Directed by Andy Muschietti | Written by Christina Hodson and Joby Harold | 144 min | ▲▲▲▲△
The Flash is a superhero movie with an almost insurmountable hill to climb.
It’s set solidly in the multiverse subgenre of fantasy pictures, following two beloved animated Spider-Man movies, one live-action, a middling-at-best Dr Strange movie, and the Oscar-winning little movie that could.
To many this is likely to feel played out. Superheroes themselves, on top of the Hollywood heap for 15 years might’ve peaked in pre-pandemic times, and these mash-ups of characters from different timelines and cinematic eras is a trend that could be heralding the end of something rather than a new beginning.
Further, this property features a lead actor, Ezra Miller, who has been euphemistically called “troubled” and who the studio has largely kept hidden from view while the film is being promoted. (This is the second time in a week the entirely non-hispanic Miller has portrayed someone with hispanic roots, which really makes me wonder what casting agents and producers are thinking.)
And why should we care about this character, Barry Allen? He’s a supporting player in the Justice League movie(s), delivering at best a bit of comic relief in the franchise. We’ve heard all of these movies are getting a serious reboot thanks to the new studio creative, James Gunn. How much of his vision for the future will springboard off the shoulders of this film remains to be seen, but none of this suggests The Flash is essential.
Maybe that’s why I enjoyed it so much, my expectations were so low.
The movie is self-aware enough to forefront the humour, much of it of a meta variety, though it has a few serious things on its mind that it manages to convey despite the general noise and inter-dimensional hubbub.
Barry Allen (Miller) works in a forensics lab in Central City — or maybe it’s Gotham? It’s a little unclear because Batman/Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) shows up on the regular. The filmmakers have done a decent job of turning London into an American metropolis, though there’s no disguising the landmarks such as the Senate House, Smithfields Market, or St Pauls, all of which feature prominently.
An opening battle/rescue scene is a total blast — the expression “baby shower” has been entirely repurposed — and it reminds us of both Barry’s superhero gifts and Miller’s caffeinated charm. Despite the film’s limp effort to forward a hetero romance (with Kiersey Clemons), Miller’s wholeheartedly signalling his queerness in every scene. If you can swallow Miller at all as a lead presence — and I entirely understand why many might not — they are a delightful left turn from the usual, square-jawed spandex heroes.
The Flash’s trauma in life comes from the death of his mother, (Maribel Verdú, who I’ll never forget from Y Tu Mama Tambien). She’s murdered in her kitchen when Barry is a kid, and his father (Ron Livingston) is convicted of the crime and is rotting away in prison, though his case is being reviewed.
Almost accidentally, The Flash discovers if he runs really fast he can go back in time, and figures he can prevent his mother’s murder. The least problematic way of doing that involves a can of tomatoes. (It’ll make sense when you see the movie.)
What happens, however, is that when Barry returns to his own time, he meets a duplicate of himself, but someone who’s just a few years younger. This is the key relationship in the film, between Barry and Barry, and Miller does a terrific job showing how experience has distinguished one Barry from another, even though they’re fundamentally the same.
More than that has changed: Batman is not the same guy — enter Michael Keaton. And yes, the Tim Burton-era Batman arrives with his remarkable Danny Elfman score and a lot of familiar toys, wherever he gets them, though maybe not quite enough to do. (I was a little disappointed that during a scene where someone is strapped to a chair conducting lightning, they didn’t play Prince’s “Electric Chair.” IYKYK.)
What the two Barrys now have to face isn’t getting the original Barry back to his own timeline, it’s the threat of the Kryptonian heavy Zod (Michael Shannon). We’re now back in Man Of Steel, and Superman is nowhere to be found. Fortunately, he has a powerful cousin (Sasha Calle, channelling Twilight-time Kristen Stewart).
So, is this yet another opportunity for a studio with a deep bench of performers who’ve played iconic characters in the past to bring them back and trigger our latent nostalgia? Sure is. (Though don’t hold your breath for the pointy-eared fellows who appeared in Christopher Nolan or Matt Reeves movies.) Did some of that make me roll my eyes? Yes — one in particular, a performance that didn’t even get past a wardrobe test in RL, is resurrected here in the most ridiculous way imaginable.
But did I forgive most of it? Absolutely, because the script is so playful and funny — this is a movie that had me laughing out loud on the regular. The Flash knows all this is impossible to take too seriously, which is entirely the right approach, dancing on the grave of the tedious Snyder years and finding the perfect tone for a time-travelling, team-up, infinite-earths special.
And that’s the only way to approach this material, especially given the filmmaker is wildly disinterested in anything like plot coherence.
For instance, it’s established early on that Barry needs to eat a lot in order to manage his raging metabolism, a character trait that’s largely forgotten for huge swaths of action-filled movie. The picture also pays lip service to the complexities of time travel — Eric Stoltz as Marty McFly notwithstanding — and then provides late-arriving twists that barely make sense. (Um, didn’t Barry have any curiosity around who actually murdered his mother?) Sludgy, unimpressive CGI is another major mark against The Flash, too.
And yet, its thematic foundation underneath all the nonsense is delivered with just enough panache to work — trying to accept life’s inexorable hardships and moving forward is the only way to get beyond them.
Your mileage (and velocity) may vary, but whatever comes next in the convoluted DC universe, I had a lot of fun with this movie.