Comics are a lot like life. Sometimes you feel like you’re on cloud nine, swinging through the world without a care in the world. Kinda like Spider-Man. Sometimes you feel like you’re the Good Lord’s personal cat toy. Also kinda like Spider-Man! And sometimes? Sometimes things are so screwy and tangled up that the only solution is to hack through the metaphorical knot with a metaphorical sword.
That was the big problem DC Comics was faced with in 1985. Decades of publishing had created a conundrum. Sales of comics had been declining since the 1950s.* Attracting new readership was difficult since, in the fictional world of DC, there were a multitude of worlds. You had the “main” DC continuity with the regular adventures of Superman, Wonder Woman and the others. Another world followed the adventures of their World War II contemporaries. Another had funny animals. There were so, so many, and those infinite worlds scared off new readers.
Remember how Alexander untied the Gordian Knot by chopping through it? DC did much the same thing with their limited series, Crisis on Infinite Earths. It existed to simplify everything, and it killed off beloved characters and vaporized entire realities. When it concluded, there was only one world for DC’s heroes to adventure through. Crisis was a seismic event in comics, the first of its kind but by no means the last.
Warner Bros. and DC Studios have a similar problem. In 2012, The Dark Knight Rises made over $1 billion in ticket sales. Since then, nearly every DC movie released afterwards has underperformed financially, and audiences have often been turned off by storytelling, tones, connection to a shared universe and the lack thereof. Something drastic needed to be done, and that’s why the newest DC Studios film The Flash is about so much more than a guy who can run really, really, ridiculously fast.
The aforementioned really, really fast guy is Barry Allen (Ezra Miller). His occupation is a forensic technician for the Central City Police Department. Barry is more than a guy who knows how to dust carpet fibers. He’s also known as The Flash, a super-speedy hero in good standing with the Justice League. Turns out Barry is a little disenchanted with his League gig. During a botched bank robbery in Gotham City, he teams up with Batman (Ben Affleck) to save the day. Barry performs admirably, but he describes himself to Bats as the League’s janitor, the one who cleans up messes while the other heroes are covered in glory.
Is that why Barry is really so cranky? He’s got a lot on his plate. His mother (Maribel Verdu) was murdered years earlier and his father (Ron Livingston) was wrongfully convicted. As far as Barry can tell, his father looks to be spending the rest of his life behind bars. That’s a problem that can’t be solved by someone who can run faster than the speed of sound.
Or…maybe it can. Barry learns that if he pushes his speed to the limit, he can break the time barrier and travel back in time. He’s seized with an idea. If he can change one detail, one tiny, inconsequential thing, he can ensure his mother lives and his father is free. His love and grief are too strong to resist. He runs, and all it takes is placing a can of tomatoes into a shopping cart.
That can of tomatoes complicates things big time. Barry has inadvertently created an alternate timeline. First he meets Barry Allen (Ezra Miller also), his younger self, on the day he accidentally receives his powers. Then he learns of the arrival of Zod (Michael Shannon), a Kryptonian warlord looking to terraform the Earth.** Barry needs help from his super friends, and the only member of the League that exists is a different Batman (Michael Keaton), one who’s retired and not terribly interested in saving the day. Then there’s a rescue mission involving another Kryptonian, one sent to Earth to either protect it or destroy it. Her name is Kara Zor-el, otherwise known as Supergirl (Sasha Calle).
The Flash is a lot of movie. There are action scenes, heartfelt emotions, multiple versions of the same characters, slapstick comedy, some extremely questionable cameos, and VFX that range from awe-inspiring to embarrassing. It’s a film that exists to showcase the character of The Flash, bombard audiences with nostalgia, close out the divisive era of DC Studios spearheaded by Zack Snyder and open the door to a new DC Studios era shepherded by James Gunn and Peter Sarafan, which I’m sure will be in no way divisive.
Director Andy Muschietti has undertaken a job that would have been at home as one of the twelve labors of Hercules.*** Amazingly, he’s made a movie that often works. There are a number of creative setpieces, a bright and varied color palette, and a tone that’s light when it needs to be and emotional when it matters. But there are flaws. Hoo mama, are there flaws. We all know that modern superhero movies are, by and large, too damn long. The Flash is no exception, and the two and a half hour length becomes a problem considering the exquisitely wonky pacing. At times, the movie is as fleet as the title character.**** At other times it comes to a dead stop to push comedic moments that are more annoying than funny. When that happens, it takes the movie time to regain its momentum, then it happens again. And again. I should also mention that, at numerous moments, I thought that the CGI needed to go back in the oven for an extra ten minutes.
Screenwriter Christina Hodson deserves a standing ovation. She’s done the creative equivalent of landing a plane that has all the engines on fire. Her script juggles numerous characters, numerous character variants, more than a few timelines, and serious emotional beats. The number of plates spinning are breathtaking. There really needed to be less of them. In a movie called The Flash, the main character is often overshadowed by other characters. It’s as if the film keeps saying, “Hey, look, it’s Batman! No, a different Batman, the Batman you like! Look over there, it’s Supergirl!” If that’s not happening, we’re spending time watching Barry Prime dealing with Barry the Lesser, and that steals focus from Barry Prime.
The other issue that smacked me in the face? Remember when I mentioned “questionable cameos” earlier? I’m certainly not going to spoil anything, but two things occurred to me. The first is that some of those cameos are CGI representations of dead people. It’s almost good enough to be lifelike and it feels like it’s in lousy taste.***** Second, the cameos aren’t just fan service, they’re obvious fan service. We’re shown exclusively characters that have shown up in either previous films or TV series. Thousands of characters are owned by DC/Warner Brothers, and none of those characters could have been brought in to create a sense of texture, a feeling of a larger and stranger multiverse?
These days, performances in superhero movies run the gamut from genuinely impressive to “Where’s my check?” This film is no exception! Michael Shannon returns as Zod, the militaristic villain from Man of Steel. The fire and fury from his initial performance is gone, and here Shannon seems disengaged. Ben Affleck only has a few minutes as Batman, but he makes the most of them with a wry sense of humor. Speaking of Batmen (Batmans?), Michael Keaton does good work when he’s not playing the hits, saying “Let’s get nuts,” and other quotes from his first time…wait for it…at bat. When Keaton isn’t doing that, his Bruce Wayne is guarded, low key, and a nice contrast with Ezra Miller’s Barry twins. The MVP of the film is Sasha Calle’s Kara. She smoothly plays the character’s rage, resolve, and heroism. I liked Calle a lot, and she fit into the tone of the film nicely. This version of Supergirl might be a one off, but I’m hoping that’s not the case.
Then there’s Ezra Miller. A few minutes of Googling will tell you how they have spent the last few years. It’s not great. I mean, it’s incredibly not great, and I’ve seen a number of people resolving to boycott The Flash due to Miller’s legal issues. That’s understandable, and we all have our moral lines and hypocrisies that we reckon with when it comes to art. The fact remains that Miller still turns in two separate and distinct performances. As Barry Allen Prime, they show us someone juggling a personal life, a heroic life, and severe trauma. Barry the Lesser is meant to be a younger, immature, and highly annoying version. Miller does that, and they show us a Barry who wants to do good but is highly distractible.
In its usual nuanced way, the internet is loudly proclaiming that The Flash is both the greatest superhero movie ever made and a crime against cinema. It’s neither of those things. When it works, the film moves like a bullet. When it stumbles? Like the greatest characters in comics, and like life, the one enemy The Flash can’t outrun is itself.
*Sales continue to decline today.
**Yep, on this new timeline, the events of the 1989 Batman and Man of Steel happen on the same Earth, which is insane to think about.
***Check out the Production/Development page of The Flash Wikipedia page. It’s miraculous that Muschietti didn’t end up with a nervous breakdown.
****I liked that a little time was spent on both the creative application of Flash’s powers and some of the side effects, such as inconvenient nudity caused by clothes bursting into flame.
*****This is nothing new. Older readers might remember a vacuum cleaner commercial featuring the likeness of the extremely dead Fred Astaire. Tasteless then, tasteless now.