Few films in the superhero genre have had to go through the amount of production hell as has The Flash. Even before the DCEU was ever close to being a thing, the film had gone through a conga line of writers and directors, and adding The Flash himself as a character to the DCEU didn’t help matters. Add onto that the ongoing hot mess that is lead performer Ezra Miller’s personal life, and it’s a wonder we have a completed film at all. Now after decades of production and a wave of fan goodwill, The Flash is finally here, and it’s…well, let’s get into it.
NOTE: When discussing The Flash’s performer Ezra Miller, I will be using their preferred they/them pronouns. When discussing the character they play, Barry Allen/The Flash, I will be using the character’s he/him pronouns. Similarly, I will try my best to remove the art from the artist, but I don’t want that to come off as minimizing the effects of Miller’s personal conduct. I’m here to discuss the film, which is larger than Miller themselves and involves other people who aren’t part of Miller’s recent history.
Barry Allen/The Flash (Ezra Miller) feels like he’s underappreciated by his friends in the Justice League and is struggling to hold his personal life together. In an emotional moment, he discovers that by using his Speedforce power, he can actually travel back in time. He decides to go back to prevent the murder of his mother, but this leaves him trapped in the past with his 18-year-old self (also Miller) on the eve of General Zod’s (Michael Shannon) invasion of earth from Man of Steel. Barry’s time traveling, however, has created a world without metahumans, leaving Earth defenseless. He recruits this new reality’s Batman (Michael Keaton) and a Kryptonian refugee named Kara Zor-El (Sasha Calle) to stop Zod’s conquest.
The Flash is a lot, just from the opening scenes. The film starts with Barry being called into help Ben Affleck’s Batman stop a crime already in progress. While Batman chases down some criminals who stole a deadly virus, Barry is left to save the people in a hospital that is collapsing into a sinkhole. Director Andy Muschietti is definitely starting the film off with a big bang, and to be fair, the action is well-orchestrated and exciting. However, it’s this prologue that also is our first hint of some of the problems we’ll see as the film unfolds.
The opening scenes are a mish-mash of moods and vibes. When focused on Barry, the film seems lighter and more comedic. When focused on Batman, it’s more dramatic, and the action sequences are much more brutal. We’re also treated to the first instance of the film’s disappointingly inconsistent CGI; Batman’s cape looks about as realistic as an early-era PS3 cutscene.
One of the big parts of the prologue involves Barry trying to rescue a fully-populated delivery room as it falls from the sky. We’re talking a nurse, a therapy dog, and several newborn babies. The situation is oddly played for laughs, thoroughly running on the kind of high camp vibe we might have found in a mid-90s superhero film. (For starters, putting the newborn wing in the 20th floor of a skyscraper hospital seems woefully misguided.) Barry uses the Speedforce to arrange a Rube Goldberg-esque rescue — even taking a quick break to recharge by raiding a plummeting vending machine — in an effort to create an entertaining tableau highlighting Barry’s powers and the lengths he’ll go to use them responsibly.
If this sounds like the Quicksilver set pieces of the more recent X-Men films, that’s exactly the type of thing the film’s aiming for. However, it lacks either the distinct choreography of the Days of Future Past sequence or the cheeky wit of the Apocalypse sequence. To be totally fair, it’s still an exciting and entertaining scene, and Ezra Miller handles their part in it well, but it’s nothing we haven’t seen before in this type of film or with a speedster superhero. This time it just has a lot more of the CGI lightning that accompanies every single use of Barry’s powers.
Part of the film’s tonal problems lie in the script by Christina Hodson, and if I’d not seen her name in the credits, I would have never equated this as being by the writer of possibly my favorite DC cinematic adventure, Birds of Prey. The subversive, anarchic charm of that film has given way to a blunted, more family-friendly version of the same here. Hodson’s script has plenty of genuinely funny moments, high-octane action scenes, and big emotional beats, but it’s pretty much a boilerplate modern superhero film. Many times, it doesn’t even seem like the script knows where it’s going, and that’s probably not entirely Hodson’s fault. Allegedly, the film had contributions from 45 writers during it’s protracted stay in development hell.
Occasionally, Hodson’s sharpness does come out, such as in a scene where the Barrys are arguing with Barry 2’s roommates about that fact that in the new reality, Eric Stoltz starred in Back to the Future instead of Michael J. Fox. Which almost happened in our own world; Stoltz was originally cast but replaced a few weeks into shooting when it was clear he wasn’t right for the part. The main Barry comes from the world where Fox played Marty McFly, but he refuses to believe Stoltz played the role in the reset timeline. It contributes nothing to the main story, and thank Diana of Themyscira for that. It’s an extremely welcome diversion and gives a hint at what Hodson’s script might have been had she not been trying to recover and rewrite something that dozens of other people had had their hands on first.
The film’s handling of its multiverse aspect also isn’t handled as well as it could be. To be totally fair again, it’s not handled poorly, but given how many multiverse movies we’ve seen lately the bar is high. There’s the complex emotional dimensions of Everything, Everywhere, All At Once, and The Flash had the misfortune of opening right after the brilliant multiversal exploration of Across The Spider-Verse. (Both films even riff heavily on the “tragic superhero past” canon events.) Marvel has made the multiverse its new Saturday night thing, and The Flash actually goes out of its way to throw shade at that, dismissing Marvel’s branching multiversal paths as “movie stuff.” But the multiverse as handled and explained in this film is rather loose and slightly unkempt in comparison, less a central plot point and more like set dressing. Like the Quicksilver moments above, it might have been given a pass if the superhero genre as a whole hadn’t been treating the multiverse like the must-have accessory of the season and other films really slaying with the concept.
I’m going to pause for a moment here to say I’m not trying to pile on the film. None of what I’m discussing would be something I would consider “bad.” More like “expected” or “typical.” The Flash is not trying to break any molds or forge any new cinematic paths, and for a summer superhero blockbuster, that’s just fine. But as someone who’s consumed nearly every superhero blockbuster for the past 25 years, I’m not seeing anything I haven’t really seen before, and I crave a bit of novelty.
What props the movie up beyond all this, though, is the cast. Ezra Miller does a fantastic job keeping the movie afloat, making both Barrys remarkably distinct and dynamic. Barry 1 begins the film as the slightly nervous, scattered character we’ve come to know but grows into a confident leader as the film progresses and the true ramifications of his time traveling come to bear. As Barry 2, Miller goes from an obnoxious, immature mix of Beavis/Butthead and Ted Logan and into something resembling a promising young superhero (while also still being slightly obnoxious but much more charmingly so). Miller fully commits to both roles and helps keep the narrative moving smoothly by anchoring it with their presence.
But some of the best moments come from Miller’s supporting cast, who effortlessly and unintentionally steal some of the spotlight. For starters, words cannot express how much joy it is to see Michael Keaton on screen as Batman again. We’re not going to argue about who the best cinematic Dark Knight is, but Keaton has always been my personal favorite. All these years later, he’s still a strong, commanding presence that’s able to embody nearly every aspect of the character’s personality in a perfect balance. Just as good is Sasha Calle as Kara Zor-El. She has the warm steel will of Henry Cavill’s Superman mixed with a strong degree of world-weariness and warrior pragmatism. If James Gunn is as smart as he seems to be, he’d keep Calle on for the new DC Universe, because she’s magnetic whenever she’s on screen.
It’s a shame the film doesn’t have any good villains for these heroes to battle though. While the idea of Michael Shannon returning as Zod is exciting, the reality is disappointing AF. Shannon completely sleepwalks through his role, and he exudes none of the menace that made his time in Man of Steel so memorable. He’s mostly replaced by a CGI ragdoll for the climactic battle on top of it, making the final act feel a little more tedious than it should. Barry also discovers some monstrous thing stalking him during his time travel moments while using the Speedforce that turns out to be similarly anti-climactic in the end. That these Speedforce scenes in the third act also involve seeing worlds populated by Deepfake alternate versions of other heroes that look like they were created on a smartphone doesn’t help.
The film’s ostensible conflict lies between the heroes and Zod’s forces, but the films real conflict is between Barry and the consequences of his actions. When the film focuses on this aspect of the narrative, it actually flourishes and finds a solid, vibrant source of energy. Miller plays these parts exceedingly well, and the true chaos engine power of the butterfly effect is rarely minimized. Barry’s actions have put the entire planet on the verge of destruction, and he’s forced to embrace maturity and be the one to fix it. These moments, more than anything, is where the film truly shines.
The Flash wants to be so many things all at once that it sort of forgets to have much of an identity on its own. It’s comedy, it’s drama, it’s action, it’s adventure, it’s a deep exploration of responsibility and maturity. To be fair, it does all of these things adequately well, but it spends more time trying to cover all the bases than finding and amplifying where its true heart lies. Regardless, the cast makes this one of the more entertaining DC films in recent memory, elevating the material far above what’s on the page and on the storyboards. It might not strike like lightning, but it’s still a comforting breeze.
FBOTU Score: 7 out of 10 / B