There is a suggested line to when a superhero movie relies too much on the fleeting high of fan service and special effects. Andy Muschietti’s “The Flash” blitzes past that line and then proceeds to run out of ideas. It’s not the pivotal movie that the DCU needs it to be by its own design—like its hero, it’s stuck thinking about the past, and it swaps out its heroism for a tidal wave of gloopy zeroes and ones. Its high-speed action sequences, which eventually rally three superhero brands to fight in the blandest setting possible, have better use of selling HD TVs than the DCU’s creative potential.
There’s initially a lot of promise for young Barry Allen’s story when it thinks smaller. In its first act, Barry (Ezra Miller) is introduced as a neurotic lab rat and goofy accidental hero who can rush across the country in seconds and save the day. When not in the red costume, Barry has few friends and little romantic hope with his crush Iris (played by Kiersey Clemons). It’s template underdog stuff, but Miller is funny enough with it, wide-eyed, screeching, and high-energy in a compelling, intense fashion. And while Barry’s opening scene heroics lose some of their power with their blatant lack of texture, Muschietti’s tone gets a little edge from a horror-comedy sense of humor that’s not afraid to put babes (and a therapy dog) in over-the-top danger.
The script by Christina Hodson (from a story by Joby Harold and John Francis Daley & Jonathan Goldstein) then balances its super physical potential with curious emotional stakes, focused on the personal stakes of being able to change the past. Barry wants to prove his father (Ron Livingston innocent of the murder of his mother (Maribel Verdú), having initially lost both of his parents one fateful day. It’s a strange device, and it doesn’t hit the emotional depths it wants to, but it works for being so bizarre and adamant. And it makes a few funny references to “Back to the Future,” with Barry becoming our naive Marty McFly.
In the process of going back to the past and saving his mother, Barry encounters a different version of himself, a less uptight, even more, abrasive slacker (played by Miller, with longer hair and even more of a Justin Long 2.0 vibe). It’s initially gripping how the story doesn’t have a main villain and that its first act is working from such a personal core about learning to live with yourself.
But that resistance, that earnest attempt to have a soul not crushed by world-building, is sold out by the end of the first act, which makes way for a super-bland plot by the evil alien Zod to terrorize the people of Earth. Yup, Zod is back from Zack Snyder’s “Man of Steel,” played here with even more apathy by Michael Shannon. And he looks even worse; the often amazing actor resembles a video game skin of himself, with a screen covering his face whenever it isn’t digitally animated. He becomes a symbol of the script’s failure to maintain sizable stakes, which shouldn’t be excused when characters can fly and zip around. This all puts the two Barrys on an experience for craven fan service, in which only their “Bill & Ted” chemistry (made possible by impressive, seamless doubles acting and effects) can provide something fresh. The older Barry decides they must assemble the Justice League, whatever roster that means in this universe.
Ben Affleck’s Batman appears in the film’s beginning, riding in from the Snyderverse. But the biggest trip to the past includes Michael Keaton. A decade ago, such an idea would have seemed thrilling, impossible. In the tired trend of multi-verses, it’s just rank and file. “The Flash” is packed with Keaton-era nostalgia, from the Danny Elfman musical callbacks to the black and yellow Bat logo and Keaton saying the line: “I’m Batman.” It’s a shame that the script has no purpose for him, with his few sequences doing what George Lucas did to Yoda in “Star Wars – Episode II: Attack of the Clones”: a whole bunch of slick VFX that takes away all of the gritty stoicism of its character, and therefore its soul, but it does make the Dark Knight kick and punch real fast. How boring it is to see Batman become Superman.
There is a super-presence in the movie, also prominent in the trailers, with Sasha Calle appearing as Supergirl. But her work feels truncated all around, with Calle unable to create much of a character aside from her brooding dialogue about Krypton and her super-punches. The same abbreviation can be felt with Kiersey Clemons’ character, a love interest of sorts for Barry, who is mainly used to ramp up his nerves for a couple of slapstick bits.
“The Flash” saves its worst super-fighting for a battle royale in the middle of the desert, which flaunts the script’s lack of cleverness. There’s plenty of swooping, speeding, and some super punches—but so little of it lacks texture or any decent surprise. There’s no zip to its problem-solving of how to fight Zod’s army, and it underwhelms the scene’s closing emotional beats that the script wants to hurt. Even the amusing graces of having two Barrys begin to feel like overkill.
Muschietti displays his proud gaudiness most of all with the way he shows Barry blitzing into the past—a coliseum of orange and blue lightning, with different people in Barry’s life presented as if in a kaleidoscope but with faces that look plainly fake. In a way that feels intentional but also baffling, the lifeless faces are Scorpion King’s entrance in “The Mummy Returns”-level bad. Muschietti does not care about the distracting nature of an uncanny creature, and when he later tosses in some grotesque, weightless deep fake cameos primed for applause or eye-rolls, he’s just rubbing it in your face. With Muschietti rumored to take on a new Batman venture, it’s neither a brave nor bold visual stance for a director to take.
Considering how “The Flash” makes many of its characters face death and inevitability throughout, “The Flash” should not feel as hollow as it does. But you can’t blame Barry for it. He’s just a high-energy tour guide here, as everything around him becomes a blur leading us to the next reference. It has taken so long for a feature-length “The Flash” to finally hit theaters, and he’s too late. Barry is barely the lead character of his own movie. [C]