Directed by Andy Muschietti
Written by Christina Hodson, John Francis Daley, Jonathan Goldstein, and Joby Howard
There might not be a better indicator of the end of the long reign of the supermen over American cinema than this, the epic commercial flameout of The Flash. As of this writing it hasn't even quite reached the "worldwide gross equal to its budget" benchmark yet. The caveat, a caveat that I assume that Warners' shareholders are holding onto for dear life, is that The Flash has been uniquely subverted by the criminal odyssey of its star, hellion Ezra Miller... and I could get into a whole thing, but I believe I would rather not, except to say that those who insist on re-doing $220 million projects embodying the work of hundreds of people in order to replace one single participant are stupid, unserious children, and Ezra Miller isn't actually Satan (but David Koresh? well, maybe). But it's like this: they made me a sandwich. We'll be discussing the sandwich.
The Flash is a rather tasty sandwich that, yes, happens to have a few bugs in it, but compared to a lot of recent superhero films, the bug:actual sandwich ratio here is pretty good, and this time the bugs aren't still alive and desperately trying to crawl out of your mouth while you attempt to ignore the fact that your first instinct was to make them stop moving by chewing harder. So I feel much better than usual about it when I say, "The Flash is a fun movie."
Since you don't ever seem to notice the bugs in your food anyway, that's how I reckon The Flash to be a market signal of real significance—two years ago you'd have liked this. (Two years ago, this movie basically already existed, albeit, probably, in a different configuration.) The striking thing is how much it represents the waning DCEU's best attempt, ever, at doing a Marvel. I won't have many opportunities to say this about the DCEU again (soon nobody will remember what "DCEU" stood for), so forgive me if I indulge: I've always admired the DC movies, for their wild swings, for their sheer variety, and I've always been least-pleased when their individuality was crushed beneath the mandate to do it like their more commercially-successful competitors. I've always been best-pleased when they were themselves, more uneven, but more exciting. Yet The Flash hasn't abandoned its lineage's great distinctiveness, either—it's only that right at the end, when it doesn't matter anymore, when no one would even notice, they finally figured out what a robust hybrid of DC's free-for-all-with-a-tilt-towards-mythic-sincerity and Marvel's glibness-all-the-time ought to feel like.
Alternatively, that MCUness might just be that The Flash is, basically, a mash-up of two specific MCU movies. The Flash has been up and down every level of post-production hell for what seems like a century, so it probably isn't entirely down to cold calculation that these were the only two truly successful Marvel movies of the last several years, but it's probably not a complete coincidence, either, that The Flash winds up looking so much like Avengers: Endgame meets Spider-Man: No Way Home, and given that one of those was pretty great but the other inexpressibly terrible—like, a "terrible for society" kind of terrible—you'll understand that I was stunned to have enjoyed The Flash even a little, when the one it resembles the most is No Way Home. It's more surprising still, since to the extent that it's not taking its cues from either of those movies, it's because it's adapting the most tiresome element of all recent Flash media, which, at this point, has such a "this shit again?" quality to it that it might explain audience disinterest better than scandal or superhero fatigue. We have seen this a lot already, and, more to the point, we have seen this a lot as a live-action moving image already.
So what we have is an adaptation of Flashpoint such as has been the basis of approximately twenty seasons of The Flash CW show, which recently finished its ninth and final season. If you're young, maybe you don't know that, once, "the story of Barry Allen, the Flash" was not defined by the murder of his mother Nora Allen (Maribel Verdú) at the hands of—well, usually it's at the hands of 25th century maniac Eobard Thawne, who's like the Flash (some would say he's the reverse) though, apparently, it's now at the hands of nobody important, and I don't know how I feel about that. Well, alongside this there's the other, ongoing defining tragedy of Barry's life, this being his father Henry's (Ron Livingston's) wrongful conviction for that murder. This is comic book writer Geoff Johns's "bleak violent nostalgia" formula at work; "the story of Barry Allen, the Flash," used to be, roughly, "the Flash fights Captain Cold for some reason, or Mirror Master." Speaking personally, I'd have been substantially more excited for that. Actually, to be completely honest, to me, "the story of Barry Allen, the Flash" has always been "he died before I learned how to read," and I prefer the story of Wally West, the Flash, because Mark Waid>Geoff Johns, in all things. Plus, as I've observed before, in the characterization, this interpretation of Barry Allen is more akin to his grandson, Bart Allen, spectrum speedster of the 29th century. The main thing missing is the 29th century.
But whatever, nerd. This Flash, at least, does its much-recycled story as well as I've ever seen it. So: Barry, subsequent to whichever branch of the Snyderverse counts, is a Justice Leaguer in good standing, his super-speed pigeonholing him as their most accomplished savior of bystanders. That means he complains, in his young adult way, when his obligations to Batman (Ben Affleck, the best live-action Batman, we'll miss you) and Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) interfere with the day job that he's always ironically late for at the Central City Police Department's crime lab—for just as Batman is compelled to bash criminal skulls, Barry's tragedy drove him to ensure that no one is again convicted of a crime they did not commit. I will ask, but only as snark, why this Barry, who has no loved ones except for his fellow gods and the father presently sitting on murderer's row, has a secret identity—and if, mayhap, it might help his dad more if he didn't. (It's such an astoundingly weak case against Henry that veiled threats might not even be necessary.)
Barry's dad's latest appeal is coming up, an event that crosses Barry's path with girl reporter Iris West (Kiersey Clemons), the college crush he'd hardly ever managed to speak to; she's not important, and I guess never will be, but my awareness of her function in the Flash story does add a little significance later. What is important is that the appeal has got Barry thinking very intently about the past. His experience exceeding the light barrier to rewind the clock a few seconds to save the world has got him wondering if he could go back further—half-consciously experimenting, it turns out he can—and while Batman strongly cautions him against tampering with time, he ignores the old man's advice. He goes back and ensures, via a surreptitiously-placed can of once-forgotten shredded tomatoes, that his dad needn't go out and leave his mother prey for the (evidently) random daylight burglar who killed her. On his way back, however, Barry falls short of the "present" by several years, stumbling into the life he never knew, but which is occupied by another, younger Barry (also Miller, natch). Our Barry, hypothetically mindful of paradoxes, contrives to recreate the freak lightning accident that gave him his powers, and this is successful, except our Barry accidentally reverses the process for himself, giving the other Barry powers while losing his own. This is bad, but not apocalyptically bad. What's apocalyptically bad is that this is the day Zod (Michael Shannon) came to Earth looking for Superman (for now let's say "null"), and this time he doesn't find him because Superman doesn't exist. Barry should've listened when the other Barry mentioned Eric Stoltz's career-defining turn in Back to the Future: this is a much different reality than Barry's modifications should have made, as is explained by Batman (Michael Keaton) with a bowl of spaghetti.
The Avengers: Endgame part speaks for itself, though this isn't bad—"time travel" and "multiversal excursions" are, after all, a big part of what the Flash concept is for, the Flash being the first superhero to do the latter trope all the way back in 1961. Still, the fact that The Flash, like Endgame, is partly intended to take us on a tour of past adventures, and reflect upon the DCEU's legacy, might have been another of its sins. The public was always likely be contemptuous of any assertion that the DCEU has a legacy.
The Spider-Man: No Way Home part is more pronounced, and, ugh, yeah: it represents some of the most outrageous "hey, fanboy! do you like references?" pandering imaginable. On paper, and to no small degree in the execution, it's more disgustingly desperate than its MCU precursor. Yet it's closer to the best version of a Spider-Man: No Way Home than the worst version of a Spider-Man: No Way Home, which was pretty much the actual Spider-Man: No Way Home, insofar as watching that felt like watching civilization fall. And I'm not sure it didn't. But the worst part of this film's nostalgia-peddling might only be how few fucks it gives about constructing a logical time travel concept, when that's so much of the usual joy of time travel, not to mention the way that time travel serves as a meditation on the whole "for want of a nail" idea of the interconnectedness of events and the fragility of reality. The Flash cheerfully breaks shit that happened before Barry did anything—no causation required. So maybe the worst part is that, when the film at least posits chaos as its abiding rule, it only finds resonance with its grief-is-madness emotional arc by what looks, somewhat, like an accident. If it were doing it on purpose, the end of The Flash should look more like The Simpsons' "Sound of Thunder" riff. It does its Man of Steel-era action fine (without any deep understanding of Snyder's cosmic horror, but fine), but at some point Batman should've been replaced by Mr. Peabody. Or Booster Gold. Maybe they ran out of money, or—finally—ran out of time.
This isn't film-killing, and I have even less of a problem with The Flash's much-derided CGI visualization of it. I might've liked it more for being "bad": it imposes an uncanny unreality upon the whole film rather than just individual ugly shots like in the usual American tentpole; it's more aesthetic choice than failure. This goes for the "ordinary" depiction of Barry's superspeed, which is already an inutterably bizarre visual of the red-clad figure swim-walking through an ocean of glowing, liquefied electricity. It goes double for the visualization of the timestream, which is so antirealist it's obviously on purpose, a trippy combination of the celestial trial of A Matter of Life and Death, H.P. Lovecraft's description of higher dimensions, and the unreal multiplaning of a Chinese blockbuster. I could discuss the cameos, a good example of how people get offended in order to feel offended. If you've ever looked at a photograph of George Reeves in his Superman costume, you've done about the same amount of violence to him. But nobody could've been asking for Helen Slater; the motives must be pure. The inclusion of the, ahem—I actually don't want to spoil this—spider is meta crap done right, almost wtih a sense of scholarship, or at least as an inside joke amongst friends. Speaking of spiders, it sometimes gets dangerously close to Across the Spider-Verse's oppressive self-awareness in its own philosophy of time travel, but Chrstina Hodson's screenplay uses words like "fate" rather than words like "canon," and suggesting that there are inherent patterns in history rather than positing the extrinsic laws of a fictional narrative is just never going to make my skin crawl the same way. The best bit-player, anyhow, is the Black Flash, who wound up surprising me, even if he shouldn't have.
I think I'm bothered more that this 144 minute movie can't find time to do much of anything with Keaton's Batman and its new Kryptonian hero, Sasha Calle's Kara Zor-El, nor with their little mini-arcs, each being a truncated "I don't care"/"now I care very much" belated answer to their respective calls to adventure. Batman's is just wonky, because his "I don't care" relates to the destruction of the planet he lives on, yet he maintains enough hospitable geniality to give his two irritating houseguests full run of his cave. Supergirl has a richer and better-founded internal conflict (I have forever been fascinated by Kara's status as the Kryptonian who meaningfully is an alien, and fascinated all the more by perhaps literally every single Supergirl writer's complete inability to take this seriously), but if you are going to do that conflict, you shouldn't resolve it instantaneously. There's the matter of whether Supergirl's iconography is so dependent on blonde hair that Calle feels off, but besides "off" being something of the point, she makes up for it with a fairly great little performance in the space afforded, a living reminder of how difficult it can be to work up expressions of strong emotion against greenscreens when you're, probably, not even sharing physical space with other actors; Calle's fresh enough in her exertions to make you realize that a lot of the folks who've made this their whole career have gotten into a rut about it. As for Keaton, he is, indeed, the star of a well-remembered movie from 1989. He's solid enough; there's a nice sense of wry amusement to his participation that translates well into an old Bat-mentor.
The flipside of the movie not caring about Batman and Supergirl, however, is that this keeps this film called The Flash, hyped and hated alike as an empty act of capitalist collage, from ever becoming solely a movie about how much intellectual property Warners owns; this is so much a movie about Barry Allen, the Flash, that it's bona fide miraculous, because its masters didn't want it to be and I think you'd have to go back many years to find another superhero movie more about its title character and how, or whether, his soul still works. There's not, really, a villain—the villain is Barry Allen's grief—and the vast majority of this big superhero blockbuster's runtime is, nevertheless, a two-handed character study that is ultimately a one-handed character study. It's mostly one person talking to themselves! I think we forgot, and now may be unwilling to recognize, what a very good actor Miller is, or was; as far as those "visual effects" go, I suppose we're no longer impressed by the seamless splitscreen, compositing, and face replacement that go into a multi-million-dollar one-person/two-character performance against a camera that never lets on that these shots are complicated, but we should be impressed.
Miller, anyway, is very good, charting two very similar yet very different versions of Barry Allen, juggling a lot of balls simultaneously even within each individual performance, not least Barry's apparent neurodivergence and how that manifests in distinct ways across different lives: the other Barry tells us how much of our Barry is basic geekishness, how much is actual autism, and how much is horrible, psyche-consuming neurosis, and the film asks weird, edgy questions (that may or may not have resonance with Miller themselves) about how the one whom life didn't slap down hard is somehow the one who's an asshole about everything, even to the point he's noticeably stupider. The material does sometimes make other Barry dumb as a fucking post, but this is erring on the side of the other thing that's maybe even more miraculous about The Flash, its sense of humor. This movie is startlingly funny: incredibly bright and enjoyable in its central one-person buddy-comedy, even when it's also doing character work (and at times it's funny with Keaton, and, not at all infrequently, with superpowers deployed for actual physical comedy); and it's funny in ways that should've broken the spell dozens of times over, but Miller and director Andy Muschietti manage to thread the tonal needle like champs. I think there's only one awful joke, gotten out of the way early: it's Gadot musing that the Lasso of Truth bit never gets old, and I'm afraid it does. Luckily, this only comes after a delightful (my biggest objection is its color grading) Rube Golberged superspeed sequence that tells us what The Flash's sense of humor is going to be like. So this is the "Marvel" of it, but like a good DC it's still different, comedic in ways that are hard to pin down to one category—cartoonish, larky, quippy, conceptual, structural (the title card represents a downright perilous joke for a serious movie), and not too much of any category—and I love it, from the eyebrow-raising-in-context accidental rampage of nudity to the wonderfully-ramshackle superhero procedure of how they manage to get two Flash costumes into the film. Better, it never interferes with a central arc that is, it turns out, the first keenly emotional thing in a live-action superhero movie since, hey, Avengers: Endgame, four years ago.
Muschietti deserves more credit than he's going to get for this—the directorial equivalent of running a marathon, or pushing a boulder up a hill only to watch it keep sliding right back down—for despite it all, as a pure storytelling object, his movie is as coherent as you could ever hope for, swifter than 144 minutes of superheroics should be, and shockingly resolute in its focus. This is the end, or close enough, of this franchise, and I'm glad it got to go out with dignity. Not honor; society decides what's honored, and society has decided. But there's more dignity in this disaster than I'd have dreamed.