‘The Flash’ Races Through DC History With Heart and Humor – Review
It’s no secret that the DC Cinematic Universe is in trouble, and that’s not counting the in-world cataclysms that its heroes face. While independent stories like Matt Reeves’ The Batman and Todd Phillips’ The Joker have been met with critical and public acclaim, the tepid reactions and meager box office returns for mainline DC films like Shazam!: Fury of the Gods have left a lot riding on the Flash, whose first solo film is set to reset DC’s trajectory and set up the James Gunn era of films.
In the current cultural zeitgeist fixated with films about multiverses and alternate timelines, are we living in the one where director Andy Muschietti and the Scarlet Speedster succeed at this superhuman task?
Based loosely on the iconic “Flashpoint” comics storyline, The Flash follows the titular superhero Barry Allen (Ezra Miller) as he attempts to rewrite history, traveling back in time using the Speed Force, the mysterious source of his powers, to prevent the murder of his mother Nora (Maribel Verdú) and wrongful imprisonment of his father Henry (Ron Livingston). As is the norm for time travel stories, even the smallest changes can have immense ripple effects, and when Barry is knocked out of his timeline, he discovers he has created a world without super-powered heroes under imminent threat of attack by General Zod (Michael Shannon).
Taking it upon himself to fix the mess he made, the Flash must form his own Justice League with his 18-year-old self (who will now be referred to as Alternate Barry to avoid confusion), this universe’s Batman (Michael Keaton) and Kara Zor-El a.k.a. Supergirl (Sasha Calle) to stop the Kryptonian threat and return to his own timeline.
Overall, The Flash is a thrilling and enjoyable ride. Having engaging action scenes is a basic ingredient for any self-respecting comic book flick. Between a thrilling chase sequence with Ben Affleck’s Batman, the efficient beatdowns delivered by Keaton and Supergirl’s angry brawls, the film has that base covered. The comedy is quick, frequent and natural, never overstaying its welcome or ham-fistedly relying on sarcastic quips or repeated punchlines. Whenever a joke does come up, it serves to either further develop a character’s personality or add a brief moment of levity in the face of the bleak odds the heroes must face. The jokes are balanced by quieter moments of gravitas and grief that center around Barry’s interactions with his parents in scenes that take your heartstrings in both hands and pull unexpectedly hard.
Adding to the fun are plenty of pop culture references and callbacks to previous DC films. Though some of these moments cut a little on the obscure side and may fly over the heads of viewers unfamiliar with DC comic and film lore, there are still plenty of casual references for all audiences to enjoy. Some references verge on too much fan service. However, these instances don’t linger long enough to disrupt the story or break the fourth wall too much.
Superhero films often lack any real sense of urgency or stakes, and audiences can generally assume that everything will turn out well for the heroes. By removing Barry from the comfort of the DC Universe that audiences have become familiar with and emphasizing how each action results in unpredictable changes, there is a greater sense of the unknown awaiting Barry at the end of his journey. Viewers who have seen Man of Steel know that Zod is defeated by Superman, but remove Kal-El from the equation, and the threat becomes new and dire as Kara doesn’t have the same level of skill as her alternate timeline cousin. While the audience can still be pretty sure that things will turn out okay for Barry, the question then becomes how much of history will be altered by his actions.
In terms of further exploring the concept of a multiverse, this is a passable attempt, about on par with Marvel’s so-so efforts in Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness. Aside from an interesting spaghetti metaphor and a few glimpses into other potential universes, DC seems content to simply introduce the concept here rather than explore it to its full potential, ostensibly leaving that work for future stories.
I would have enjoyed a more thorough look into the DC multiverse and maybe a tease of what we may see in films and shows down the line, but The Flash already feels like a marathon of a film. With such an ambitious storyline, The Flash is probably as streamlined as it can be, and it keeps a fairly consistent pace, though the action does start to drag towards the middle of the film’s third act.
The most egregious sin The Flash commits is its disappointing visual effects. While the Flash’s suit beautifully glows with energy every time he uses it, and as enjoyable as it is to see the Batwing take flight once again, these highs are far overshadowed by the film’s shortcomings. Some characters and textures seem to have been pulled straight from a 1990s animated film. This is most notable in one scene featuring several CGI babies whose rubbery, blank-eyed faces were disconcerting in a dolls-come-to-life, uncanny valley way. As central as lightning is to Barry and the Speed Force, there is often too much of it, and the crackling lighting that occurs whenever he uses his powers just becomes visual clutter. Whenever Barry visits the Chronobowl, there is an overwhelming amount of detail on the screen that often makes it hard to know where to look. A “less is more” approach may have been the better tactic, with the resources devoted to the quantity of the effects instead diverted to the quality.
The most noteworthy and laudable aspect of The Flash was the quality of the cast, whose distinct personalities highlight the contrast between the alternate timelines. Much of the hype around the film was due to the return of Keaton as the Caped Crusader, and he does not disappoint. The effortlessly cool and confident swagger of Keaton’s performance feels like he never left the role, and the stiff-necked blocky movement of his previous Batman films has been replaced with gliding and combat that is satisfyingly fluid. Affleck’s version of the Bat is as brutal and dynamic as ever, and if this truly is the last time we see him in the cape and cowl, then it was a brief but bright cap on his tenure. Though Kara is her timeline’s version of Clark Kent, she has none of his affinity for humanity and instead is motivated by rage and revenge. Unfortunately, there is not much depth to her character with the little time she is given on screen, but Calle portrays this with such brilliant ferocity that it is easy to overlook. Sadly, Michael Shannon’s Zod isn’t given much to do aside from threatening to destroy the Earth, and as such, he feels almost like an afterthought.
As Nora and Henry Allen, Verdú and Livingston firmly ground the emotional stakes and motivation behind Barry’s actions. Innocent of his wife’s murder though unable to prove it, Henry urges his son to give up the fight to free him and instead live his own life. With his voice alone, Livingston conveys a potent emotional cocktail of sorrow, regret and resignation. Verdú carries a heart-wrenching air of joy, love and tenderness that almost excuses Barry for wrecking history. During one particular scene between Nora in a grocery store (you’ll know it when you see it), her sense of motherly care and affection toward someone who is essentially a complete stranger is tear-jerkingly moving.
And then there’s the matter of Barry Allen. Much of the recent news around Miller has focused on their recent erratic behavior and troubled mental state, though the film’s production designer Paul Austerberry is assured that audiences “will forget that” after they see Miller’s performance.
To their credit, though their arm-flailing running style still looks strange, Miller does a convincing job portraying two versions of the same character. The main version of Barry Allen is quiet, nerdy, awkward and focused, while Alternate Barry is an obnoxious, impulsive jokester. The two versions are convincingly distinct, and even without visual cues like different haircuts and costumes, it would still be easy to tell them apart. Both versions are lovable in their own ways: Barry because of his emotional pain and his driving need to save others, and Alternate Barry because of his infectious joy and wonderment at being drawn into the amazing world of superheroes.
Their ability to play off the energy of the other characters is also a plus. With his parents, Barry is filled with longing for a life with them he never got to enjoy. Towards Supergirl, Barry is hopeful, while Alternate Barry is flirty. Both versions are full of awe and deference to Batman. Miller’s performance runs the whole spectrum of emotions: from hope to despair, rage to regret, timid to jovial. It can’t have been an easy task to execute, and Miller rises to the challenge. Is it enough to win them back into the good graces of the public? While it is no doubt a strong performance from Miller, it will likely take more than one good film to rewrite that history.
With as much of the attention surrounding The Flash rooted in controversies as there was actual excitement for the film, there was a lot of potential for it to disappoint. Fortunately, the film is able to stand on its own merit. Thanks to its stellar cast, compelling story, and sense of fun, The Flash may just be the right her at the right time for DC.