The Flash Review | Chaos Theory

by Andrew Parker

Writer’s note: Whenever referring to the character of Barry Allen/The Flash, he/him pronouns will be used, as the character is depicted as a straight male throughout the film. Whenever referring to lead performer Ezra Miller, they/them pronouns will be used, as they identify as non-binary.

The Flash arrives in theatres this week carrying a lot of excess baggage in tow, and unfortunately it’s not a good enough film to overcome all of its issues, both on and off the screen. It’s hard to divorce oneself from the drama surrounding this latest (and kinda sorta one of the last) films from the current DC Comics universe, and even if one could separate artist and the ins and outs of the business from the art, The Flash still isn’t a great film. It works in short bursts, and there’s an interesting – albeit at this point, unoriginal – idea in there, but on the whole The Flash is a messy, chaotic, and pandering attempt to salvage something out of a franchise that is/was going nowhere fast.

Junior criminal investigator Barry Allen (Ezra Miller), otherwise known as the lightning fast Flash, has settled into life as a superhero, albeit not in the way that’s particularly satisfying. Often called in to assist Batman (Ben Affleck) clean up some sort of large scale mess or crime that has gotten out of control, Barry would much rather be spending time trying to free his father (Ron Livingston) from prison. Barry knows that his father is innocent in the killing of his mother (Maribel Verdu), and is running out of ways to prove that on the eve of a make-or-break appeal hearing. One night, a stressed out and grieving Barry realizes that he can move so fast that he can travel through time. Although deep down he knows this is a bad idea that can change the course of human and metahuman history, Barry concocts a plan to save the life of his mother without forever altering the past. It’s not surprising to see that this plan backfires, stranding Barry in the past with an annoying, immature eighteen year old version of himself just as the nefarious Kryptonian General Zod (Michael Shannon) is about to mount his takeover of Earth. Now stripped of his powers, Barry realizes he has created a world where superheroes don’t exist, outside of some retired recluse claiming to be Batman, but not the same one The Flash is used to teaming up with.

Just like Barry Allen does in the film, we need to rewind a bit and examine where The Flash is coming from, starting with its star, Ezra Miller. Over the past few years, Miller has had serious misconduct allegations levied against them, forcing the performer to step out of the spotlight. On one hand, it’s clear that regardless of wrongdoing, Miller needs some care and space to figure things out on their own, but on the other, those allegations add a particular layer of ickiness throughout The Flash, especially in the early going. Barry is kind of a creepy person to be around; well intentioned, but hopelessly neurotic and resoundingly self-centred. Some of the dialogue Miller has to deliver as the character will unquestionably elicit a few reflexive eye rolls that border on bad taste. It’s just the first clue that director Andy Muschietti (the It films) has inherited a tone deaf runaway train that’s trying far too hard to appear as likeable as possible.

But even if it weren’t for Miller’s personal and legal troubles, The Flash still comes across like a cash grabbing afterthought even before the first frame rolls. Following a litany of high profile stumbles – including the underperformance of Black Adam and the second Shazam film, the scrapping of a nearly completed Batgirl film as a tax write-off, and a very public falling out with once favoured DC franchise director Zack Snyder – parent company Warner Brothers Discovery made the decision before The Flash was even released to reboot their entire cinematic universe under the stewardship of James Gunn. 

In this form, with Miller as the star, The Flash arrives in theatres so intrinsically tied to the old franchise that it feels like a lame duck that’s not going to go much of anywhere in the future. Sure, as Muschietti’s film points out, the creation of metaverses means that viewers and filmmakers should never say never when it comes to revisiting old takes on characters, but The Flash feels like damaged goods even without the more tangible controversies surrounding it. (It will be very interesting to see how the far less talked about Aquaman sequel arriving at the end of this year will be perceived in the light of everything that has been going on behind the scenes.)

But many flaws can be overlooked if the final product is somewhat good, right? It won’t completely change people’s views on larger issues, but maybe the final results could be, at the very least, entertaining. And The Flash does have some degree of entertainment value through some charismatic performances, shameless nostalgia, and a few inspired ideas for set pieces. But it also lacks any clear identity of its own.

Since the studio can’t rely on its star to do the publicity rounds, the film has been heavily marketed around the reappearance of Michael Keaton as Batman in the alternate timeline Barry has travelled to. Any surprise that could’ve been generated from seeing Keaton pop up randomly is gone, and as such, so is a lot of the novelty, because the overall plot of The Flash is similar to a Spider-man movie, right down to this film being given its own “With great power comes great responsibility” styled mantra. (“Not every problem has a solution. Sometimes you just need to let it go.”) Someone who has lost both of their parents uses that pain to guide their heroic nature, but it also causes them to be deeply damaged human beings incapable of forming meaningful, lasting bonds. Keaton’s Bruce Wayne understandably sees a lot of himself in Barry Allen, and reluctantly agrees to come out of retirement to help both young and old Flash get their powers, stop General Zod, and return to their own respective lives.

The nostalgic rush of initially seeing Keaton don the cowl and bust out the old Bat-toys is powerful for a few seconds, but quickly Muschietti and screenwriter Christina Hodson (Bumblebee, the most recent Birds of Prey outing) devolve the character into nothing more than a figurehead on hand to spout catchphrases and play all the hits. There’s one moment in particular where Keaton has to recite one of his Batman’s most iconic lines, and the actor says it with all the conviction of someone being forced to read off a cue card or someone will burn their house down. The same could be said of Shannon’s return as Zod, who is so low key and somnambulant that it hardly feels like the same character. (Zod is also so heavily CG’d that I wonder if Shannon even showed up in person to set.) The fun is fleeting, and the actors who have been brought in strictly to create callbacks don’t look like they’re enjoying themselves. That means it’s almost entirely in the hands of Miller to make The Flash work, which is hard to buy into given what’s already been covered.

The plot of The Flash relies on the age old question about whether or not one should risk repercussions and complications when travelling back in time to create a better world or right a wrong. This has been done plenty of times in the past, and to decent enough effect, even in films that weren’t terribly original otherwise. But because of modern conventions where every shared cinematic universe has to now acknowledge multiple offshoot multiverses, The Flash bears all the hallmarks of a project that has been endlessly retooled and tinkered with to seem as cool as possible. There’s a good sense of escalation, and Muschietti has paced the film briskly enough to keep the action sprightly, but there’s no flow to the plot of The Flash whatsoever. If you told me this script was rewritten every time Marvel dropped a new movie, I would absolutely believe it.

Every sequence is like a mini-movie unto itself, some of them introducing notions and characters (most notably Kiersey Clemons as a love interest for Barry) that are dropped at random in a bid to keep barrelling ahead without any breaks. Every few minutes a new goal is introduced, then the heroes bumble around for a bit, eventually they finish things up and move on to a new objective. From scene to scene, nothing in The Flash is being built up or fleshed out. It’s like watching ideas getting constantly introduced and abandoned, even though the arc of the main character and their journey somehow still stays on the tracks. By the time the story introduces Supergirl (Sasha Calle) into the mix, there’s nothing for her to do and almost nowhere for her to go; her entire arc capable of being summed up in a single sentence with almost no chance of this character coming back in this form in the future. It’s enough to give one flashbacks to X-Men Origins: Wolverine, the overstuffed mess that The Flash most closely resembles.

Miller does everything they can to make this work, showcasing a exceptional ability for physical comedy that gives Muschietti’s work a gloriously Looney Tunes sensibility in its most endearing moments. The Flash is at its absolute best whenever its not taking any of this stuff too seriously, but it’s eternally caught between trying to be its own movie and trying to stay in line with the type of mythologies that sell the most tickets at the box office. There’s always a push and pull within The Flash between idiosyncrasy and conformity that remains just as unsettled as the overall plot. It’s a film floundering because it’s trying to be everything to everyone all at once, and ultimately it looks like the studio executives have the final say.

This lack of cohesion extends to the baffling visual style of The Flash. Some of Barry’s speedy exploits are inspired bits of fun, but the quality of the CGI necessary to pull them off is wildly inconsistent. Sometimes the effects start off good, but they quickly devolve into pixellated incoherence, as if someone in upper management told the staff working on the picture to cut their losses on certain scenes and move on to other sequences that need cleaning up. The depiction of this sort of limbo world where Barry can switch between timelines is a particularly noteworthy misfire, chock full of visuals that look woefully rushed and unfinished. An early heist sequence and a late film showdown between the united heroes and General Zod tries and fails to call back to the Snyder era of these pictures, offering a bunch of grey, uninspired settings to serve as a backdrop for the dodgy effects.

I truly feel for everyone involved in the making and promotion of The Flash, all of them tasked with doing the seemingly impossible under constantly shifting conditions. Even though its incessant attempts to appear likeable ring false more than the ring true, Muschietti is a good enough director to make it go down easily. But for all the positive and negative hype The Flash has received in the run-up to its delayed release, it hardly seems like it was worth the effort in the end. Take away all the hoopla, and all one is left with is a movie that uses the power of nostalgia and franchise familiarity to paper over what’s otherwise a mid-tier superhero movie. It’s not a terrible or unwatchable film, but it’s hard to find any timeline where The Flash could be seen as being a great movie.

The Flash opens in theatres everywhere on Friday, June 16, 2023.

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