I entered my screening of The Flash with a stormcloud hovering over my head. Even I, a lifelong superhero comics reader, have become exhausted by the sheer volume of Marvel and DC projects dominating our screens, particularly now that superhero movies have taken on many of the most frustrating qualities of their ink and paper counterparts. The marketing for The Flash showcases all of the genre’s worst current traits, from undercooked CGI to overwrought multiversal contrivances designed to show off the studio’s library of intellectual property. Every rumor or spoiled detail I heard about this film in advance of seeing it made me dread the experience.
THE FLASH ★/1/2 (1.5/4 stars)
Maybe these cratering expectations ended up doing The Flash a few favors, because despite my negative attitude I wound up enjoying myself. The Flash is no genre-redefining masterpiece and it’s unlikely to appeal to viewers who aren’t already bought into the superhero oeuvre, but it’s a much better movie than what’s being advertised. Sold as a cameo-stuffed Justice League crossover, it’s actually a comedic time travel adventure coherently focused on the emotional journey of its title character. This is faint praise, but it’s also a pleasant surprise.
Walking publicity disaster Ezra Miller stars as Barry Allen, a forensic scientist who’s been doused with chemicals, struck by lightning, and connected to the fantastical “speed force,” which allows him to outrun cars, bullets, and time itself. He’s spent the past few years fighting crime and responding to disasters as The Flash, masked superhero and member of the Justice League. Though the front and back of the movie are littered with cameo appearances by his fellow superheroes, allowing multiple actors from the DC Extended Universe and beyond to take a curtain call, this really is Barry’s (and by extension, Ezra Miller’s) movie. Not even Michael Keaton, who reprises his role as the version of Batman last seen in 1992’s Batman Returns, can wrestle the movie out of their hands. Miller’s performance is not, as the film’s production designer infamously claimed last month, so good that it could make me forget the actor’s growing list of criminal allegations, but it is one of the film’s strongest assets.
Most of the movie is a buddy adventure in which Miller portrays both buddies. There’s Barry, the seasoned but scatterbrained superhero from the film’s original timeline, and there’s Barry, an immature teenager from a new reality that’s created when Barry (the first one) goes back in time to prevent his mother’s murder. The original Barry becomes trapped in an alternate 2013 (concurrent with the events of the first DCEU movie, Man of Steel) and must team up with his younger self to save the world from a disaster of his own making. This is a great conceit for three reasons: First, it allows for a character who is fairly grating to begin with to be on the receiving end of his own grating personality while learning to appreciate how his traumatic childhood shaped his life, which is key to the themes of the story. Second, Miller has terrific chemistry with themselves, making the interplay between the two Barrys by far the film’s most successful special effect. And third, it means that fewer actors were forced to interact with the increasingly creepy and unhinged Ezra Miller on set.
Though all depictions of super-speed live in the shadow of the “Time in a Bottle” sequence from X-Men: Days of Future Past, director Andy Muschietti and the no doubt extremely exhausted visual effects team craft evocative ways to represent the Flash’s powers on screen, from the Looney Tunes-style slow motion gags to the spherical kaleidoscope of hyperspeed time travel. Muschietti and company lean into the cartoon fun of the character and there’s a lot of broad comedy baked into the action, which is almost enough to excuse how waxy and rubbery every single digital human is throughout the entire film. On the one hand, I can barely believe that a major studio released one of their biggest and most expensive tentpole films looking like this. On the other, what I was looking at never bored me, and since so much of the film is a comedy, I was much more inclined to suspend my disbelief.
What hurts The Flash is the mandate that it function as a selective reset of the DC film universe, a bridge between the blighted DCEU and its James Gunn-produced successor. (The billion-dollar Aquaman franchise will march on mostly unchanged, while the rest will be overwritten by the new management in the hopes of finally standing toe to toe with the mammoth Marvel machine.) The film’s story is based upon Flashpoint, a 2011 comics event in which Barry’s meddling with the timeline creates a grim new reality. This universe’s infant Superman (or in the film, Supergirl) is recovered by a cruel government agency instead of by kind farmers, and its Batman isn’t Bruce Wayne, but his father Thomas, who is driven mad with grief after the young Bruce is gunned down in front of him. This hyper-violent, gun-toting Batman is the product of the same impulses that led Barry to make this mess in the first place, the inability to let go of a terrible loss. In the film adaptation, Thomas is swapped out for the Keaton version of Batman, because someone at Warner Bros. saw how much money Spider-Man: No Way Home made and said, “Let’s do that.” Keaton does a fine job reprising his quietly goofy take on the character, but his presence doesn’t really add anything aside from a cheap nostalgia pop for older viewers.
I can only wonder what this movie might have looked like had it not been forced to be the epic finale of a broader superhero universe and allowed to thrive as a goofy, heartfelt time travel comedy. Part of the reason so many viewers are voicing exhaustion with superhero cinema is the way that each individual film has exploded into the scale of an Avengers crossover. Every “solo” film is now a team-up film, and every story has reality-ending stakes. This is a problem inherited from the source material. Ask any comics fan, and they’ll tell you that the big summer event titles rarely make for the best stories, and even when they’re good, you need the more intimate and episodic stories in between, or else they don’t feel like anything. The hour or so in which The Flash is about one character having a wacky adventure with his younger self genuinely impresses me. The rest is a tolerable distraction, not enough to spoil the experience, but enough to make me wonder what could have been. In some neighboring timeline, The Flash might have been genuinely great. But, if the film taught me anything, it’s that I should probably just get over it.
Observer Reviews are regular assessments of new and noteworthy cinema.