2023, PG-13, 144 min. Directed by Andy Muschietti. Starring Ezra Miller, Sasha Calle, Michael Shannon, Ron Livingston, Michael Keaton, Ben Affleck, Jeremy Irons.
REVIEWED By Trace Sauveur, Fri., June 16, 2023
Talk about a film with a troubled production history. Between decades of Hollywood trying to get a Flash movie off the ground, myriad performers and creatives who’ve joined and left various related projects over creative differences, and the, uh, problematic Ezra Miller-ness of the situation, a Flash movie seemed downright cursed. How does a film so utterly troubled play now that it’s actually out in the world?
I was shocked that my initial answer to that question during the film was: not that bad. The first half of The Flash is a refreshing slice of big-budget yet relatively scaled-down superhero fun, with a good sense of dynamic visual wit. The opening sequence is delightful, showcasing the innate creativity and expressiveness possible in depicting Barry Allen (Miller) at supersonic speed, as he works to prevent casualties from a collapsing hospital. It demonstrates a world that’s possible where the humor of superhero films isn’t born from unremitting quipping, but true inventiveness and finesse within the craft that support the characters and story.
If you’re a fan of time travel antics, then there are reasons to have fun here as well. Working from a story by Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves writers/directors John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein and a screenplay from Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) writer Christina Hodson based on the Flashpoint comics, Barry’s escapades are pitched at an effective emotional caliber. Turning back time in order to prevent the death of his mom when he was a child, he strands himself in an alternate timeline where he has to work with a somehow even more irksome version of himself.
Controversies notwithstanding, Miller is quite convincing in the extended dual role, essentially having to rely on acting against (and grounding emotional pathos with) themselves for the majority of the run time, as the two work to set things straight within space-time. It’s not long before the familiar face of General Zod (who would have thought Michael Shannon would still be showing up in these a decade after Man of Steel?) arrives to wreak havoc in this universe and our two Barrys have to look for backup, which comes in the form of none other than Michael Keaton’s version of Batman and a newly introduced Supergirl (Calle).
It’s a surprise to Barry but not to the audience, as Keaton’s suited-up mug has been plastered all over the marketing for the film: The multiverse sells, and Warner Bros. needs people to know that DC has one. Both characters end up almost as nonentities, carrying no real consequential weight to their appearances in a story so overstuffed with ideas and plot threads that it doesn’t have the time to do much with these alternate heroes other than mindlessly throw them into action sequences. There’s some charm to seeing Keaton using outdated gadgets and tech in a world that has advanced past his heroism, but there’s also a disconnect in seeing his character operating within a full-on multiverse story when the most science fiction-y his films really got were mostly just by way of having things like a Batmobile. As for Supergirl, she’s barely a character here.
Everything inevitably leads to a third-act hodgepodge of CGI fighting and explosions, in a climax that begins as distinctly underwhelming before moving into something new that recontextualizes themes about the futile nature of changing the past and interrogates the role of a hero like the Flash in a way that’s shockingly emotionally cogent.
Then, it throws all that away for a grotesque, digitally rendered parade of IP branding. I can’t remember the last time I turned on a movie so quickly. It goes from something I wish these movies could be more often to everything I hate about the modern state of them within the span of 10 seconds. It’s a pitiful disservice to itself, turning a relatively fun, if rocky, movie into nothing but another product designed as a carousel where you can point at things and people you recognize. The final 10 minutes of The Flash are absolutely defeating.
After the fact, The Flash feels like the ultimate case in point as to why James Gunn and Peter Safran have been brought in to course-correct the trajectory of the DC enterprise. According to them, this has been retrofitted to be the first of a few transitory films as we exit the DCEU and move into a newly established DC Universe. Here’s hoping they pull it off, because I don’t know how many more of these I can take.