Justice League Unlimited, “Flashpoint” (season 2, episode 10; originally aired July 2, 2005)
The fuse was lit in “Question Authority,” but the conflict between the Justice League and Cadmus explodes in “Flashpoint,” one of the most shocking episodes in the history of the DCAU. As personal tensions threaten to rip the League apart, Lex Luthor hacks the Watchtower’s giant space gun and shoots it at an empty Cadmus facility, framing the superhero team for the decimation of an American city. Using imagery heavily reminiscent of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the September 11th attacks, this episode offers a frighteningly realistic take on the devastation these superpowered characters are capable of by emphasizing how their actions impact the common man.
The Watchtower’s gun is a metaphor for the overwhelming power the League has in its line-up of aliens, wizards, gods, metahumans, and costumed vigilantes. We’ve regularly seen these superheroes engage in battles that level skyscrapers and tear up city streets, and anyone with superpowers is a loaded gun waiting to go off. The League is made up of living weapons that are stockpiled in a space station orbiting the Earth, and the combined might of the team is represented by the binary fusion blast of the Watchtower’s space gun. When Lex Luthor hacks the League’s computer and unleashes that power on a heavily populated American soil, not even Superman is able to stop it; if the Justice League ever breaks bad like its alternate reality counterpart, nothing could stand in its way.
An episode sharing the title of the event that led to DC’s New 52 is probably the best time to discuss how the DCAU has impacted the stories of the publisher’s current continuity, particularly Geoff Johns’ Justice League run. “Flashpoint” shares very little in common with Flashpoint beyond the name, but many of the plot points of this episode became major elements of Geoff Johns’ Justice League when DC’s line rebooted. After an opening storyline that introduced the League’s origin five years in the past, the series jumped to the present to pit the team against an organization called A.R.G.U.S., a shadow branch of the Department of Homeland Security that was created to protect American citizens from the new threat of superhumans. Sound familiar?
A.R.G.U.S. assembled it’s own Justice League of America to neutralize Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman’s team should that day ever come, and a war broke out when Superman was manipulated into “killing” Dr. Light. That ended with the arrival of an alternate reality Justice League that took control of the Earth, and now the DC universe is dealing with the aftershocks of that event’s conclusion. It’s all very similar to Cadmus, the Ultimen, and the Justice Lords, but The New 52’s Justice League plot hasn’t had anywhere near the same impact as JLU’s story because of how the narrative has been structured.
Geoff Johns’ Justice League is a bleak comic. As a writer that began his career creating bright, exciting superhero adventures in Stars And S.T.R.I.P.E., JSA, and The Flash, Johns can balance humor and fun with drama and tension, but the serious elements of his work have taken over. Nobody trusts anyone else, death is everywhere, and there’s a general sense of fear surrounding his Justice League. This isn’t too far from the condition of the League at the end of “Flashpoint,” but JLU’s story has naturally built to that point over an extended period of time that also showed plenty of moments where the League was something positive and inspirational.
The Justice League has proven itself to be a major force for good on this series, and while Cadmus’ fears are justified, the viewer still believes in the League because of that past example. That growth apparently happened in the five years that passed between the first and second arcs of Johns’ Justice League comic, and skipping past those developmental years of the team damages the integrity of the unit. Five years later, Johns rushes into a story that adds tension to relationships that haven’t been fully defined; the current comic book Justice League isn’t a team, it’s an assembly of superheroes.
The Justice League TV series spent two seasons focusing on a group of seven heroes, telling a variety of stories using different combinations of characters that explored a wide scope of interpersonal dynamics. Romance, friendship, and family blossomed within the team; J’onn and Superman are the older brothers of the group, united by their shared alien nature, immense power, and authoritative presence. Flash is the younger brother, a hyperactive goofball that uses humor to remind the family that they’re fighting to keep this place a sunny, happy place.
Batman is an outsider because he’s the only member of the team without superpowers, which opens him up to have a romance with Wonder Woman because she doesn’t have the same sisterly relationship with him that she does with the rest of the men on the team. Hawkgirl is another outsider because of her secret allegiance to Thanagar, so she’s cast in a romantic role opposite Green Lantern. Those sibling/friend/lover relationships are solidified in the first two seasons of Justice League, creating a strong foundation that the writers could comfortably expand upon in JLU.
Those relationships from the first two seasons of Justice League receive further attention in JLU, but the influx of new characters creates a wealth of new connections within the group. The writers wisely choose to spotlight just a few of those primary bonds while offering brief glimpses into the interactions of background players, showing the wide scope of the team while keeping the main story points grounded in specific personal relationships: Supergirl establishes herself as the team’s resident little sister via her connections with Green Arrow, Green Lantern, and Superman; Green Lantern’s romance with Shayera is complicated by his new fling with Vixen; Green Arrow and Black Canary hook up, as do Question and Huntress.
The JLU line-up is huge, but looking at the primary cast of this season, you have one outstanding group of heroes to tell a huge array of stories with. Superman, Wonder Woman, Batman, Flash, Green Lantern (John Stewart), Martian Manhunter, Hawkgirl, Green Arrow, Black Canary, Huntress, Question, Vixen, and Supergirl is a line-up that covers a lot of bases, balancing street-level heroes with heavy hitters and featuring characters that are rooted in different parts of the DC universe. It’s almost equal in terms of gender representation, and while it’s not exceptionally diverse, having two people of color (three if you include J’onn) on the team is better than nothing.
Introduced in the first episode of JLU, Green Arrow is one of the leading players in the first two seasons of the series, and his job keeping the team honest is especially important as the League considers breaking the law to take down Cadmus. Superman is infuriated after he’s forced to beat his teammate Captain Atom, who has been called back into military service to be used as a pawn by Cadmus, and seeing a raging Superman shows Green Arrow that maybe there’s a reason people are afraid of the Justice League. “I’m the only guy in the room who doesn’t have superpowers,” Ollie says. “And let me tell you: You guys scare me.”
With far left-wing political views, Green Arrow is a person that believes the government should do for the common people what they can’t do for themselves, and if that means creating a shadow cabinet to monitor and neutralize superhumans, then maybe that’s what it takes. Rather than plotting to take Cadmus out without solid evidence that they’ve committed any crimes, the League should be focusing their efforts on finding proof of Cadmus’ guilt. Ollie is the main voice of dissent in the group, and while the League is distracted by his reasonable criticisms, Luthor hacks into the Watchtower’s computer and sends everything straight to hell.
Joaquim Dos Santos typically directs episodes spotlighting the street level heroes, so it’s a treat to see his fight choreography expertise applied to a brawl between two heavy hitters when Superman and Captain Atom go head-to-head. Showing them fight in close quarters makes the action even more brutal as they turn each other into wrecking balls that fly through walls and floors, and Dos Santos’ attention to how these battles affect the environment creates a more immersive viewing experience.
The scope of the spectacle increases drastically when the space gun is fired at Earth, and writer Dwayne McDuffie and Dos Santos do incredible work capturing the devastating force of the attack as it levels building and sends shockwaves that tear up city streets. Taking a cue from Terminator 2, the episode shows a shot of a playground just before the blast hits, part of a sequence of images spotlighting the everyday routine of people who are completely unaware their world is about to be upended. The Justice League’s heroes immediately bands together to help with the clean-up, but it’s a small gesture of goodwill that doesn’t make up for the destruction they just unleashed. It may have been an accident, but saying that doesn’t do much to make those homeless civilians feel any better.
While the League is cleaning up, Amanda Waller calls the president and tell him that this is a clear act of retaliation from the superheroes, cementing their status as a threat to the United States. This gives Cadmus the opportunity to move forward with the next step of its plan, unleashing an army of cloned Ultimen (led by Galatea) to protect American soil. The superhuman arms race just picked up a lot of speed, moving this series closer to the apocalyptic future The Question fears.
Things are looking especially dire for the League at this point, but the war still isn’t over. “Flashpoint” does incredible work raising the stakes and increasing the momentum of this four-part story as it speeds into its second half, and after seeing the Justice League destroy an American city, there’s no way of knowing where the story will go next. It’s a dense, shocking, thrilling episode of JLU, and one that wouldn’t be possible without the extensive groundwork set down in past seasons.
- I do wish this show had spent a little more time exploring Captain Atom’s character so that his conflicting loyalties to the League and the military would have more weight. He changes allegiances very quickly, and there must be some inner turmoil when the hero finds himself stuck between his friends and the government he promised to serve.
- Huntress and Question totally seal the deal this episode, right?
- Gypsy does something beyond walk in the background this week!
- “Don’t you touch him! He’s Justice League.”
- Superman: “Do I look like Batman to you?” Flash: “Actually, you kind of do. Especially when you’re all scowly like that.”
- “It’s our gun. If we didn’t have, they couldn’t have used it.”
- “People need us. We help them.”
- “Get. It. Done.”