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Justice League Unlimited – Flashpoint (Review)

This September marks the twentieth anniversary of Batman: The Animated Series, and the birth of the shared DC animated universe that would eventually expand to present one of the most comprehensive and thorough explorations of a comic book mythology in any medium. To celebrate, we’re going back into the past and looking at some classic episodes.

While Question Authority kicked off this four-part climax to the arc that had been building through the first season of Justice League Unlimited, it’s Flashpoint that really serves to bring things into focus. Question Authority had been told mostly from the point of view of the Question, an outsider looking in – but Flashpoint explores the consequences of this inevitable conflict for the core of the Justice League. It’s amazing just how thoroughly and carefully writer Dwayne McDuffie was able to explore the concept of the superhero in this cynical post-9/11 world. While Divided We Fall would sidestep quite a few of the issues raised, I’m quite impressed to see them even broached in a half-hour cartoon action series.

All fired up…

After all, what gives the Justice League the authority to dictate right and wrong to a world beneath their feet? The first Justice League episode, Secret Origins, featured Superman campaigning for nuclear disarmament, echoing the actions of Christopher Reeve’s Superman in Superman IV: The Quest for Peace. That politicking seems a bit ironic when the Watchtower now keeps a gigantic cannon in orbit over the planet, ready to rain down a near-nuclear response on anything they deem deserving.

The comic book Justice League generally gets to avoid such questions by virtue of its age. The comic book superhero team was introduced in the sixties, when comic books were a lot less cynical and certainly a lot less politically complex. There was relatively little thought as to who gave “the Justice League of America” authority to operate on United States soil, with the stories more keenly focused on spectacular conflicts with Despero or Starro the Conqueror. The question was never raised at the start, and it’s fitting that the idea has – generally – been breezed over since then.

Fists of fury…

However, times have changed, both within comics and outside of them. Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons made it popular to deconstruct superheroes with Watchmen, and you can certainly see a lot of affection for Moore’s work in Justice League Unlimited. After all, the show adapted his For the Man Who Has Everything as its second episode, created a version of the Question heavily influenced by Rorschach and offered a take on the Brainiac-Luthor partnership which seemed to hark back to the body horror of Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?

In the years since Moore and Gibbon, it seems like comic book creators have become obsessed with picking apart superheroes and – to a lesser extent – putting them back together again. Warren Ellis’ Authority offered a brutal examination of the political implications of a superhero team. Mark Millar, his successor on The Authority, also wrote The Ultimates – a book which set a modern origin of The Avengers against a modern political landscape, with super-humans deployed as government-sponsored weapons of mass destruction. These were questions no comic book writer would have touched with a barge pole when the Justice League made their first appearance.

Raising El…

Of course, the world itself changed. The Second World War and the Cold War gave birth to many modern superheroes, and it offered a morally simplistic outlook on the application of such power. Since power was binary – good or bad – it was safe to use it almost unquestioningly for good. You knew who the good guy was because he fought for the things you believed in against the criminal, the degenerate or the foreign enemy. However, in the years since, things have become a bit more complex.

September 11th casts a big shadow, a day that literally changed the course the world, and really altered the global geopolitical landscape. It also affected culture, with the events inspiring a generation of art and commentary. Superheroes, arguably a modern American mythology, were not immune to the radical cultural shift. Brian Bendis’ New Avengers was very much a response to moral and political ambiguity following September 11th, as the heroes proved incapable of defending their country against various threats disguised in their midst.

Great couple, no Question about it…

Flashpoint features a moment I was surprised to see on a television cartoon, even a few years after September 11th. From orbit, the Justice League satellite opens fire on a densely-populated city, causing massive widespread destruction in a community that had no idea that an attack was even coming from above, let alone something they had considered to be safe and secure. It’s a fairly harrowing moment, when even Superman fails to stop the weapon from firing.

To be fair, the episode goes to great pains to point out that no civilian lives were lost in the explosion, with a host of shots showing that a large number of people improbably survived the blast – often under rubble for hours. Naturally, the target of the blast was – despite Luthor’s nefarious intentions – empty. Still, the imagery is powerful and evocative, and quite daring, even for a show like this. It shows the heroes firing (albeit unintentionally) on a major population centre.

President and accounted for…

The points of comparison are clear. The great Robert Forster shows up as an unnamed, and mostly unshown, President who is very clearly intended to be George W. Bush. The character even speaks with the same sort of imprecise colloquialisms that the President was famous for. He admonishes J’onn, “Even so, I repeatedly expressed my strongest disapproval of you guys having that space cannon floating over everybody’s head.” Phrases like “you guys” and “space cannon” are hardly technical.

US intelligence is even criticised in the wake of the blast. According to the President, the NSA was unable to even locate Amanda Waller, an operative working on the government payroll. There’s the implication that the country was completely unprepared for an event like this, and it mirrors observations about the lack of inter-departmental cooperation that might have prevented the 2001 attacks.

Smoke and mirrors…

In the post-9/11 landscape, there’s a lot more moral ambiguity about the application of force and moral authority in international politics. Superman has the power to reshape the world – in some incarnations, literally – but does that give him the right to do so? However, is failure to act something that deserves just as much condemnation? Superman is really the key here, and McDuffie makes great use of a character who is often dismissed as “simplistic” or “boring.” Here, McDuffie seems to use Superman as a metaphor for American military power in the wake of the attacks, caught in an existential dilemma where he has the power to act, but there’s no clear “right” answer.

McDuffie’s Superman is angry, which is a very rare sight. Throughout the episode, Superman seems to have lost a lot of his compassion and understanding, replacing them with righteous anger over the brutal torture of one of his friends and betrayal of a close ally. “Cadmus turned him against us,” Superman remarks of Hamilton. However, he doesn’t seem to have any sympathy in his voice, just contempt. “He was afraid of us.”Superman is so blinkered by his own issues that he can’t see that fear might be a perfectly rational response to a bunch of super-humans sitting overhead with a giant laser.

He’ll crack under the pressure…

It’s very clear, from his conversation with Supergirl, that Superman is planning some direct unilateral action. Question Authority saw Superman and Huntress storm Cadmus without informing the rest of the League. “Just tell me when we’re going to shut them down,” Supergirl remarks. Superman replies, “One stop first.” In contrast to his usual portrayals as an approachable person, here Superman seems quite aggressive towards his colleagues when they urge restraint. “Batman said I was supposed to keep you guys honest,” Green Arrow tells Superman. Kal-El coldly responds, “Do I look like Batman to you?” It takes J’onn, essentially an even more alien version of Superman, to concede, “We must also accept the possibility that Cadmus is right to be afraid of us.”

Interestingly, McDuffie doesn’t position Superman as the heart or spirit of the League. Instead, Superman is the head of the Justice League – he’s the symbolic representation of all they stand for, the icon that even heroes look up to. He’s well-intentioned and sincere, but not infallible. McDuffie rather shrewdly, then, positions the Flash as the heart of the Justice League, the member of the team with the least maturity, but the most emotional intelligence. It’s no coincidence that the Flash is the first person on the Watchtower to stop arguing politics and worrying about culpability, and instead tries to help the people below. “There’s gonna be some people who need our help down there. I’m taking a couple of rescue teams.”

A cool cat…

It’s a portrayal that has explicitly been in place since A Better World, and it’s one that works. After all, most of the other major members conform to archetypes – it gives Wally West something to do. If Superman is “the Big Blue Boy Scout”, that doesn’t leave a niche for Flash. It’s better to separate the roles, to make Superman the symbol and Flash the heart. Brad Meltzer would use a similar approach to the character in his Identity Crisis miniseries, with Barry Allen being easier to corrupt. Geoff Johns’ recent Justice League has also used the same role on the team for Barry Allen. Naturally, this calls back to A Better World and harks forward to Divided We Fall.

Flashpoint opens with a knock-down brawl between Superman and Captain Atom, hero-against-hero. The pair had been established as allies in the teaser to Question Authority, with Captain Atom recruited back into the US military in order to take on the Man of Steel. Captain Atom is one of the three major characters that Steve Ditko created at Charleton, and he’s one of two of Ditko’s creations to play a major role in Justice League Unlimited. (In fact, he appeared as early as the first episode, teaming up with Supergirl, Green Arrow and Green Lantern.)

More than a bruised ego…

While the Question drew from both Ditko’s earliest work on the character and Alan Moore’s pastiche Rorschach from Watchmen, the show never really did anything quite as sophisticated or as astute with Captain Atom. The character famously inspired Moore’s Doctor Manhattan, the glowing blue god with complete power over matter, and with a unique view of time. Instead, Captain Atom is handled relatively simply, presented as a soldier following orders – a portrayal that intentionally and sharply contrasts him with Superman, perhaps a rather blunt commentary the notion that Superman works for “the man” in protecting the status quo. “Got my orders, legal and proper,” Atom explains. They use the civilian identity of Nathaniel Adams rather than Ditko’s Allen Adam.

(I do find it interesting that Superman picked up Captain Atom and flew him to the Watchtower. “He’s Justice League,”he tersely states, as if worried that the staff at Cadmus would experiment on the soldier. To be fair, they had been torturing the Question. Still, it seems like Superman forgives Captain Atom fairly fast, despite the hatred that he seems to immediately manifest towards Doctor Hamilton. Then again, perhaps Superman just never really cared for Hamilton.)

Superman really cracked his outer shell…

As an aside, I do like the small scene with the Question and Huntress. It’s very clear that their roll in the story is pretty much done now – barring a small cameo in Panic in the Sky – so it feels appropriate that we get a short moment or two with them on the Watchtower. Amy Acker and Jeffrey Combs are two of the best voice actors added to the ensemble, and they play remarkably well off one another. There’s something strangely tender about their interactions, especially after Huntress peels off his mask.

Flashpoint makes for an interesting second part of this four-part story. You could argue that the four-part story is actually structured into three acts, with Question Authority working as a first act, and Divided We Fall as the third. As a result, Flashpoint feels like the first half of the middle act of this story, and so it feels a little incomplete on its own – the most incomplete of the four parts, I think. Still, it’s an effective piece of television, and another solid script from Dwayne McDuffie.

You might be interested in our reviews of reviews of the other four parts of Dwayne McDuffie’s climax to the show’s “Cadmus” arc:

5 Responses

  1. About the “He’s justice League” remark: I interpreted it as Superman recognising Captain Atom’s loyalty and honour even if the side he was on was not honourable. Sort of, “he might have been working for you but he’s nothing like you.”

    • It’s a fair point, but part of me wonders if Atom woke up on the Watchtower and was like “Am I a prisoner?”

      Granted of course, he probably has no idea what Cadmus is doing or who they’re employing, but it seemed like a strange moment. But I like the portrayal of a flawed, righteous Superman – with the whole four-parter working as a wonderful Superman story. I still think there’s an element of “You guys can’t keep taking my stuff!” after the Emil Hamilton revelation, ironically demonstrating why people should fear Superman. Superman’s so used to being morally right that he can’t really accept he might clash with another morally justifiable position. (Okay, discounting Cadmus’ methodology, but their concerns are certainly legitimate.) He might be justified in taking Atom, but at what point does it become kidnapping, and who could stop him, if he makes a similar decision about Eiling or Waller?

  2. First of all great stuff, TMB is like an old friend I can come back to whenever, full of great insight into the craft.

    Though I would question your “pole” comment. Yes, the 80s were a culmination of past trends, it that doesn’t mean it was without precedent. The original JLA book (#28) had the Lesuge held under a UN injunction, with them protesting outside (this was the origin of the nebulous “UN Charter” that popped up several times and was used in The Weisman/Vietti Young Justice series) The building itself. Heck, Superman’s first appearance had him strong arming the Governor, and that run had ongoing story arcs about Superman trying to keep the US out of a war AND Kal being hunted by the government. This was the 30s.
    If anything that subtext was always there, whether t was mined or not was up to the skills of the writers.

    But seriously, epic series comrade. (Though that “Brazilboyz” line may have been a reference to “Epilouge” given the staff said it was inspired by an abortive “Boys in Brazil” plot with Catwoman that they pushed onto Waller and Cadmus. It very well could have been Batman Beyond.0)

    • I realize I’m a few years late here, but it’s interesting to read about the origins of the “Boys from Brazil” reference and the different ways it’s been interpreted.

      I’d always assumed Luthor’s “Brazilboyz” folder to foreshadow Hamilton’s ersatz-Supergirl project, Galatea, and the army of ersatz Super-Friends she leads against the League, since those were cloning programs working to create “reborn” versions of people for Cadmus’s benefit, and because the results of both appear within this same four-part story.

  3. As I see it, Superman’s much angrier at Hamilton because, per Hamilton’s own explanation, betraying Superman was a wholly personal choice for him. If Hamilton feared Superman, he could’ve ended their friendship without joining an anti-Superman conspiracy. “Cadmus turned him against us,” complains Superman, but does that square with what Hamilton said? Does Superman really believe it? I’d say “no” and “maybe not”; this is a point in the story where Superman’s clarity is still in question, where it seems he might not want to confront his own feelings of guilt even when he doesn’t really need to feel guilty.

    In contrast, Superman recognizes and respects Adams’s duty as a military officer, and he acknowledges from the start that breaking into Cadmus is “off the books”, that is, a step beyond what Superman feels fully justified in doing. He doesn’t consider Adams trying to stop him to be a betrayal of a personal friendship, but just Adams finding one duty at odds with another and going with the one he knows best, the duty to his government, something which Superman seems to expect from him even as he asks Adams to stand aside. (And I’d say, yeah, after finding The Question in a torture chamber, Superman isn’t about to leave an unconscious teammate in the hands of Cadmus.)

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