Does ‘Justice League: The Flashpoint Paradox’ suggest a way forward for Warner live-action?

Over the weekend, I found myself on the road again, and one of the movies I took with me was the latest offering from DC Animation, “Justice League: The Flashpoint Paradox.” While I don’t think every single one of the DC Animated films have been great, I admire the risks they’ve taken, and I am impressed by the way they seem willing to experiment with what audiences expect.

Directed by Jay Oliva, who has been very busy for the studio lately, “JL: TFP” is a Flash-centric film that tells a story set largely in an alternate reality. Based on a graphic novel by Geoff Johns and Andy Kubert, the script was adapted by Jim Krieg, and it’s a surprisingly grim affair at times. At the start of the film, we get a glimpse of the Justice League in action when they step in to help Barry Allen, who is cornered by several of his deadliest enemies at once. It’s just a glimpse, but enough to establish what Superman, Batman, Cyborg, Aquaman, and the Green Lantern all look like in this timeline. When The Flash wakes up the next day, the world has changed dramatically, and at first, Barry has every reason to celebrate. After all, his mother Nora is still alive in this timeline, so even though Barry is suddenly no longer The Flash, he doesn’t mind at all.

Of course, that’s before he takes a look around and realizes that this timeline is a world on the brink of total collapse. Aquaman (Cary Elwes) and Wonder Woman (Vanessa Marshall) are waging war against each other, with the surface world caught in the middle, and the heroes who do exist are not the heroes that Barry remembers. I am particularly fond of the Batman who exists in this new timeline, and I think Kevin McKidd does a great job of playing him. When they reveal who he is behind the mask, it’s a great idea, and it really crystallizes how much one act can both change the world and also how certain things echo across time no matter what choices are made.

It is, in essence, an Elseworlds tale, and I’ve always enjoyed the way DC and Marvel have allowed artists to play around with some of their biggest icons. Marvel’s “What If?” series existed solely to let the writers play with the details of their best-known stories, twisting them just to see what one change would do to the overall dynamic of something. Killing Aunt May instead of Uncle Ben or having Rick Jones turn into the Hulk instead of Bruce Banner, things like that. They also seemed to love setting up battles between their characters that would have been hard to explain in regular continuity, but that were fun to watch as a one-off. For DC, the Elseworlds banner is their catch-all excuse to do things like “Red Son,” a graphic novel about what would have happened if Superman’s rocket had landed in Russia instead of Kansas. When you read these stories, what is most apparent is that these characters have taken on such a rich life that changing things about them only illuminates what is actually important about them.

Over the last few years, DC Animation has been trying all sorts of things. They’ve got new series like “Beware The Batman” and “Wonder Woman” and “Teen Titans Go!” and movies like “Superman Unbound” and “Justice League: War” and a two-part adaptation of “The Dark Knight Returns” and two “Green Lantern” films that completely smoked the live-action attempt. And looking at this latest film, it occurred to me that there really is no excuse for Warner Bros. live-action to be struggling to figure out a game plan.

Sure, it seems like the most logical business decision is to just imitate Marvel. Make a few stand-alone movies, introduce the key players, and then hurry up and make a “Justice League” movie so they can sit back and just let the money roll in. The thing is, Marvel didn’t just decide to do that on the fly. They spent the better part of a decade laying that groundwork behind the scenes before they ever rolled film on “Iron Man,” and by the time they began on that film, they knew what the plan was, and they focused on each step along the way. Warner’s development issues on their films have been well-documented, and even when they’ve actually made one of the films, something like “Green Lantern” isn’t how you lay a foundation for a larger cinematic universe. Looking at the profound difference in approach between “Green Lantern” and “Man Of Steel,” I can’t imagine how those two things are ever supposed to line up as part of the same universe, and that’s a huge problem. That’s what happens, though, when there’s no single unifying vision driving everything.

With Legendary leaving Warner, it seems like there’s even less likelihood that they’re going to build off of what they’ve already done, no matter what they say in public. “Superman Vs. Batman,” or whatever they’re going to call it, is one step forward in the rush to “Justice League,” but it also feels like DC throwing anything at the issue that they can. It feels like a reaction, not a creative decision.

I don’t understand why Warner Bros. has been so reluctant to talk to the people who have been writing truly wonderful versions of all of these characters for the last 20 years when they all theoretically work for the same parent company. Any development process concerning DC superheroes on film that does not include Paul Dini, Bruce Timm, and Alan Burnett is, simply put, broken. Why wouldn’t you ask them to bring the enthusiasm and the expertise and the knowledge of these characters that makes the animated films so interesting? I mean, I know you’re not going to be able to utilize Warner’s not-so-secret weapon, Andrea Romano, whose spectacular ear for voice and character has served so many productions so well at this point, but can’t you look at the sort of choices they make with their casting and take some cues at least?

It’s like the live-action division has spent all this time and all this money pretending that the animated division doesn’t exist, like acknowledging their work somehow threatens the live-action side of things. Even if Warner never reaches out to the animation team for these movies, there is something I suspect they would do well to learn from them. If they want to stake their own claim, they need to ignore Marvel’s game plan completely. The worst thing they could do would be mimic the exact pattern. “Okay, folks, here’s ‘Aquaman’ and ‘Wonder Woman’ and ‘Superman Vs. Batman,’ and now here’s ‘Justice League,’ in which they all unite to defeat a menace that consists of a glowing beam on a rooftop in a city.” Please. Please don’t make that movie. Please?

DC can establish a voice that belongs to them. They can do anything. They should feel free to completely shatter the mold, the way many of their animated films do. At this point, if you honestly believe that you need to do an origin story that is the length of an entire feature film for each and every superhero that exists, you are a lunatic. A dangerous, dangerous, and most likely very boring lunatic. We get it. We have reached a point in the cinematic cycle where you have got to be willing to get off the road and try something totally different if you want to do something worthwhile. This is like the moment in the ’80s where comic publishers realized they had writers desperate to try something genuinely new and they took chances and next thing you know, you’ve got a shelf full of “Sandman” stories and Alan Moore’s “The Killing Joke” next to his “Watchmen,” with Grant Morrison’s “Animal Man” on one end and “Transmetropolitan” on the other end, with “The Invisibles” right next to that. Warner may need to take some responsibility for this. They did, after all, let Christopher Nolan totally reinvent Batman in his own way, following his own fetishes, and they actually made “Watchmen,” and they did their damnedest to actually make it “Watchmen,” right down to the “Tales Of The Black Freighter” home video supplements. They have already pushed things down the road a bit, and it seems like backing up to do the down-the-middle Marvel thing would be a mistake.

Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe Warner should do several more origin movies. Maybe they should keep rebooting Superman and Batman every two to three movies. Maybe they should just pour money on the problem, because that’s solved it so far. I say this not as someone who only dislikes their movies… I think my reviews for the Nolan “Batman” films and this summer’s “Man Of Steel” and the painful “Green Lantern” all are easy enough to find… but rather as someone who sees them as holding an amazing batch of characters without the focus needed to really do something special. And they deserve special at this point, don’t they? Batman and Superman have been huge for the studio over the years, important to the identity of Warner Bros as well as the financial performance. They are major parts of Warner’s history. It is a given that they will continue to work with these characters in some way.

But the rest of the characters have, so far, been woefully unexplored. Maybe the most exciting thing they’ve announced recently is Guillermo Del Toro’s proposed “Justice League Dark” movie. We’ve written about it a few times now, and Guillermo’s talked to me about it a bit, and honestly, even if he does make it, we’re looking at two or three films before that from him at other studios, so it’s not an immediate concern no matter what. It’s interesting because it lets some of the new characters play around together in a cool framework, something that showcases all of them. I just re-read the Justin Marks script for “Green Arrow: Escape From Super Max” last night, and I give the script a lot of credit just for ambition. Making a “Green Arrow” film is not, as an idea, inherently exciting, but the right story suddenly totally justifies doing the character as a film. I haven’t see the TV version of the character that they’ve been airing this year, but it looks like a “Smallville” style recreation, and if I understand correctly, there is a “no powers” rule that suddenly turns me off completely to it. If that version appeals to you, I hope it runs for a long time, but I won’t be watching. I crave the DC Universe done big. I want the weird. I want explorations of all sorts of different corners of things, with the idea being that all of it is in one world. I want a “Lobo” film if you’re willing to let him be in the DC Universe where Henry Cavill is Superman. I would totally be okay with that. I want the “Bizarro” movie that Robert “Galaxy Quest” Gordon wrote, and yes, it is exactly as awesome as that sounds like it would be.

But right now, it feels like we’re impossibly far away from seeing movies like that. Remember, Warner, no matter what, you’re going to battling not only the perception that you’re just aping Marvel, but you’re also battling overall superhero fatigue. There has to be a finite amount of goodwill towards the genre, and I suspect there will come a point where even a smart, well-made, enjoyable superhero movie is one too many. The best chance you have of keeping audience engaged is trying new things.

In the meantime, if you want to see a tremendously entertaining movie that introduces a new way of thinking about how to show the Flash and his powers onscreen, and you’d like a little time-travel paradox kick thrown in, “Justice League: The Flashpoint Paradox” might neatly scratch that itch.

“Justice League: The Flashpoint Paradox” is in stores now.