THE FLASH Review: More Multiverse, More Madness

Ezra Miller, Kiersey Clemons, Maribel Verdú, Michael Keaton, Michael Shannon, and Ron Livingston star in the superhero adventure, directed by Andy Muschetti.

Lead Critic; San Francisco, California
THE FLASH Review: More Multiverse, More Madness

In protracted development for a decade in its most recent incarnation (and longer still in others, not including unknowable multiverse variations), The Flash, the live-action adaptation of the DC superhero co-created Robert Kanigher and Carmine Infantino in the mid-'50s, kickstarting comics's Silver Age in the process, arrives in multiplexes across the country as the last, inevitable gasp — or one of them, anyway — of the ill-conceived, poorly received DCEU (DC Extended Universe).

In their finite wisdom, long-gone executives at Warner Bros.' ceded creative control of the DCEU to Zack Snyder (Justice League, Batman v. Superman, Man of Steel) after the seemingly unstoppable success of Marvel’s cinematic universe. The borderline nihilistic, grim-dark result alienated far too many fans, casual and otherwise, to continue as a viable standalone universe.

With his singular ability in his comic-book incarnation to bend and reshape time, create alternate timelines, and thus, a multiverse of creative possibilities, the Flash was ready-made for Warner Bros.’ brand-salvage project, ending the DCEU proper with whatever flourish or excitement a seemingly endless series of writers and directors could provide while resetting or rebooting the DCEU for the incoming CEO duo of James Gunn and Peter Safran. Gunn and Safran will decide whether this incarnation of Barry Allen / The Flash (Ezra Miller) will continue or whether he’ll be not just recast with another actor, but given a top-to-bottom makeover.

What happens next, though, remains speculative at best. This particular version of The Flash has spent his minimal time onscreen in a backup role, stepping in when needed for the occasional nervy quip or CGI-heavy speed run to help the older, better known DC superheroes (Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman, aka DC’s Holy Trinity).

Here, at least (and at last), the Flash takes the center spot from the get-go, trying unsuccessfully to get a much-needed caloric intake at a local cafe in Central City before Alfred Pennyworth (Jeremy Irons) calls him up to help with a collapsing hospital in nearby Gotham City. Allen’s mentor and part-time friend, Bruce Wayne / Batman (Ben Affleck), can’t help as he’s otherwise indisposed chasing down minor-league villains with big-league aspirations (i.e., the theft of a super-secret biological weapon).

That, in turn, leaves the Flash to use his time-altering ability to save an entire maternity ward’s newborns before they plunge to their deaths from the collapsing hospital. Under Andy Muschietti’s (It: Chapter 2, It: Chapter 1, Mama) relatively assured directorial hand, the resulting sequence doubles as both a highlight — possibly the film’s most memorable highlight — and a sizzle reel for the numerous effects teams who contributed to the set piece. Overflowing with visual gags, puns (“baby shower”), and comedic cheekiness, it reintroduces the Flash as an anti-grim-dark superhero, better attuned to current and near-future audience expectations.

Unfortunately, that light tone almost immediately gives way to Snyder-style melodramatics as Allen, still scarred by the preteen loss of his mother, Nora (Maribel Verdú), to a violent home invasion, and his father, Henry (Ron Livingston, replacing Billy Crudup), imprisoned for her murder, finds himself contemplating the unthinkable: Turning back time, saving his mother, and reuniting his family. While Wayne warns him against time travel and its potential, unintended effects, Allen can’t help himself, giving into fantasy wish-fulfillment and saving his mother, thus ensuring a personal future without loss or heartbreak. Or so he imagines.  

The remainder of The Flash’s overstuffed running time (no pun intended) turns on Allen’s decision to unmake time: The “new” past he creates saves his mother, but also erases meta-humans from existence, leaving only a college-age, pre-superhero Allen and an alternate timeline Bruce Wayne / Batman (Michael Keaton) to save the world when General Zod (Michael Shannon) and his army of disgruntled Kryptonians arrive on Earth, looking for a certain, long-lost Kryptonian and promising violent retribution if said Kryptonian hasn’t been returned to Zod and his minions for judgment, imprisonment, or worse.

The Flash provides an in-alternate universe rationale for the Bruce Wayne/Batman swap-out, the lack of meta-humans, and two Barry Allens existing simultaneously, but whether audiences buy into what Muschietti and the lone credited screenwriter, Christina Hodson (Birds of Prey, Bumblebee, Shut In), offer — something involving multiversal spaghetti and unchangeable pivotal events — but it matters far less than the overwhelming hit of nostalgia audiences will experience when Keaton puts on the cape-and-cowl again. Later, much later, the Flash, stuck in a stadium-sized time-sphere inside the so-called "Speed Force," watches intently as different iterations, past, present, and otherwise, of their favorite superheroes make cartoonishly awful appearances, one after the other (ad infinitum and ad nauseum in egregious fan service run amok).

An absolute low for the film and the soon-to-be-defunct DCEU, that particular sequence eventually, thankfully ends, but not before souring what should have been a semi-triumphant standalone story featuring the “Fastest Man Alive” using all of his meta-human abilities, along with Barry Beta, Keaton’s returning Batman, and a monosyllabic, sadly underused Kara Zor-El / Supergirl (Sasha Calle), to save the world, a universe, and even the multiverse he inadvertently sent into a self-destructive spiral. It's almost enough to create the desire to see the Flash, this Flash, in another superhero adventure.

While much can be said about the variable visual effects work, an all-too-standard expectation nowadays given rushed production schedules and at least in this case, multiple reshoots, they’re generally excusable, if not exactly forgivable. Here, they range from near-best to all-time-worst, though some might confuse quality with top-down decision-making (i.e., the cartoonish alternate realities Barry briefly sees when he’s in the Speed Force).

Still, story and character matter most and at least here, Barry’s inability to get through his grief, while standard issue for superheroes and thus worthy of a moratorium, does, in fact work. It works as a crucial plot point, an emotional pivot, and thanks, surprisingly enough to Miller’s layered performance, a reminder of what superhero storytelling can deliver beyond visual pyrotechnics.

The Flash is now playing in movie theaters throughout the world, via Warner Bros.

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Andy MuschettiAntje TraueBen AffleckChristina HodsonEzra MillerKiersey ClemonsMaribel VerdúMichael KeatonMichael ShannonRon LivingstonSasha CalleThe Flash

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