And there we have it; DC’s The Flash has arrived on the big screen. It took the entire run of the CW series (9 seasons) and a host of various directors and scripts before finally delivering the film Ezra Miller was announced to star in back in 2014. Still, for better or worse, it’s here. Fortunately, it’s mostly worth it. Using the time travel-themed “Flashpoint” storyline as inspiration to help guide this pivot point in the ever-changing DC Cinematic Universe, for all the tragedy one can associate with Barry Allen’s life, there’s a good amount of fun to have here. Sure, attempting to build more meaning around the latest superhero story to tackle loss and what comes with great power (hint: it’s responsibility) makes the overarching narrative feel a bit middling, no matter how many gimmicks this movie has to offer. Still, this cinematic take on the Scarlet Speedster has numerous things going for it.
Set in a post-Justice League time frame (let’s not worry about which cut, things are already complicated), Barry (Miller) is doing all he can to be the Flash and work to appeal his dad’s (Ron Livingston) false incarceration for the murder of his mother. During a moment of agony, Barry runs fast enough to realize he can travel through time. Despite advice against exploring this further from Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck), Barry travels back in time to stop the death of his mom (Maribel Verdú). As anyone familiar with time travel stories knows, this alters all of reality, leaving Barry in a world without his superhero friends.
While it’s a bit of a big pill to swallow that the Barry we are presented with would disregard the potential consequences and rush into time travel (he exists in a world where characters are aware of pop culture classics, including Back to the Future), this initial section of the film is a lot of fun. The idea of Barry finding his younger self to help him fix things allows for a lot of humor from Miller’s efforts as a performer and a sly angle where he’s acknowledging that a character like this can irritate others. That this also doubles as a way to remind audiences of what Miller, the actor, was capable of before there was a concern for their troubled reality is also a curious point.
Of course, given both the real-life factors at play and the chance to capitalize on a major hook for this story, the return of Michael Keaton as Batman brings another big push in this film’s favor. Director Andy Muschietti (It: Chapters 1 & 2) doesn’t hold back on embracing what it means to bring this iteration of the character back. The production design of Wayne Manor echoes the Burton films. Danny Elfman’s iconic score is riffed on as often as possible. Even the dialogue feels like a mix of Keaton’s wry sense of humor and whatever worked as a meme then and now. None of this hurts the film, however.
Yes, getting joy from this section of the film heavily relies on our previous relationship with the 1989 megablockbuster. Still, at this point, given all the superhero films around us, let alone the rising choice to embrace multiverses, it’s more par for the course than a cheat. Besides, as an incredibly likable actor and an excellent performer, Keaton gets to have fun in this role and supply Barry with the sort of mentorship that helps his character.
With that in mind, opening one door to a development like this means others are not far behind. The main drive of this film is for Barry to figure out how to fix the alternate reality he’s trapped in. This means dealing with General Zod (Michael Shannon), who exists in this universe, while Superman doesn’t. Part of the answer there is the presence of Kara Zor-El, aka Supergirl (Sasha Calle).
While not given much to do, Calle performs as needed to fill the Cavill-shaped hole in this DCU entry. I also continue to find it fascinating to see how this Zack Snyder-originated universe handles the Kryptonians, making me wish they could have been better explored as more than just those seeking a greater good through sadistic brutality.
Regardless, even at over 140 minutes, The Flash is still speeding through or taking shortcuts to arrive at new ways to stack on developments or other obstacles. Part of that is very much the point, as we are watching an impetuous character literalizing a scenario in which he takes on too many of the heaviest tasks possible. At the same time, while Miller manages to not be outshined by the likes of Keaton or other tricks up this film’s sleeve, it does feel like the barrage of visual effects as well as high melodrama keeps us at arm’s length of receiving these characters on a more significant emotional level.
Given the consequences of Barry’s actions, simply leaning into the display of what is obviously sad is not always the way to satisfy the narrative threads. In fact, with the way time travel is utilized, I’d argue it’s a bit too morbid for the film to attempt to have a certain level of fun (including needle drop choices) and want to push for darker beats within the same breadth. Should I be expecting more nuance from a comic book movie? Well, it’s not as if they can only work a certain way or that the phrase “made for the fans” makes any sense. I’m looking at it more as how much satisfaction I’m gaining from a film that wants to have its cake and eat a lot of other cakes from different universes too.
But as I’ve also explained, this movie does know how to have plenty of fun. I wish The Flash had a stronger handle on balancing all its characters and their actions. However, this is also a movie where Barry rescues a bunch of babies falling from a collapsing building while snacking on a burrito to keep up with his high metabolism. It’s the kind of film that has Batman using gadgets ranging from a Bat Bomb to a Bat Kite.
This is also why I’m at odds with how the whole climax of the film works. Without digging into it, I can just say there’s an overloading of ideas that doesn’t come out of nowhere but does sit on the lower end of how to grapple with nostalgia in Hollywood’s increasing love of using it as audience bait. One could also consider this an opportunity to question the CG visual effects. However, I’ll just say I don’t see the Speed Force as something I should rely on to present an undistorted reality. If anything, I’d be happier complimenting how excellent the work was in creating two Barry Allens in so many scenes and never having me question how this film pulled that off.
Through all of this, I’m primarily happy to see so many strengths in The Flash and no weaknesses on the level of a piece of kryptonite rendering our heroes powerless. The circumstances concerning their life aside, Miller is very good in this film, highlighting the spirited energy Barry has as well as what’s getting this superhero’s core (let alone the choice to seemingly play this character on the autism spectrum). Keaton was going to be a win no matter what, but this film uses him effectively as well. In the realm of superhero flicks, I can’t say The Flash offers a whole lot that’s new (if you dig through the outer layers, the plot is ridiculously straightforward). However, for a movie that wants to capitalize on what the fastest man in the world can accomplish, it may have some familiar ingredients, but this is no flash in the pan.