The Flash doesn’t feel like the triumphant culmination of a cinematic universe. For as much as the marketing and public discourse may frame this movie as being some major event in the DC Extended Universe, The Flash is, in reality, a meek attempt to wipe the slate clean. Let’s not mince words here, DC’s slate of films has been a chaotic mess for a decade. Since Man of Steel hit the screens a decade ago, DC has been trying its damndest to start up a cinematic universe to rival Marvel and has simply never managed. It tried. My God did it try and some corners of the internet won’t shut up about it, but that time in DC’s history is over. It’s moving on.
So with that in mind, The Flash exists for one purpose and one purpose only: maintaining the brand. When James Gunn does his big reset in the next few years, The Flash will have already set up whatever he needed it to do and then it can be forgotten. I didn’t expect much from The Flash. How could you after the past several years of DC films? But unlike other DC movies, The Flash isn’t an unmitigated disaster. It’s not a good movie, one that lacks a soul and feels contrived more than anything, but I didn’t want to leave the movie midway through. Make of that what you will.
Director: Andy Muschietti
Release Date: June 16, 2023 (Theatrical)
Sometime after the events of Justice League (pick your poison which one is canon), Barry Allen (Ezra Miller) is dissatisfied with his role in the Justice League, effectively cleaning up everyone else’s mess. His life isn’t exactly the greatest, especially because his father’s appeal is coming up and the evidence that Barry found that could help free his father from prison isn’t exactly great. Barry ultimately comes to the conclusion that life would be better if his dead mom was still alive, so using his super-speed, Barry travels back in time and rearranges things so that his mom lives. Since Barry blatantly ignores the butterfly effect when he’s told that doing so would be a bad idea, his time travel shenanigans cause the timeline to fracture and Barry has to piece it together with the help of his younger self and a few other heroes, including Michael Keaton’s Batman.
It’s almost unfair seeing The Flash a few short weeks after Across the Spider-Verse. Both movies are obsessed with continuity and legacy, yet most attempts that The Flash makes to call back to previous DC movies feel hollow. They come across as being fan service for the sake of fan service without any real meaning behind it. Across the Spider-Verse used the legacy and history of Spider-Man to craft a story about defying one’s fate and going your own path, something that The Flash kind of attempts. In the end, I couldn’t help but notice all of these little cameos and winks to previous films and obligatory moments inserted to generate retweets and engagement more than anything else. Really ask yourself why Michael Keaton’s Batman is in this. Is it to help flesh out Barry’s story, or is it a marketing stunt designed to get older fans into seats because the film wouldn’t be able to do so without major assistance?
So much of The Flash feels shallow. One of the problems that the film has lies in its central concept. For as much as the film wants to claim that it’s a time travel story a la Back to the Future, similar to the storyline the film is based on, Flashpoint, this is an alternative timeline. None of the events here are going to matter by the end of the film and most of the plot feels inconsequential because of it. Not to jump ahead a bit, but the ending of the film effectively ignores everything that happened in the two hours leading up to it and offers nothing of value other than a chuckle and saying “Hoo boy, that was some wild ride, wasn’t it?” There’s no guarantee any of this will actually matter in any future films since everything was retconned out of existence anyway. So again, what’s the point of any of this?
But it wasn’t all that exciting of a movie in the first place. As far as superhero blockbusters go, there really weren’t any major action scenes or setpiece moments to get the crowd cheering or engaged. Most of the film has Barry and his younger self exploring the world searching for Superman with the assistance of Michael Keaton to prevent General Zod’s (Michael Shannon) invasion since that’s the point in time Barry traveled back to. Barry’s not even the main character of his own story, instead trying to assemble the people that actually matter while he plays support. I’m not the biggest fan of Ezra Miller as an actor, but watching them interact with a younger, more obnoxious version of themself is a special kind of torture. The film admits that Ezra Miller is aggravating, yet does nothing about it other than proving that they’re just goddamn annoying. Both Ezras do eventually find a groove and establish a decent dynamic, one where the younger Barry is more hot-headed and idealistic, but that’s not really established until the end of the third act.
When it does hit that moment, you can see it coming a mile away. There’s nothing wrong with a movie being predictable, but when I can tell a line of dialogue is going to be the central theme of the movie within the first ten minutes, it’s blatantly obvious. Even the identity of the villain hounding Barry throughout the timestream is pretty obvious once you understand the film’s theme of letting go and stating that you can’t interfere with
canon events the past.
There is something to be said though about how The Flash does effectively get some pathos from the characters. Barry’s motivation for trying to change the past is strong and we see him grapple with the ramifications of what he did and trying to justify them. When he can’t and has to make the decision we all know he needs to make, it’s a touching scene that deserves to be in a better movie. A few strong emotional beats don’t really excuse the bland spectacle and housekeeping it took to get us there.
That’s the biggest issue that The Flash has. It’s a boring movie. No one really cares about Barry Allen or Ezra Miller. No one cares how this is supposed to end this chapter of DC’s film slate. No one cares that Kara Zor-El (Sasha Calle) is here instead of Henry Cavill. It all just comes across as one big whatever of a film. I was debating if this film or the vanity project that was Black Adam is a better film. Sure, I’m indifferent to The Rock’s passion project and I’m certainly not a fan of his domineering ego, but at the very least that film had someone at the helm who wanted it made. Between all the director changes, reshoots, delays, and Ezra Miller just being Ezra Miller, it’s a miracle that audiences didn’t just claim that this was dead on arrival immediately after seeing the first trailer.
That might be because the film attempted to hide its atrocious CGI. If there’s one thing that everyone is dunking on the movie for, and righteously so, it’s the special effects. They just look wrong. Faces look like they’re made of plastic and poorly rendered and it’s consistent. In every scene where there’s some kind of slow motion, you can expect people’s faces to look horribly edited and wrong. This was exemplified in the film’s opening, which features absolutely terrible CGI babies that make the Breaking Dawn Part 2 baby seem natural. I audibly laughed in the theater when Barry began running since the special effects surrounding it look shockingly fake. So yeah, the movie where the main character’s power is centered on running looks weird as hell. The icing on the cake is that director Andy Muschietti knows this and has tried HARD to explain that the bad CGI was a stylistic choice. Because when I think of artistic liberties, I think of making my characters look like they’re from The Scorpion King.
It feels like such a backhanded compliment to say that I may not have liked my time with The Flash, but I didn’t hate it. It has moments that work, but it’s all buried under a massive pile of editorial mandates that rob the film of any of its creative liberties. It needs to clean house for James Gunn’s venture into the DC Universe AND be a multiverse story, AND continue the story of Zack Snyder’s Justice League characters, AND tell its own original story, AND feature enough surface-level cameos to distract from the fact there is little substance to their appearances. The Flash is a cynically made movie that will matter very little in the grand scheme of things, but at least we (hopefully) are this much closer to being done with this era of DC’s cinematic output.