VERDICT: The first and last 10 minutes demonstrate the winning superhero saga this might have been, but the middle two hours are devoted to sloppy, shameless fan service.
Maybe nerd culture was a mistake. When movies started taking comic-book superheroes seriously, the fans didn’t necessarily mind that mainstream culture was stomping on their sacred ground, because there were always a few shout-outs that would go over the heads of the newbies and let the veterans feel acknowledged.
But those shout-outs began getting louder, taking up more and more screen time — and online discussion — until it seemed like the day would come when we’d get a movie that was nothing but fan service, even if it got in the way of an otherwise interesting story.
And now we have The Flash, a movie with a great opening ten minutes, and a great closing ten minutes, bookending two solid hours that feel like little more than an industrial poultry plant’s–worth of Easter eggs for DC Comics fans and their many media iterations. The film is so busy congratulating die-hards for getting the references that it ceases to be a movie and instead becomes an inside joke at Comic-Con.
That’s a pity; Ezra Miller’s ongoing ability to generate negative publicity doesn’t negate the fact that they’re just right for this material, capturing the comedy and the pathos, making the stakes of the story feel both completely personal and earth-shattering at the same time, a balance that eludes most superhero sagas.
Miller returns as Barry Allen who, as the Flash, is one of the Justice League’s most powerful members but simultaneously its most socially awkward one. The Flash opens with a bravura action sequence, wherein our titular speedster is cleaning up collateral damage in Gotham City — he refers to himself as “the janitor of the Justice League” — while Batman (Ben Affleck) gives chase to some goons who have stolen a virus from a hospital.
As the hospital building collapses, the Flash must rescue a passel of newborns that have fallen out of the window, and it’s perhaps the cinema’s most breathlessly exciting and audaciously hilarious maternity-ward sequence since John Woo’s Hard Boiled.
The meat of the story involves Barry’s angst over the murder of his mother (Maribel Verdú) and the ongoing incarceration of his father (Ron Livingston) who has been unjustly convicted of the crime. When Barry realizes he can run fast enough to travel through time, he thinks he can save his mother’s life, even though Batman — who knows a thing or two about dead parents — warns him not to muck about with the timestream.
But muck about he does, and when a mysterious figure pushes the Flash out of his speed-force bubble, Barry winds up in another timeline, one where his mother lived, where Eric Stoltz starred in Back to the Future, and where a younger Barry (Miller again) hasn’t yet had his superhero-origin moment.
Before Barry can find his way back home, he’s got to try to save this other Earth, which is being invaded by General Zod (Michael Shannon), the Kryptonian villain from Man of Steel. And without “his” Justice League at his beck and call, Barry’s going to have to improvise with some other superheroes who are new to him but familiar (in one iteration or another) to audiences. Without getting into spoilers (because the surprises are among the few true pleasures this movie can muster), lessons will be learned, sacrifices will be made, and sequels will be teed up.
Early on, cinematographer Henry Braham (Guardians of the Galaxy, Volume 3) brings simplicity and beauty to Barry’s mind-bending running speed, but as the timelines stack up, even those moments get lost in a digital blur. While it’s mostly Miller’s show all the way — they spend many scenes playing two different versions of Barry Allen — Verdú brings a welcome empathy and compassion that lets us know in just a few scenes why her life and death matter so much in this universe. Sasha Calle, providing a different take on a DC legacy character, finds a new way into a familiar figure.
Kiersey Clemons, alas, isn’t given enough real estate to turn Barry’s potential love interest Iris West into anything but a placeholder for future installments, and Shannon seems to be here more for continuity and exposition than for actual performance. And then there’s Michael Keaton, stepping back into the cowl and giving his all to an older, more reclusive Bruce Wayne; his very presence here calls to mind nothing as much as his turn in Birdman, playing an actor desperately trying to get away from the fan-favorite superhero that upended his career. If The Flash proves anything, it’s that the fans won, and that’s a loss for everyone else.
- Director: Andy Muschietti
- Screenwriter: Christina Hodson; screen story by John Francis Daley & Jonathan Goldstein and Joby Harold
- Cast: Ezra Miller, Michael Keaton, Sasha Calle, Michael Shannon, Ron Livingston, Maribel Verdú, Kiersey Clemons, Jeremy Irons
- Producers: Barbara Muschietti, Michael Disco
- Executive producers: Toby Emmerich, Walter Hamada, Galen Vaisman, Marianne Jenkins
- Director of Photography: Henry Braham
- Production design: Paul Denham Austerberry
- Costume design: Alexandra Byrne
- Editing: Jason Ballantine, Paul Machliss
- Music: Benjamin Wallfisch
- Sound: John Marquis, Nancy Nugent Title, supervising sound editors and sound design
- Production companies: Warner Bros. Pictures presents A Double Dream/A Disco Factory production
- In English
- 144 minutes