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16th June 2023

The Flash review: best DC universe movie since Wonder Woman

The utterly joyous first half is doomed by a third act full of multiversal shenanigans.

Akhil Arora

Ezra Miller as Barry Allen / The Flash in The Flash
Ezra Miller as Barry Allen / The Flash in The Flash // Photo: DC Comics/Warner Bros. Pictures

It’s finally happened—The Flash has a movie bearing his name, becoming the last current major live-action DC character to score that achievement. Technically, Ben Affleck’s Batman is the last, since he never got one at all. But the Robert Pattinson-led The Batman was originally meant for Affleck after all, so he doesn’t count. Heck, even Dwayne Johnson’s Black Adam got a solo movie before Ezra Miller’s Flash, and he wasn’t even a team player shared universe-wise. Despite the speedster around since late 2017 (when we got Justice League) and a long-running eponymous TV series (which began, ran for nine seasons, and ended while the movie was still in development), it’s taken forever for The Flash to come to fruition, largely thanks to a variety of behind-the-scenes troubles.

Unfortunately, because of its time travel multiversal tale and the associated desire to play with existing (DC) properties and characters, The Flash operates with a few disadvantages. Spider-Man: No Way Home has been here before and handled the tie-ins with more meaning than the DC film. (The Flash wins on the holy-amazeballs surprises level, but that’s a surface-level thing. The director Andy Muschietti did annoyingly spoil one of them weeks prior to release.) And it’s asking some of the same questions as No Way Home and Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse, even as it provides different answers. The one thing going for it is the unique framing—Peter Parker dealt with villains from across the multiverse and Miles Morales’ journey is about growing up alongside his cross-dimensional partner Gwen Stacy.

Mild spoilers lie ahead, as do allusions to mild spoilers. Proceed with caution.

The Flash has no villain or love interest. It’s a whole lot of Ezra Miller

Forget villains plural, The Flash doesn’t even have one really. Yes, Michael Shannon’s Man of Steel villain Zod is back—but he only properly shows his face in the final act for a few minutes. More importantly, he doesn’t serve any function in the protagonist’s growth. Zod’s actions are the catalyst, but Zod himself is wholly replaceable. The Flash doesn’t have a love interest either. Sure, Kiersey Clemons’ Iris West returns after a cameo in Zack Snyder’s Justice League but she’s an afterthought, with Clemons getting just three tiny scenes across a 144-minute movie. For most of the film—and the contributor to its big success—Miller is playing off themself. (Or rather, an unnamed body double whose face has been replaced by Miller’s in the edit, The Social Network Winklevoss-twins style seemingly.)

Ezra Miller as The Flash, Michael Keaton as Batman, and Ezra Miller as The Flash in The Flash
Ezra Miller as The Flash, Michael Keaton as Batman, and Ezra Miller as The Flash in The Flash // Photo: DC Comics/Warner Bros. Pictures

In a manner of speaking, it’s a two-hander by way of being a one-hander. Miller is playing two Barry Allens, one aged 18 and the other 28. There’s a lot of fun to be had with the duo, with the older slightly-wiser one having to guide the younger clueless one, who recklessly explores the world with his newfound powers. The Flash director and horror expert Andy Muschietti displays a knack for finding the humour in any scene. It helps that Miller has excellent comic timing—despite the technological challenges of the performance—and benefits from a script supercharged by Birds of Prey writer Christina Hodson. But the new DC superhero movie, light on its feet for the opening hour, suffers as it pushes deeper into its second act.

Funny and joyous, but with very real flaws

A big part of that is that The Flash is too plot driven in the second half, with the nitty-gritty of the multiversal narrative taking away from the joyous, boisterous heart. And it doesn’t serve its other superheroes too well. Sasha Calle is (funnily) billed second, but her Kara Zor-El / Supergirl never gets to be her own person and someone we can care about. She’s entirely in the service of Barry’s story. The closest we get to an actual co-star is Michael Keaton, who dons the cape and the cowl after 31 years. (Given that massive time gap, I wonder how many in the audience won’t have any reaction to his ‘90s Batman.) This is where The Flash does much of its fan service—apart from a brief sequence close to the end—though it remembers to have fun with his Bruce Wayne too.

But no matter how good it is to see Keaton again and how well he transitions into an older-and-calmer Batman, it does say a lot about The Flash—just as it did for Spider-Man: No Way Home—that the film relies on the goodwill of the existing rather than do something new of its own. Where it betters Marvel is in having a solid emotional core: Barry isn’t toying with the past because he didn’t get into the same university as his friends. And yes, the new DC movie is funny, tightly paced, and full of action like its titular hero. But it trips over itself in the final stretch, and in imparting a lesson to the protagonist but also wanting a last-minute feel-good twist, it tries to have its cake and eat it too. That said, I’m willing to overlook the time travel rules being broken, for The Flash had won me over by then.

The plot of The Flash

At the start of The Flash, 28-year-old Barry Allen has accepted his self-proclaimed place as the “janitor of the Justice League”. Barry understands that he’s always called upon to clean up the collateral damage mess, while the other members of the superhero team handle the bad guys. The thing he really cares about though is freeing his innocent dad, Henry (Ron Livingston), who’s been in prison for decades over the murder of his wife and Barry’s mother, Nora (Maribel Verdú). But with another court appeal staring a dead end, Barry wonders if he can travel back in time and save his mother, having discovered the ability during the League’s fight against Steppenwolf. Turns out, he can—but in doing so, he screws up the DC universe and finds himself stuck in the past.

There, he meets a school-going Barry and discovers that Zod has arrived on Earth. (Much of The Flash is set around the time of Man of Steel, which was released in 2013.) With no Superman in sight, the two Barrys set out to fix things. This is where The Flash is at its most fun, as the older Barry becomes a de facto teacher to his new younger self. There are tons of gags, hijinks, and cleverly-written moments, relying largely on Miller’s ability to pull off physical comedy. Meanwhile, by interacting with an ever more obnoxious younger Barry, the older one realises why no one can seem to stand him. The Flash also smartly flips the script in places, putting the more experienced self at a disadvantage.

Keaton’s grizzled Wayne is an added delight—with their shared character moments representing the film’s peak, in terms of both nostalgia and character moments.

The Flash suffers in the final act

But sadly, the balance gets away from The Flash in the third and final act. At its heart, the new DC movie is about Barry trying to correct a wrong and reunite his family. He doesn’t want the tragedy to define him. The Flash works best in that space—that’s why there’s no need for an external antagonist. The “villain”, so to speak, is the choice that Barry makes and how his decision has a ripple effect on this reality. But as it pushes deeper into its two-hour-plus runtime, The Flash begins packing in ideas for which it has no time. It cannot do justice to them.

Ezra Miller as The Flash, Sasha Calle as Supergirl, and Ezra Miller as The Flash in The Flash
Ezra Miller as The Flash, Sasha Calle as Supergirl, and Ezra Miller as The Flash in The Flash // Photo: DC Comics/Warner Bros. Pictures

Moreover, the final fight—like in many DC entries and superhero films—is more of the same, with computer-generated bodies slamming against each other. It doesn’t help that it takes place in a vast emptiness, with Muschietti unlearning his own excellent visual geography from earlier in The Flash. Additionally, the climactic character moments are debated in an entirely CGI space called the Chronobowl, an arena that Flash enters when he attempts time travel. (A lot of people are not happy with the visual effects, especially in the Chronobowl. Muschietti has claimed that it’s all intentional—and I agree. From the first time the style is deployed, I could tell the resulting distortion was quite clearly deliberate.)

At its best when not trying to be a $200 million superhero movie

For better or worse, every movie is defined by how it wraps—and The Flash is, unfortunately, weakest in that department. Still, given all its other strengths and the general terrible nature of much of the roster, The Flash is the best movie in the soon-to-be-defunct DC Extended Universe since Wonder Woman (which shares its flaws). It’s a witty and inventive buddy comedy that finds a way to honour DC’s past and even-older past. And it is at its best when it’s centred on characters and their interplay, rather than the necessary shenanigans of making a $200 million superhero movie. That’s the lesson the new DC needs to learn—one the Snyder films and the associated ones never did.

Flash has finally gotten his standalone movie, but what’s next for him? Who knows. Though they are great in the film, there’s no reason to reward Miller for their performance. Miller’s off-screen troubles—assault, burglary, grooming, harassment, and exposing children to guns and marijuana smoke—have been well documented. No amount of talent should excuse their abhorrent behaviour. If this current Flash were to not return, that’s fine. After all, the real heroes have already won: Muschietti has been picked to direct the new DC Universe’s first Batman movie, The Brave and the Bold.

Blow up the DCEU but allow me to shed a tear for what we’re about to lose as James Gunn hits the reset button. (I’m going to miss Gal Gadot and Ben Affleck the most.) Though if Hollywood’s newest obsession with multiverses has told us anything, it’s that nothing is ever truly laid to rest.

The Flash released on June 15 in cinemas across India in English, Hindi, Tamil, and Telugu.

Akhil Arora

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