By Josh Reilly B. & George Bate
The DC franchise has changed dramatically over the years, to say the least. The inter-connected universe began in 2013 with Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel, a divisive yet unique take on the franchise’s most famous superhero. That film paved the way for the ongoing DC Universe, or, as some label it as, the Snyderverse. Alterations to Snyder’s plans for the broader cinematic universe began by establishing some distance between the initial films like Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and the newer stories, most of which have been notably lighter in tone. With transitioning leadership behind the scenes, the world of DC became more fractured with each film appearing isolated from the rest. However, with the long awaited arrival of The Flash, out next week in theaters, the universe is beginning to come together once again, and just in time for the arrival of James Gunn and Peter Safran, the duo who will be running the franchise moving forward.
The Flash stars Ezra Miller as the awkward yet endearing Barry Allen, whose alter ego is the scarlet speedster of the Justice League. As Barry’s father remains wrongly imprisoned for the death of his mother, Barry uses his powers to travel back in time to alter history and save his mom’s life. As is the case with most time travel movies, Allen’s plan doesn’t go as he expected. Barry discovers that, although his mom is alive in this new timeline, it is one without metahumans, meaning there is no Aquaman or Wonder Woman. There’s also no Superman, although there is a Supergirl. There is also Batman, but a different Batman – this one played by Michael Keaton. It’s Keaton’s Bruce Wayne who Barry calls upon to help fix the multiversal mess he’s made, which becomes all the more dangerous with the arrival of General Zod.
As promotional material revealed, this is a multiverse story through and through, much in the vein of Spider-Man: No Way Home or the Spider-Verse animated movies. In many ways, The Flash is DC’s answer to that, featuring flashes of nostalgia amidst a story of self-discovery for the leading hero. This is also a time travel movie, invoking similarities with other superhero epics like Avengers: Endgame, which notably had the heroes go back to the past as a means to undo the actions of the villainous Thanos. Having a story filled to the brim with both multiverse and time travel elements is certainly risky, particularly as these plot tropes can become very convoluted very quickly. Even Avengers: Endgame had that problem, as the logic of the film’s time travel rules don’t always hold up when exposed to greater scrutiny. Thankfully, The Flash largely avoids those issues, instead opting for an arguably simpler story that, at its heart, is about the loss of Barry Allen’s mother. It’s with the retention of this trauma-based plot thread that keep the film more streamlined as a character study. In one scene in particular, an older and weary Bruce Wayne (Michael Keaton, not Ben Affleck) explains the dangers of interfering with the space time continuum using two strands of spaghetti as an analogy. As Keaton describes, changing one moment in a young Barry Allen’s life not only created a new future, but a unique past as well. This moment serves as comedic relief, but it also exists to explain to the audience why this new timeline is the way it is and does so in a successful way. Again, if the multiversal mechanics of the movie are exposed to too much scrutiny, they don’t hold up as well and things can get a little more difficult to follow. But, for the most part, The Flash succeeds in making its time travel and multiversal elements approachable and its more personal themes of loss and trauma emotional.
The Flash has been marred by the off-screen troubles of Ezra Miller, whose future in the DC Universe remains uncertain. And, despite this uncertainty and when evaluating the film in isolation from those real world problems, Miller largely succeeds here. They play two characters in The Flash, the present day Barry Allen who has gone back in time to save his mom and a younger, more jovial version of himself. In turn, this means the vast majority of the film sees Ezra Miller acting alongside themselves. That’s no easy feat, and they certainly deserve praise for managing to make these dual performances work so seamlessly. Miller’s performance as the younger Barry brings much of the humor to the film, which only briefly teeters on the border of funny and annoying. In playing both roles, some may feel as if there is just a little too much of Ezra Miller in this film, which could perhaps be down to his excitable and loud performances or the varied attempts to mimic the crowd-pleasing humor of a Marvel Cinematic Universe project in the screenplay. On a more positive note though, Miller’s over-saturation of the screen doesn’t derail the film by any means and they certainly grow into the role more as the film goes on.
As Warner Bros. have extensively marketed, there are more heroes than just The Flash in this film. Michael Keaton returns as Batman for the first time in over thirty years, marking a monumental moment that is sure to pull on the heart strings of fans who grew up with his iteration of the character. Keaton’s return is handled with incredible care and respect, especially as he plays a sizable role in the story while never detracting from the film’s focus on Barry Allen. While it’s certainly strange to see Keaton’s Batman (and Ben Affleck’s Batman for that matter) in the broad daylight and The Flash is missing the Tim Burton-aesthetic of Gotham City, Keaton’s triumphant return overwhelmingly succeeds. Keaton embodies the character of Batman and proves once again why he was cast in the 1989 film all those years ago.
The other notable hero in this film is Supergirl, played by Sasha Calle. Barry’s attempts to save the new timeline he has created lead him to the cousin of Kal-El, a unique story point that gives a new DC hero a chance to shine on the big screen. Calle does well in her introduction to this role, which is largely restricted to action sequences. There’s enough here though to hope that this is the first of many appearances of Sasha Calle’s Supergirl in the new look DC Universe.
That’s not everyone, however. The Flash features a number of jaw-dropping cameo appearances that add to the film’s grandiosity and scale. To discuss further would be to give away some of the film’s greatest elements, but just know there is a true love for the history of DC comics and films from director Andy Muschietti and writer Christina Hodson.
Unfortunately, on a more negative note, failures of and inconsistencies with the visual effects in The Flash detract from the film’s quality. Lodging complaints about cinematic visual effects is always tricky given that the talented visual effects artists behind the biggest movies are often underpaid and overworked. Nonetheless, the visual effects are a notable concern in the latest DC picture. Lagging behind what audiences have come to expect from modern superhero blockbusters, it’s not an exaggeration to say that some of the VFX characters, facial designs, and costumes look more like those from PS2 video game than the visuals of Avatar: The Way of Water. Ultimately, this is a real shame as some of the biggest and most epic moments of the film are bogged down by distractingly poor visuals. This is never more evident than it is in the film’s third act, a bland and CGI-heavy final battle that does little to impressive.
The Flash is a return to form for the DC franchise, expertly balancing the title hero’s emotional arc with the careful inclusion of the multiverse and time travel elements that seldom become too convoluted. Ezra Miller, whose dual roles means they appear in virtually every scene, excels and overcomes initial obnoxiousness to deliver a genuinely moving performance. Michael Keaton, meanwhile, is a scene-stealer, whose return as the Caped Crusader is handled with a true love for his iteration of the character. While the film’s array of shocking cameo appearances are jaw-dropping, inconsistent and messy visual effects detract from the film’s grandiosity, especially in the CGI-heavy third act. It’s taken a long time for The Flash to finally lead his own solo movie and the sheer enjoyment that comes from watching this multiverse-hopping and time traveling adventure mean it was most certainly worth the wait.