The journey took over 25 years, starting with optimism for what could be and ending with only shame, regret, a mediocre product, and another drastic overhaul in the rearview mirror. Making a movie out of The Flash, another iconic yet misunderstood character in DC’s universe shouldn’t have taken such an unpredictable and convoluted path. The kind exacerbated by a high creative turnover rate, the effects of a global pandemic, and the volatility of an otherwise talented star. And somehow, by charm alone, director Andy Muschietti (It: Chapter Two) and writer Christina Hodson (Birds of Prey) strive to make the viewer forget about any degree of filmmaking strife, instead remembering the sort of film attempted. And apparently, it is still a comic book adventure toying with John Hughes-like sensibility and Orwellian disruption in space-time. A consistent adventure weighed down only by its need to weave into the deeper DCEU, pleasing those fans before it’s rebuilt from the ground up.
And it almost surprises me how deliberately Muschietti aims for that scrappy underdog looking for a bigger chance to prove himself. Or, at minimum, seek justice for his family. Barry Allen (Ezra Miller) is The Flash, the invisible cleanup crew of the Justice League. As if we’d forget he’s still one figure in a united corps, walking in the footsteps of Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) and Batman (Ben Affleck), but never given the chance to overshadow, while trying to clear his dad Henry (Ron Livingston) from convictions in the death of his mother Nora (Maribel Verdu). He can address the former fine, batting off his absent-minded crush with reporter Iris West (Kiersey Clemons). But only if he can justify an alibi for his dad, lack of evidence notwithstanding.
His trick is to turn back time and change the one variable that would prevent accidental death in the first place. But of course, like every time travel adventure where the timeline faces disruption or an entirely new tangent in construction, the result possesses a wrinkle or two. Barry crosses paths with his eighteen-year-old self before discovering his skillset. The two must team up to fix the continuum and stop the rampage of evil General Zod (Michael Shannon), but even they can’t conquer on their own. Doesn’t help there’s no Justice League in their timeline, as they know it. They must build one from scratch, wrangling in an alternate Bats (Michael Keaton) from retirement, along with Krypton-born prison escapee Kara (Sasha Calle) as reinforcements.
That has morphed into the perpetual tone of any recent DC film. Even with an established continuity that barely makes sense, to begin with, there’s always a sense of building or rebuilding, trying to start something new while already deep in the drink. The Flash proves how to do both in a branching, disjointed manner. The pattern of these films continues, building their narrative structure and collective character base with very mixed results while bravely veering a little away from those rules, attempting a fairly enticing standalone jam. One that leans so heavily into its absurdity and heart, we’d all wonder why more DC films can’t try this trick and get away swinging aces.
Muschietti takes advantage of a clear free range, approaching what almost amounts to a Zemeckis-level range of emotional circumstances. Starting lightning quick in the first act, the pacing tempers as we discover more about Barry, and his arc turns personal, the face shifting from cocky to contemplative. And even as the final boss scenario draws itself out, ala Ready Player One but with shoddier CG, there’s a captive statement here for thematic stability. What happens on screens keeps building and carries over. Until the very last moment, anyway, where an even less expected move sours an already inevitable presence of fanservice. There’s plenty of it to go around, most noticeable when revolving through the half-baked time machine effect or hearing Benjamin Wallfisch sneak Danny Elfman’s famed Bat theme into his rousing score.
The journey is far from derailed, despite its mild pitfalls. Muschietti keeps a wildly juvenile spirit throughout and gracefully segues into forlorn character doubt without a worry. Snyder could have done better, though the finished product would’ve gone too dark, and the focus would’ve gravitated too much toward Keaton’s Batman. Not that that would’ve been an issue, but he easily outpaces Affleck’s limited screen time and appropriately boosts an otherwise dry sense of drama. I found him a treat to witness, like a cowboy who hasn’t lost his pluck, embarking on a final twilight ride. The joints might be a little creaky as the script runs out of momentum for his part to resonate. Given a bigger share, he would’ve been the runaway star versus the proper lead. Often, the scene-stealing belongs to either a breezy Verdu, a comical Clemons, or Calle displaying unwavering Kryptonian fortitude. Shannon is still a decent baddie here, though his anarchic bite has weakened between features.
And then there’s Miller, long the focus of scrutiny and concern, the face of this picture, still the resident underdog in the DCEU. However long that may stay truthful remains up in the air. The lead is no Anthony Michael Hall, but the demeanor is uncanny, quick to remind me of that 80s actor type where even if one’s captaining their adventure for once, they’re still a step below the truest of heroes. Affleck or Keaton might be the Estevez on this occasion, but Miller still finds it in them to break out of the sidekick mold, throwing in a surprise or two. The accidental Jekyll and Hyde aesthetic in their dual multiverse portrayal was, for lack of a better term, unexpected. Even stronger was his softer, humanist side. Not much of that is to be found beyond the need to protect his dad. There are points where high schooler Barry clashes too coarsely with his mature counterpart, often resting too comfortably on their cliches. But it doesn’t destroy their bond as, one would guess, brothers in arms or mismatched twins.
The damage may already be past repair for DC’s film sphere. Before long, another clean reboot that’s long overdue may help to restore order or further destroy what is working within. Muschietti has an ambitious eye to keep this current version of the universe alive and kicking, channeling the auteurs of his youth to craft a near-satisfactory, far-from-spectacular display. How that’s sustained for well over two hours without hitting burnout is a shock, if not also a bit of a concern. Trim out 20 minutes, those bumps in the plot would only amp its speed. The Flash doesn’t go by in a quick whir, it’s quite the slow burn with enough wit and tension to justify its existence. However, the memory of it all is destined to fade in a flash, ready to be replaced with the next less maddening thing. (C+; 3/5)
The Flash opens in wide release June 16, early showtimes begin at 3 PM June 15; rated PG-13 for sequences of violence and action, some strong language, and partial nudity; 144 minutes.