like the Flash, more well known for how trifling his rogue's gallery is than for any of his classic tales. That's not to say Barry Allen can't kick ass every once in a while, and if there's ever a story to redeem the character in the eyes of a largely uncaring public, this is it.

The Flashpoint Paradox finds Barry waking up in a world that is not his own, similar but different, an alternate timeline apparently created by the time travelling psychopath Reverse Flash. In this strange world, Barry's mother is still alive, but pretty much everything else has gone to crap, with the few recognizable heroes left fighting on without hope as the world is torn asunder by a war between Aqua Man's Atlantean army and Wonder Woman's Amazons. To top it all off, The Flash doesn't have any powers, and none of the friends he has left have ever heard of his super heroic alter ego. It's basically an Elseworlds tale that unlike most of them has some bearing on mainstream continuity, though thankfully for newbies, the whole connection to creating a new timeline for a comic book reboot is largely omitted, only vaguely referenced by a few costume changes in the final scene, and mostly this is treated as a self contained story.

I love Elseworld tales, precisely because they allow you to do crazy things with characters you love without screwing them up in the mainstream universe. There's a great early episode of Stargate SG-1 where the team travels to a parallel world that's sort of the dark version of their own, and the warrior Teal'c constantly reminds them that theirs is "the only reality of consequence," going on to make his point by brutally slaying his own alternate timeline self (who to be fair was evil and I think even has a goatee to prove it). Sure, sometimes these kinds of stories can get out of hand, but for every time Bruce Wayne becomes Dr. Frankenstein or Dracula (both of which happened), you get a Red Son, a Kingdom Come, or a Dark Knight Returns. Being a weird hybrid between an Elseworld's tale and a canonical story, Flashpoint was a risk, but as its own story it paid off in the comics even if the ultimate result was the New 52, and this adaptation captures what made that series so good, better than I thought possible.

I have been consistently amazed by how dark and mature these DC animated movies have been able to get without running afoul of any pointless executive censorship. At this point, I wouldn't be surprised to hear that they were actually going to go ahead and adapt The Killing Joke next. The Flashpoint Paradox practically revels in murder and mayhem, none of it gratuitous mind you, but much of it going so far that I have to wonder if any of the people bankrolling this thing were even paying attention. People get maimed, their limbs severed, their chests torn open with their hearts exposed. A man gets shot point blank in the head with such gruesome detail that you can see through the bullet hole to get the reveal of who shot him, and just before that, a main villain straight up murders a child. It's not just the violence; so much of the movie is just so wonderfully nihilistic, from the Flash's comically morbid failed attempt at regaining his powers, to a much different replay of the night Wayne's parents were killed which is positively haunting. I almost want to say it's over the top, but all of it is so well-earned and lends so much weight to the story that I can't see any valid criticism of it.

I noted in my review of the last DC animated movie Superman Unbound how much the style of animation reminded me of one of my all time favorite animators, Peter Chung (mostly known as the creator of Aeon Flux). In that film, the elements I could see as influenced by Chung were subtle, and clearly merged with Bruce Timm's elegantly simple angular style. The Flashpoint Paradox goes even farther in this direction, making the movie feel a lot more like a traditional anime film than an American production, and as much as I love Timm's style, this approach worked so well with this material that I hope they only do more of it in the future, or at least every time this team tries to tackle material this disturbing. Nowhere is this more evident than in the appearance of this universe's version of Superman, which I won't spoil if you haven't read the comic, but which brought me right back to when I was a kid geeking out to shows like C.O.P.S. and Phantom 2040. There are a few moments where the characters seemed to almost go off model a bit, most notably in a final fight between The Flash and The Reverse Flash, but even then, the models themselves are just so fundamentally eerie that it almost makes it more engaging to watch.

A quick note on the voice acting. I have noted in the past how much I dislike the current trend of celebrity stunt casting in animated movies which takes away jobs from talented professional voice actors for the novelty of being able to guess what famous person a character sounds like. The DC Animated crew have somehow managed to work within this framework, utilizing many well known actors not traditionally known as voice actors, without it coming across as a cheap publicity ploy. They still use regular voice actors in addition to the famous ones, but they've just so happened to cultivate a group of really great celebrities who fit perfectly with specific characters and seem to love coming back to voice them. Nathan Fillion and Ron Pearlman show up as Hal Jordan and Deathstroke, reprising their roles from Emerald Knights and Teen Titans respectively, and their on screen for maybe a few minutes at most, but just knowing that they went so far as to get them back for these quick cameos was a nice nod to what has come before in this series. You get the sense that whenever they use a celebrity as opposed to a pro like Jim Cummings or Maurice Lamarche, like C. Thomas Howell as the Reverse Flash, its because the new guy is clearly perfect for the role and not just a name actor.

There is a veritable army of DC characters featured in this movie, both well known and obscure, some changed dramatically to suit the alternate universe setting, but many remaining mostly the same or at least staying true enough to the spirit of the characters that if you don't know them but find them interesting, you'd still find the real ones just as cool if you went back to their comic incarnations. There is an erroneous common wisdom in the movie industry that believes that whenever a character from the comics is introduced in a movie, you always need to tell their origin story, sometimes many times over, or the audience, dullards that they are, won't be able to follow along. You don't get jack for origin stories or context in this movie, but I would submit that if you can't follow along, it's your own fault, and frankly, you don't deserve to have a movie that actually treats you like an intelligent person. The main villain in this movie is a character that I'm fairly sure has never appeared outside of the comics before now, and he just shows up as if we know all about him, but even if you don't, you get everything you need to know about him without wasting time on flashbacks or long winded exposition.

This series of films, Flashpoint included, is truly made by comic book nerds for comic books nerds, with such respect for the fan base that its amazing any studio would allow them to exist. And yet, they are so good, that even if you have no experience with the original source material being so faithfully adapted, you can still enjoy it just as easily as someone like me. Yeah, maybe I'll get a bit more enjoyment out of an obscure character appearance or offhand reference here and there, but the main story is designed to be universally appreciated. This film puts the lie to the notion that in order for non-comic book fans to like comic book movies, they need to be dumbed down like so many of them have been before. Flashpoint isn't some mindless spectacle like Man Of Steel, and it isn't some non-comic book fan director's bullshit vision of what these characters should be like Nolan's Dark Knight series. This is just the comic as a movie, and its perfectly awesome in just about every way possible.

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