The Flash is an Aggressively Okay Sprint through the DC Multiverse
The Flash is aggressively okay. Like Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness and Spider-Man: No Way Home, this is another live-action superhero tale set in the big, bad multiverse, only this time we’re in DC’s multiverse, not Marvel’s. Like those two films before it, this one allows characters from different cinematic eras to interact. In this case, the primary crossover involves Zack Snyder’s Justice League realm and Tim Burton’s Batman epics, with a brand-new iteration of Supergirl thrown in for good measure.
While Christina Hodson (Birds of Prey, Bumblebee) gets sole credit for the screenplay, three other writers — Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves directors John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein, and Transformers: Rise of the Beasts scribe Joby Harold — worked on the screen story. But with The Flash in various stages of production for close to two decades, they’re only four members of a long list of uncredited creatives who all played a part in bringing the finished product to the screen.
It shows. This is a narratively messy motion picture, one whose various elements feel inorganically cobbled together to the best of Hodson’s considerable abilities. That The Flash has as much heart as it does is likely due to her. For all this bloated endeavor’s missteps, thankfully, genuine human emotion is not sacrificed. That makes this discombobulated idiocy far easier to watch, even to enjoy, than it likely would have been otherwise.
Barry Allen (Ezra Miller), aka the Flash, has realized something. In a heart-to-heart with friend and mentor Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck), Gotham City’s one and only Batman and leader of the Justice League, they reveal that they have the ability to travel through time. This means Barry could theoretically change things. They could save their mother Nora (Maribel Verdú) from being murdered. They could stop their father Henry (Ron Livingston) from being erroneously convicted of the crime. Heck, they could even save Bruce’s parents if he so desired. The possibilities are endless.
Bruce urges Barry to leave the time continuum alone. Too many horrible unknowns could transpire if even only the smallest change were made, but the youngster refuses to listen. Barry enters the “Speed Force” and successfully saves his mother’s life, and initially all goes perfectly. But Bruce was right. This one change has disastrous consequences, and the fate of the entire multiverse hinges on what Barry does next.
Strangely, the moral conundrum at the center of The Flash is similar to what Miles Morales faces in Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse. This comparison does not do The Flash any favors, especially considering both films are of comparable length. But where Across the Spider-Verse does a spellbinding job of building out its characters and crafting an electrifyingly alive three-dimensional world, The Flash deals in vague generalizations, audience fan service, and familiar plot contrivances. I’ll take bets director Andy Muschietti (It, Mama) and his creative team hope no one notices.
The good news is that the film’s primary nostalgia play comes extremely close to paying off. For the first time since 1992’s Batman Returns, Michael Keaton returns to the role of the Dark Knight, and he’s not content to phone things in. Even when forced to spout a pair of signature lines from his first go-around as the Caped Crusader, the Academy Award-nominated actor somehow makes the most of them. Keaton is having a maniacal blast, and his enthusiasm is infectious. It’s a shame that practically half of this adventure’s 144-minute running time has elapsed before he finally shows up.
Another positive is the arrival of newcomer Sasha Calle. She’s Kara, otherwise known as Supergirl. In this new universe, she was sent to protect Kal-El, only to be captured by the Russians and encased in a lead prison deep underground and far away from the Sun’s rejuvenating rays. Calle is ferocious and dominates every scene she appears in. There is a mesmerizing vitality to her performance and, as with Keaton, I wanted more of her and her character than the film was willing to give me.
The elephant in the room is Miller. The actor’s off-screen meltdowns and antics are public record, so I’m not going to dig into them in this review. As for Miller’s performance, while not up to the heights of their work in The Perks of Being a Wallflower or We Need to Talk About Kevin, Miller’s turn as two different Barry iterations is still strong. But they also play up the comedy to such a degree that sometimes it’s as if they’re in a different film from everyone else, and their mannered tricks grow old after a while.
I can say that the opening act fooled me into thinking The Flash was going to be something special. The first action sequence is outstanding, and Muschietti handles it with creative aplomb. The early scenes between Miller and Affleck are splendid, while The Flash’s first utilization of the Speed Force is magnificent. I also kind of loved the impromptu meeting between Barry prime and his pre-powered younger self. These moments are funny, mysterious, and moving in almost equal measure.
But the visual effects are a mixed bag. When the entire multiverse begins to collide, this supposedly awe-inspiring moment is too mechanically cartoonish, too glossily artificial, to be effective. As for the big battle featuring Supergirl, Keaton’s Batman, the two Flashes, and the return of Michael Shannon’s Zod from Man of Steel? It’s all flatly shot punchy-punchy-blam-blam with zero stakes and even less style, so the less said about it the better.
Yet little of this is outright terrible. There is an authenticity to all the core emotional elements, and this adds a layer of heartwarming tenderness that’s difficult to resist. While I can’t quite recommend The Flash, I’m likewise certain there are plenty of potential viewers out there who will have a grand time watching Barry sprint from one corner of the multiverse to the other, and that’s just fine.
– Review reprinted courtesy of the SGN in Seattle
Film Rating: 2½ (out of 4)