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Justice League Unlimited – Flash and Substance (Review)

This post is part of the DCAU fortnight, a series of articles looking at the Warner Brothers animations featuring DC’s iconic selection of characters. To tie into the review of Green Lantern: First Flight today, we thought we’d take a look at an episode centred on that other iconic Silver Age DC hero, the Flash.

Justice League and its spin-off Justice League Unlimited were two very strange shows, at least from a structural perspective. They both featured expansive casts (the latter more than the former, admittedly) – most of which were crammed full of characters new to the DC animated universe. Batman: The Animated Series and Superman: The Animated Series had done a great job establishing the two biggest names, but the bulk of the characters were pretty much blank slates heading into the crossover series. So characters like the Martian Manhunter and Green Lantern relied on episodes centring on them to grow and develop character – although the focus was very much on the ensemble cast. However, my own favourite episode of the show is a more intimate character profile of a character frequently overlooked: the Flash.

Frenemies…

Now, I’ll concede that the Flash is fairly well known – he has pretty high name recognition as the DC second-tier heroes go. He’s certainly more familiar to the man on the street than, say, the Green Lantern. Part of this may be due to the fact that the red-suited struck-by-lightening iteration of the character was the first proper hero of the Silver Age or even down to the “kinder through nostalgia” live action show of the early nineties, but the character’s emblem and appearance are fairly easy to spot. Couple that with two phenomenal runs in the late nineties and early noughties from Mark Waid and Geoff Johns, you can understand the appeal of the character.

Still, his personality and mannerisms (and, basically, his character) are not so familiar to those who don’t read comics. Despite a short-running live action television adaptation, the Flash still has to receive a single movie dedicated to him. We live in an age where Blade has a trilogy, and the Punisher has been adapted three times, and yet the Flash remains a second-tier property. That said, given how Green Lantern turned out, that might not be a bad thing. Still, the problem remains. To the vast majority of people, he’s just a guy who runs really fast.

He’s a key character…

Which is a shame, because the character actually has a fairly distinctive identity and set of characteristics as distinct from his speed. He’s frequently regarded as “the heart” of the Justice League. Indeed, an earlier episode of the first series A Better World illustrated how he kept his more superpowered colleagues in touch with humanity – a world where he died was a dystopia. He’s consistently defined by the way that – unlike the other characters, those who fly or glide or keep to the shadows – the Flash runs alongside us mere mortals. He’s the guy who knows everybody’s name – he’s the guy who knows a taxi driver well ask about her chronic health complaints on his way to work.

However, his character focus in the animated television shows has been relatively minimal. Undoubtedly his importance to his colleagues has been heavily emphasised (including one infamous moment when he single-handedly defeats a near-omnipotent Lex Luthor who has incapacitated the rest of the League), but there’s not really a sense of his character or his world. We don’t get a sense of who Wally West reallyis, so much as we are repeatedly assured that he’s a lynchpin of this whole operation.

Freeze, hero!

Flash and Substance is a story which takes the time to look at what exactly makes the Flash – and his world – unique. It’s only half-an-hour, so we don’t get as deep a perspective on Central City as we did on Gotham or Metropolis, but there’s a conscious attempt to offer the audience a comprehensive perspective on the character and his domain. And the show does a pretty damn efficient job of it within a half hour (less, even). Like the Green Lantern episodes, there’s very much a sense that the character exists in a world as detailed and distinct as that of Batman or Superman, just one we haven’t really had time to explore before.

The opening sequence – set in a dingy villain bar, with the Flash’s adversaries dreading the next “mortgage payment” and ordering milk because their “ulcer’s been acting up” – is a perfect framing device. Immediately the Rogues (although they are not named as such) are identified as distinct from the other smatterings of bad guys. There’s a clear working-class vibe to the setting and its occupants – these aren’t exactly the sort of criminal masterminds that give Superman nightmares, they’re a bunch of guys just trying to get by. At one point, after an elaborate death trap goes typically awry, one of the bad guys wonders aloud about the cost of these sorts of wonderful toys.

Not everyone works well with “lighter and softer”…

Even as the Flash returns to Central City – with the city ready to name a museum in his honour (a staple of the comics) – there’s something wonderfully telling about his arrival. Calling to mind scenes from Geoff Johns’ run on the character, he stops to ask a couple of fishermen about the day’s tackle and is genuinely lauded by the populace of his city. It’s a bright and shiny world – it’s telling that the Flash is lured into a trap by a lost child rather than a more violent crime – and one that fits the character. This is in stark contrast to the “crazed loner” approach of grim-and-gritty vigilantes like Batman – there’s a wonderful sequence where (after Batman’s more brutal attempts at interrogation have failed) Wally is able to not only get the information he needs, but convince his villain to turn himself in, simply by talking it out.

Because this is the type of world that the Flash occupies, and what rapidly sets him apart from his contemporaries. The other League heroes are all strong types – defined by their willpower or their physical strength. Wally is defined by his emotional character – his heart, for lack of a better word. Unlike the ambiguity that must surround many a late-night vigilante, Central City is proud to declare itself (even on motorway signs) as “Home of the Flash”. In under thirty minutes, the creators behind the Justice League are able to perfectly carve out and identify the core aspects of the character – and actually have a bit of fun as well.

The Flash always was a bit transparent…

It’s a joy to watch Wally attempt to come up with a witty response to Mirror Master’s “you’re quick as ever” (eventually settling on, “well, you’re… you’re not really all there”), particularly with cheesy disco music in the background. It’s also fascinating to watch the Rogues give up on the idea of elaborate setpieces and just kill their mortal enemy. There’s a definite Joss-Whedon-esque vibe to some of the scenes here, creating the impression of a world that has really sort of “gotten used to” superheroic set pieces in a way that Gotham never did.

In Batman: The Animated Series, whenever Batman fought the Joker, it seemed like the fate of the city might be at stake or that there were lives in the balance. In contrast, it seems like a confrontation between the Flash and the Rogues is more akin to low-level crime, as if it’s just the kind of thing that Central City cops are trained to expect. (While in Gotham, there’s no way to prepare for the more macabre sort of crazy.) Central City seems strangely like its hero. It’s almost well-adjusted.

Orion shows a Flash of anger…

Again, it’s just another example of how perfectly the writers and producers of the DC animated universe could capture a character and boil them down to their essential characteristics – but also proof that they weren’t afraid to handle more “light hearted” subject matter. The accomplishment of crafting such a wonderfully deep and textured universe in animation should not be overlooked – particularly for the fact that it allowed characters who could not necessarily have supported their own show the opportunity to spend a day in the limelight.

However, I have to admit that I’m still not too keen on the Justice League Unlimited themesong. It’s a bit “guitar heavy” for me, I must confess – almost like a spoof version of “classic rock”or what classic rock should sound like. It is, to be quite honest, too cheesy. And that, coming from a guy who just loved a cartoon featuring a giant boomerang trying to kill a guy in tights, is saying something.

It all comes back around…

The voice cast is great – particularly the bad guys. Yes, that is Mark Hamill reprising his role as the Trickster from the live action version of The Flash. And Alexis Denisof, of Angel and Buffy fame, is Mirror Master. And Donal Gibson, Mel’s brother, is Boomerang. That’s a pretty awesome cast, right there – even on top of the regular cast members featured here. And yes, I’m praising Kevin Conroy, again. Live with it.

Flash and Substance isn’t really a classic Flash story. It’s not perfectly formed enough to be considered “one of the best stories ever told” for the character – it simply lacks the breadth and depth, and doesn’t really say anything new. On the other hand, it is quintessential Flash. It’s the core of the character, cut down to the smallest possible portion and put on screen. Those familiar with the character will recognise what they see, and those that aren’t too aware of the hero will leave with a decent understanding of what makes him unique and how his world operates.

He certainly made a monumental impression…

And for me, it’s not only a perfect distillation of the Flash, but a perfect example of what Justice League Unlimited could do at its best.

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