‘The Flash’ is an unearned victory lap

(Image: Warner Bros. Pictures)

The idea of the multiverse isn’t new to film, with movies such as Source Code, 2009’s Star Trek, and The One (not to be confused with the YA fiction series which I wrote) all dealing with what was at the time “alternate timelines.” It’s even less new to fiction in general with decades of alternate historical fiction, fantasy, and science fiction, including my YA series The One (not to be confused with the Jet Li movie which I didn’t write) centering around the theory. Yet only now does the concept of infinite possible outcomes diverging from a single event seem to have reached cultural saturation with the MCU going all-in on a multiverse saga, another Marvel franchise introducing infinite Spider-People (review coming next week!), and last year’s Best Picture winner tackling the subject. The irony here is that despite being the first to introduce parallel and multiple worlds to comics, in 1961’s “The Flash of Two Worlds,” DC has somehow managed to be the slowest in establishing the concept. However, if this multiverse era has taught us anything, it’s that there’s nothing which can’t be changed. Especially when it comes to extending a profitable franchise.

It should be stated here that this review will not address the several issues related to star Ezra Miller. If their involvement is a deterrent from seeing the film, that’s fair. This review will however discuss the several issues the film has which could be deterrents in themselves, foremost among them: The Flash. Introduced in 2017’s Justice League (aka The Josstice League), Ezra Miller’s portrayal of Barry Allen became a point of controversy with some enjoying the character’s lighthearted contrast to the gloomy solemnity of the overall DCEU (not to be confused with the upcoming DCU) and others criticizing the incessant non-sequiturs and Whedonisms spouted in a maddening attempt to make DC more like Marvel. Sadly, that version of the character, the one roundly mocked for ranting about brunch and being generally incompetent, makes this version of The Flash seem measured in comparison.

How do you make an annoying character less annoying? Add a more annoying character. (Image: Warner Bros. Pictures)

From the very first scene, with Barry Allen tracking his caloric intake while on the way to work, Miller amps up Allen’s neurotic, nearly OCD tendencies to the point that he comes off as an impersonation of Dustin Hoffman’s character from Rain Man, using a breakfast sandwich to replace Judge Wapner. Allen is so obsessed with having the proper calories that he convinces a group of admiring adolescents to toss him a candy bar, and then immediately ignores it once he fails to catch it. It would take nanoseconds for him to pick up and consume yet doing his little racer pose, one that any runner knows would have no momentum, is just too important to spare that time. It doesn’t help that the dialogue, especially in the opening act, is so on-the-nose that viewers can pinpoint statements which will echo in the character’s mind during the closing act. Yet The Flash wants so badly to make this insufferable, cringe-worthy character likable that he spends the first action scene saving babies and a therapy dog, while also being wacky enough to do so only after breaking open a vending machine. This type of “humor” and heroism might’ve worked in the 80’s, or even in the earnest world of Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man, but in the era of superhero universes so dense they have a dozen versions of themselves, the entire first act comes off as embarrassing for everyone involved. Once the love interest is introduced, and just as quickly sidelined, viewers may have the feeling that we’re watching a walkthrough of the first draft rather than a film that’s been finished for almost two years.

During those two years director Andy Muschietti and screenwriter Christina Hodson found a way to make the most annoying character in a very flawed universe more likable: an even more annoying, frustrating, and dumber version of that character. As his younger self, Other Barry is understandably less mature and less tactful than his older, more… let’s go with tolerable… self. Rather than demonstrating any of the social skills a cloyingly perfect home life would typically imply, Other Barry is spoiled, abrasive, co-dependent, and above all else stupid. Scenes between the two that are meant to be comedic, including an extended riff on Back to the Future that becomes predictable before the characters spend several minutes focused on it, come off as desperate. Of course, none of this is to say that an autistic character, as seems likely with Miller’s portrayal of Barry, can’t make for a compelling protagonist, except that his mental condition is less examined than it is ridiculed in failed attempts at humor. Even beyond this borderline offensive material most jokes either didn’t work or, as with Barry doing his Flash run without the Speed Force, were painful to watch. During my screening I counted as many laughs from the audience as I did yawns (Three. There were exactly three laughs). Credit should be given to Miller for varying their performance between the two characters, and Barry becomes more grounded later in the film but by then the damage to character – carried over from his previous two appearances – is already done. Worse still, the titular character is consistently overshadowed by guests in his own story.

Batman and Supergirl do nothing but make Flash and Other Flash look even worse. (Image: Warner Bros. Pictures)

Revealed in the trailer, The Flash marks Michael Keaton’s first appearance as Bruce Wayne since 1992’s Batman Returns, as well as the debut of Sasha Calle’s Supergirl. Both are fine in their roles, and many in the audience will love that Keaton does the meme, but there’s no reason for either of them to be in the film beyond nostalgia for the former and franchising for the latter. There is an explanation given for why Keaton’s Wayne replaces Affleck’s, yet narratively there’s no difference. In fact, using Kal-El rather than Kara Zor-el wouldn’t have required the tacked-on explanation Supergirl’s presence demands. Further, Kara’s appearance precludes the adaptation of another, well-known alternate Superman story. Other cameos, of which there are a few, might evoke the same cheers  as from Keaton’s meme, but add nothing other than more plastic CGI to a film that already looks awful. Barry and Other Barry interact well, but many of the most important effects, including the Speed Force and Flash running, are about as polished as the dialogue. Michael Shannon, supposedly returning as General Zod, doesn’t look like he even left his house. Yet Batman and Supergirl make The Flashes feel that much smaller and more inept. The best action sequence in the film, the one time when it seems successful, demonstrates how awesome Batman and Supergirl are while Barry and Other Barry’s shining triumph is just another missed opportunity. (Not to spoil the scene but why run past your target and then break your movement when you could run through the target, swing back, and hit the target again? Speed is part of momentum! Use it!) This despite Flash being so powerful that he can live hours in a second. So powerful, in fact, that he can make a two-and-a-half hour movie feel like a five-hour movie! In the end, while Keaton’s return doesn’t diminish his legacy as Batman, it doesn’t add to it either. If anything, it’s an unnecessary coda, like the two Ewok films were to the original Star Wars trilogy. Or like Henry Cavill was in Black Adam. Or like The Flash‘s totally pointless post-credits scene.

Face it, Michael Keaton is the reason people will pay to see ‘The Flash.’ (Image: Warner Bros. Pictures)

As with almost every other movie in the DCEU, The Flash has every tool needed to be a great film. Even with Warner Bros Discovery’s recent financial troubles there’s a ton of money thrown into production. Barry Allen is a good character and Miller could be fine in a more toned down portrayal. The story has room for intriguing bits of world building and the freedom to take narrative risks. There’re even opportunities for observations on nurture vs. nature and an autistic superhero. Sadly, for Miller, for Barry, for the DCEU/DCU, for Warner Bros, and for comics fans as a whole, The Flash doesn’t deliver on any of these. In some other world, maybe one where Zack Synder hadn’t set a torturous precedent for all DC films (although Man of Steel feels like a masterpiece in comparison, and even The Flash knows it), or where one we don’t have a real life Lex Luthor except that he’s an idiot with a bad combover, The Flash could’ve been a great film. But we don’t live in that universe. We live in this one, where I just spent three hours reviewing a mediocre multiverse movie.

Rating: 1.5 / 5

About Jess Kroll

Jess Kroll
Jess Kroll is a novelist and university professor born in Honolulu, Hawaii, and based in Daegu, South Korea. He has been writing film reviews since 2004 and has been exclusive to Pop Mythology since 2012. His novels include 'Land of Smiles' from Monsoon Books and young adult series 'The One' and 'Werewolf Council' from Epic Press.