We review the hotly anticipated new comic book movie that supposedly ends one era and begins another.
Expectations are the enemy of a good time. And if you've spent any time online recently, you know there are a lot of expectations swirling around The Flash. The best advice I can give you is to eject them from your brain. Ignore James Gunn. Ignore Stephen King. Forget Tom Cruise. Dismiss anyone preaching that this movie is the best superhero movie ever. Maybe it is, maybe it's not. But if you expect this film to live up to that hype, you'll either fool yourself or be greatly disappointed.
The Flash is good. At times, it's great. However, after the rapturous and cacophonous response from CinemaCon and listening too closely to some friends who were there and buzzed by the experience, I left Andy Muschietti's movie feeling profoundly frustrated. When you tell me The Flash is better than Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse or Superman: The Movie or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles or The Rocketeer, or even the original 1989 Batman, I respond with, "Get the hell out of here."
Luckily, I've managed to see the film twice now, and with my expectations out of the way, I enjoyed The Flash much more the second go-around. Ezra Miller, outside the film, is a complicated and troubled individual. How you interact with productions featuring problematic figures is a personal choice (and one we have to consider more and more with each passing day, unfortunately). In the film, as Barry Allen, Miller is exceptional and easily its most compelling aspect.
As a boy, Barry's mother was murdered in their home while his father was fetching groceries. The dad went to jail for the crime, and Barry grew up without his parents. The tragedy put him on a path that would eventually lead him to become the fastest man alive, join the Justice League, and save the world a few times over. At the start of The Flash, Barry discovers he has the ability to travel back in time and fix the moment that ruined the Allen family.
After running the plan past Batman (Ben Affleck), the billionaire who suffered a similar loss and superhero transformation, Barry ignores the Dark Knight's warnings and hits reset on his life. When he returns to the present (or the slight past, actually), Barry discovers another version of himself, one who's aged without trauma. Young Barry repulses Old Barry, but Old Barry must work through his embarrassment to set his younger self on the same superhero trajectory, minus the dead mother. If he fails, he may never go back in time and un-kill his mom. Wait, but why would Young Barry do that if the mom never died in the first place? Ugh, time paradoxes.
Those concerns go out the window when General Zod (Michael Shannon) places his armada in Earth's atmosphere. Suddenly, we're living within Zack Snyder's Man of Steel timeline. Originally, Barry couldn't help Superman in his fight against Zod, but with this second chance, he could save more lives. The two Barrys go looking for the Justice League but only find an old Batman, chronologically perverted to look like Michael Keaton now. Not only that, but this realm is without a Superman but does contain a Supergirl (Sasha Calle), one raised in captivity and without those Smallville morals. She takes some convincing.
The best bits in The Flash involve Miller anxiously and rapidly processing Barry's predicament. Miller excels at playing across from themself. Their young version feels utterly apart from their older version, and their disappointment directed at each other plays painfully relatable. What would my younger self think of who I am today? I know for sure that I would not appreciate the idiot that I was. This central conflict propels The Flash's most sincere emotional beats, and Barry's attempts to control his resentment for the version of him that didn't experience his mother's demise are deeply sorrowful.
Seeing Michael Keaton as Batman again is cool, but he's little more than a nostalgia engine. He has the gadgets you love, and he says all the iconic lines you remember, but the film would rather excite your memory than connect Bruce Wayne's tragically similar origin story to Barry Allen. We get glimpses of understanding between the two superheroes, but they only highlight the tremendous missed opportunity to unite Barry Allen and Bruce Wayne as kindred spirits.
As The Flash forces its way toward the Zod brawl, it becomes less and less persuasive. The final resolution doubles down on fandom rather than Barry Allen's self-inflicted crisis. Without spoiling the specifics, numerous filmmaking choices were made during the film's grandest moment that I found personally objectionable and caused concern for future artistic endeavors. Just because you can doesn't mean you should. Of course, anytime humanity has reached a "can," they always follow through, for better and worse. How I react to the inevitability is my problem, not yours or anyone else's. But damn, these last bits sent me out into the world feeling grim. The two crowds I experienced this sequence with seemed to eat it up, though, so what do I know?
Marketing around The Flash would have you believe that Batman and the Barrys share equal screen time. They most certainly do not. The movie is, first and foremost, a Flash movie, and when it's not distracted by references and winks, it's a really darn good one. Ezra Miller's Barry Allen is a chaotic force, frantically trying to do right by his family and the planet. The tension between these two righteous causes represents the best dramatic fears that superhero stories have to offer. I only wish the movie was less concerned with the trappings of other movies.
Is The Flash a send-off for one universe and a welcoming for another? The answer is the least exciting element found in the movie. Even the question is boring before it's asked. It might drive endless think pieces online and stir a little scuttlebutt around playgrounds, but it has almost nothing to do with Barry's narrative. The solution he finds is gut-wrenching and one he'll probably endlessly reconsider for the rest of his life. If the film had the courage to leave us pondering the magnitude of Barry Allen's choices, The Flash might rank as a favorite. Instead, we get another hit from that nostalgia narcotic. It feels nice, but when you exit the theater, the sensation is gone.
Quickie Review: Ezra Miller is electric and relatable as the two Barrys. Their entanglement fuels the film's most enthralling sequences. Unfortunately, The Flash relies too heavily on characters and emotional beats from previous movies to stand proudly as its own experience. My frustrations are significant and intense and threaten to overshadow the good the rest of the movie has to offer. Hopefully, they'll dwindle the further we move away from the theatrical release. But no promises.