Flash, The (United States, 2023)June 13, 2023
The best things – or at least the most memorable ones – in The Flash are rooted in fan service and nostalgia. The movie, although too long by about 45 minutes, is enjoyable on that level. With a tone that skews closer to that of Shazam! than Man of Steel, the penultimate DCEU endeavor leans too heavily on the multiverse plot device without worrying too much about having a genuine, coherent storyline. If there’s one thing we have learned about multiverse movies, it’s that they feel like an amalgamation of moments taken from fans’ wish lists combined with psychedelic visuals, CGI oversaturation, and bogus endings. The Flash suffers from many of those things but at least the ending is solid. And, although huge chunks of the storyline could easily be dispensed with, the narrative pillars are strong. That could be because it borrows from the Star Trek episode “The City on the Edge of Forever,” which is generally viewed as the best TV episode produced in the original series’ three-year run.
The Flash is not, as some advance word has labeled it, the best of all the recent comic book movies, but merely another in a string of lackluster big screen blockbusters. One of the many problems with the movie is that Barry Allen/The Flash is one of the least interesting characters to appear on screen, despite his existence in two separate incarnations of the same person. Many viewers will be far more interested in the return of Michael Keaton to the role of Bruce Wayne/Batman or the introduction of Sasha Calle as Superman’s female replacement, Kara Zor-El. The screenplay works hard to humanize Barry but he still comes across as a self-centered brat who only starts to earn the viewer’s sympathy toward the end.
Much has been written about a concern among Hollywood screenwriters regarding AI-generated scripts. The Flash feels like the kind of thing one might expect in this case. Like most other multiverse movies, this is about a superhero doing something that threatens the entire cosmos. I suppose one has to suspend disbelief to accept that The Flash can travel fast enough to journey into the past but in far too many of its uses, time travel is a weak crutch. To be sure, the tone is lighter than in many of the other DCEU films but, although The Flash obviously wants us to think about Back to the Future (it is directly referenced), director Andy Muschietti is no Robert Zemeckis. (Zemeckis had been the studio’s original choice to direct The Flash but he had a schedule conflict.)
Although originally designed to reposition the DCEU for a new phase, The Flash is instead functioning as an epitaph. Despite a tsunami of cameos – some of which have been publicly revealed and some of which have not – the film is self-contained. Ultimately, its goal is to offer a belated origin story for Barry, despite his having already played a significant role in one previous DCEU chapter (Justice League) and been granted cameos in a couple of others.
The film begins within the DCEU with a bank robbery in Gotham City. While Batman (Ben Affleck) is chasing down the criminals, someone is needed to mop of the damage done in the wake of the confrontation. With Superman busy limiting the damage done by an erupting volcano and Wonder Woman M.I.A., the task falls to Barry (Ezra Miller), who is none-too-happy about being the Justice League’s “janitor.” During the mission, he discovers a new talent: if he goes fast enough, he can break the “time barrier.” Despite warnings from Bruce Wayne that he should not use this ability because of the potential butterfly effect impacts on the time line, he believes he has discovered a way to save the life of his murdered mother without directly interacting with anyone. He does this and, as Bruce predicted, disaster ensues.
Barry finds himself marooned in an alternate world about a dozen years prior to his previous “present.” This Earth has no meta-humans. There’s no Superman, no Wonder Woman, no Aquaman. When the Kryptonian outlaw General Zod (Michael Shannon) comes calling, The Flash is Earth’s only potential defender. After Barry makes contact with his alternate self, he learns there is a Batman (Michael Keaton) and that becomes a starting point for his journey to create a new Justice League.
From a performance-related standpoint, Ezra Miller is fine – perhaps even better than “fine.” The role demands a fair amount of range (comedic bits, action-oriented scenes, and a few dramatic interludes) and Miller has no problems navigating the various aspects of The Flash’s screenplay. Unfortunately, the actor comes with some heavy off-screen baggage. Whether or not viewers will be able to ignore the various scandals that have beset Miller in recent months is a question that perhaps the box office will answer. In terms of acting, however, there’s little to criticize.
However, as crucial as Miller is to the film, one could argue that Michael Keaton is the real draw. Batman is a bigger character than The Flash and Keaton’s participation in the first two blockbuster Batman movies (1989’s Batman and 1992’s Batman Returns) makes this new engagement something of an old-school fan’s fondest dream. He doesn’t disappoint. Like Christian Bale in The Dark Knight Rises, Bruce starts the film as disillusioned but it doesn’t take long before The Batman has come back. Meanwhile, as Supergirl, Sasha Calle is adequate in a grossly underwritten part. Given the opportunity, she might develop into an interesting character but, in this case, she doesn’t fill the gap left by the bizarre decision not to include Superman in the main cast. Michael Shannon reprises Zod and, despite having appeared in three movies, he still feels like an imposter. (Terrence Stamp casts a long shadow. Snyder never should have recast the role.)
The Flash contains enough really good moments to engage anyone who considers themselves to be a DC fan. There’s a little too much of this stuff although all of the cameos are respectful and no attempts are made to do more than the current state of non-Cameron technology allows. The special effects are disappointingly uneven. Some sequences look state-of-the-art. Others, most notably those showing Flash using his speed abilities, are video game quality. The baby rescue scene near the beginning is embarrassing, with the babies looking like dolls.
In the end, The Flash is just another comic book movie with little to set it apart from the many alternatives. It relies too much on nostalgia (an always reliable crutch) and the suddenly overused plot contrivance of the metaverse. Despite a too-long running time of 144 minutes (the entirety of which much be endured to get to the post-credits scene), the story feels slight. There’s a strong emotional hook but it doesn’t fully compensate for all the half-baked story elements that litter the film. In terms of multiplex viewing, it works as an early summer distraction. My recommendation is to wait for it to stream.
Flash, The (United States, 2023)
Cast: Ezra Miller, Michael Keaton, Ben Affleck, Sasha Calle, Michael Shannon, Ron Livingston
Home Release Date: 2023-08-29
Screenplay: Christina Hodson, based on a story by John Francis Daley & Jonathan Goldstein and Joby Harold
Cinematography: Henry Braham
Music: Benjamin Wallfisch
U.S. Distributor: Warner Brothers