Disclaimer: This column is an opinion formed by an author who does not have an omniscient knowledge of comics. It also contains a fair number of spoilers for the titular comic. You have been warned.
Flashpoint was, appropriately enough, a relatively quick event (only five issues in the main series) that managed to have a fairly massive effect on the DC Universe. Though there were several tie-ins and crossovers, this review will focus on the main series, which was written by one of comic’s more well-known and highly talented writers, Geoff Jones, and which centers around Barry Allen, the Flash: fastest man alive. Courtesy of some wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey events at the end of the series, this story wound up leading directly into the New 52 relaunch in 2011. (For anybody unfamiliar with this event, New 52 was essentially a reboot of the entire DC Universe. Most of the same characters are still there, but with various changes made to them and with less personal history in their new continuity.) A lot happens in this comic, so I cannot describe too much of it outside of the main plot points, so while there will still be spoilers, I suggest purchasing the collection to appreciate the nuances and more minor moments in the series.
The story begins with Barry Allen waking up at his job as a forensic scientist and hearing about a crime in process. He dashes out to go stop it as the Flash (a hero with the power of super-speed) only to find that he is missing both his costume and his super-speed. Before he has time to process this revelation, he makes an even more amazing discovery. His mother, who was murdered when he was a child, is alive and well. Moreover, when he starts to question his mother and the surrounding people about these inconsistencies in his memory, no one seems to have any idea what he is talking about. Barry drives to Gotham to ask Batman for some help, since nobody seems to recognize the names of any other superheroes he mentions. Barry enters the Batcave, calling out to Bruce. However, Batman does not recognize him and reacts violently to being called “Bruce,” which leads Barry to realize that it is not Bruce Wayne beneath Batman’s cowl, but his father, Dr. Thomas Wayne. At this point, Barry notices that he has what seems to be the ring for his costume, though upon further examination it is revealed to contain the costume of his enemy, Reverse-Flash. Barry also starts to experience some memory alteration as his memories start to synch up with this new world. He learns that this world is caught in a war between the forces of Wonder Woman and Aquaman and realizes that this is not some illusion or alternate dimension, but his world, altered by some previous interference in the timeline. Since super-speedsters are some of the only people capable of time travel at will in this universe (to really over-simplify, I’ll just say that they can run so fast that they can run through time on occasion) he assumes that the costume means that Reverse-Flash is responsible and begs Thomas to help him regain his speed so he can help restore the world before he loses his memories of how it should be. Thomas still seems skeptical until Barry mentions that in his reality, Bruce, not Thomas, had survived the robbery that created Batman. Wayne then agrees to help and reluctantly lets Barry attempt to re-create his origin not once, but twice. For any readers unaware of how the Flash got his powers, this involves Barry allowing himself to be struck by lightning. The second attempt is successful and with his powers restored, the Scarlet Speedster sets out with Batman to try and assemble a new Justice League from the shambles of this world.
The two of them recruit Cyborg, who in this world is the most prominent American superhero and together, the three of them set off to free Superman, who was apparently captured by the government when he first arrived on Earth as a baby. However, when he sees the sun for the first time in his life, Superman runs away. The trio begins recruiting other heroes and along the way, Barry comes to grips with the fact that he needs to make a plan to deal with reality in case he is unable change the timeline back. He decides to take the group of heroes to directly confront Aquaman and Wonder Woman before their war makes things any worse for the planet. The battle goes poorly, even with the return of Superman. Heroes are losing and dying left and right when suddenly, Reverse-Flash shows up and forces Barry to see the memories he had not been able to access yet. Through these memories, Barry realizes that Reverse-Flash did not mess up the timeline—he did. When the timeline shifted, Barry lost the memory of the moment he had gone back in time to save his mother’s life. In saving her life when she should have died, Barry inadvertently set off a chain of dominoes that caused this entire catastrophe. Thomas then kills Reverse-Flash, hands a note to Barry, and tells him to run into the past to save the millions who have died because of this alteration. Barry travels to a time before all of this to explain the situation to his mother and try to figure out a way to save both her and the world. Eventually, she tells Barry that he has to let her go and that one way or another, the life they did have together still happened, no matter what. He hugs her one last time and then jumps into the time stream and with tears streaming down his face, stops his younger self from saving his mother’s life, allowing her to die and the universe to right itself. As he races home, he notices his timeline in the time stream seems to split into three, which was later revealed to be the lead-in to the New 52. Upon returning home, Barry races to Batman to check that reality really is back, then relays the story and reveals that for some reason, his memories of his time in that timeline, particularly those with his mother, have not yet faded as he expects. Bruce tells him to think of it as a gift to ease the pain and Barry hands him the note from Thomas. Upon realizing who wrote the note, a shocked Bruce sits down to read it, then, in a rare display of emotion, lets a few tears escape as he thanks Barry as the story ends.
This story is absolutely breathtaking. It does a stellar job of creating a world that is significantly different from the known DC Universe, yet one that readers can believe would logically come to exist given the very simple changes to the traditional backstory of the world. The art is stunning and does an excellent job of both making the world feel real and shoving the difference between what should be and what is in the reader’s face. Oftentimes, heroes become so good at what they do and so powerful that in the eyes of many, they essentially become gods. This series recognizes how uncomfortable that fact is and forces the characters and the readers to directly confront what can happen when the heroes start acting like the all-powerful beings people think they are. It is also a really powerful way of showing that even the best of intentions can go awry in the worst possible way. The Flash is one of my all-time favorite superheroes and to see someone that good and honest hope and believe that he could go back and protect someone who he loved so dearly, to see the joy in his eyes when it worked even though he could not remember why, to see the horror on his face when he realized the full consequences of his actions, and to see someone so brave have to surrender to the pain of failing someone he deeply cared about was incredibly painful and powerful. He is never perfect, but always trying his best to do right and make decisions that he may not like, but that he can stand by and stand on based on his morality. Unfortunately, he is the perfect character to convey the message that even the best super hero cannot change reality or the past without dire consequences. The art shines again in this area, as the facial expression and body language of every character does an excellent job communicating both spoken and unspoken emotions and conflicts to the reader. While there are plenty of other emotional moments in the comic, the majority of them are encompassed in Batman’s story. Watching hope and astonishment flow into Thomas Wayne’s face when he found out that there was a way to save his son from his untimely death at the cost of his own life is absolutely beautiful and its almost as comforting for the reader as it would be for Bruce to realize that his father loves him so dearly, even years after Bruce’s death. The final scene where Bruce gets to read the last words of his father (the majority of which remain a mystery to the reader) is gut-wrenching and it evokes a strange mix of happiness and mournfulness in both the characters and the reader.
Beyond the serious emotional and thematic aspects, this comic is also really enjoyable because of all of the minor and secondary characters that show up. Since the main heroes of this universe are either out of the picture or caught up in their own war in this book, a lot of characters who normally do not see as much mainstream attention are brought to the forefront. It is good to see Cyborg getting a leadership role, especially when he does not have to deal with being under anybody’s shadow, and it is always cool to see Deathstroke, even if his part in the story was woefully short. I also like the idea that so many villains and anti-heroes wound up fighting on the side of the good guys simply because of a powerful mutual enemy.
Speaking of that enemy, I love the idea of Wonder Woman and Aquaman posing such a huge threat to the world. After all, they each have their own people and civilizations (the Amazons and Atlanteans, respectively) to watch over. It is entirely conceivable that, given a few missed meetings or miscommunications, they could have perceived each other or humanity as a threat and declared war, causing some serious casualties along the way, as both have some definite powerhouses in their armies. Overall, this is a very emotional story that shows the perils of playing God and the sacrifices that must be made to keep things the way they are.