3.5 out of 5
Confession time! I'm a fan of Zack Snyder’s DC Universe. I liked what he was doing with the DC superheroes. DC has always been darker than Marvel, its heroes always more troubled. Somewhere along the way, Warner/DC got scared or wanted billion dollar films the likes of which Marvel were producing. Anyway, The Flash is the last of the Snyder-verse films. returning to this world for The Flash felt familiar: this interpretation of Alfred, Bruce Wayne, the Batcave, and beyond. The Flash is essentially a sequel to Snyder’s Justice League. Barry Allen (an inimitable Ezra Miller offering perhaps the most affecting DC hero performance since Henry Cavill in Man of Steel) is getting used to the new superhero life. They are relishing their newfound Justice League friends, as we see in the fun opening set piece where Barry is called away to Gotham to help Batman (Ben Affleck) with some bad guys.
This sequence, with The Batman is probably one of the best of the Ben Affleck incarnation. It's well paced and is great to see Affleck doing what The Batman is supposed to do.
As we saw in Justice League, Barry is forever in search of connection. He is awkward, socially stunted, and uncomfortable in his own skin. His backstory is that his mother was murdered when he was just a boy and his father was falsely accused and put behind bars for it. With his father’s appeal hearing just around the corner, Barry’s past is plaguing him now more than ever. While speaking to his incarcerated father on the phone, overcome with missing both his parents, Barry runs. Fast. He breaks the time barrier and realises he can travel to, and perhaps change, the past.
Curiously, instead of instinctively deciding to go back to save his mother as you might expect, Barry first returns to his present. He speaks to Bruce Wayne, his only friend, about his new abilities. The two talk. It’s a decision that surprised me. To put off flinging us into the plot in favour of a conversation with a mentor. A man wanting to change his past speaking to a friend who knows what it means to be haunted by it. To live in it. Granted there’s an element of exposition in the exchange, but above all it’s Bruce telling Barry that there are some things that, try as you might, can’t be changed. A surprising, mature moment of a superhero movie putting character over plot. Of course, Barry doesn’t heed his advice.
Barry goes back in time to stop his mother’s death and instead of returning to his present, he mistakenly arrives a few years earlier, and meets his younger, 18-year-old self. The version of him that’s just about to get his powers. As Barry Senior coaches Barry Junior through it, we get a surprisingly touching, retrospective origin story - a hero who’s just learned what it means to be one, guiding the younger version of himself he’s always wanted to be. Despite the bafflingly shaky effects - when the two Barrys are on screen, one is always terribly pixelated, but more on that later - it’s a credit to the film, and Ezra Miller’s performance, that the two Barrys feel like two distinct, different characters.
It's aspects like these that make The Flash so interesting. It’s of course another unapologetic superhero blockbuster. It’s not out to break the mold or reimagine comic book storytelling. But it’s an immensely engaging superhero saga in service of a human story. Barry does what he does not to save the day or to fight off evil, but simply to save his mother, and in the process risks wrecking the universe. He misuses his powers for selfishness. For love. Flawed humanity trumps hollow heroism. It’s why much of The Flash feels sincere and honest. You feel like you’re lost in a grand, emotionally charged journey - of a man who must go back in order to move forward.
It’s perhaps why, at a time where the multiverse is the flavour of the season (Loki, Spider-Man: Across The Spider-Verse, Spider-Man: No Way Home, Dr Strange: The Multiverse Of Madness), the multiversal-ness of The Flash feels earned. The Flash cares about the journey as much as it does the destination. The early, quieter scenes of the two Barrys feel just as important as the closing grand face-off involving Supergirl (Sasha Calle makes a memorable impact despite a fleeting role), Batman, and General Zod. The other cameos from other familiar DC worlds are surprisingly delightful (the folks you expect won’t show up, and one’s you won't, will).
It’s no secret that the film sees Michael Keaton’s Batman return as the Dark Knight of an alternate universe. While he’s an absolute joy to watch, I wished the writing awarded him more impact. I think it’s because his introduction scene involves him spewing exposition for 4 minutes straight. But we still get glorious, classic Keaton’s-unhinged-take-on-Batman moments, like one in the final face-off where he says “You want to get crazy? Let’s get crazy?” It’s also interesting they kept him as Bruce, considering that, in the original Flashpoint story on which this is based, Barry travels to an alternative universe where Bruce’s father Thomas Wayne is Batman after his son Bruce is the one killed in a dark alley.
The Flash’s only true unforgivable element is its visual effects (VFX). It’s 2023 and this is one of the biggest films of the year. How is poor VFX still a thing? I like how the film brings the Speed Force to life, as an uncontrollable electric current that Barry must tap into each time to access his speed. But, beyond this, the film’s visual imagination and even basic execution are less than impressive. Something as simple as Barry whizzing through cities in the blink of an eye is little more than blurry CGI. Compare that to the gold standard of speedsters on the big screen - those iconic Quicksilver sequences in X-Men: First Class and Days Of Future Fast. Here, not only are the sequences of Barry accessing the time stream unimaginative, even Batman’s bloody cape in the opening set piece is poorly CGI’d in.
What a mess. What a shame, because what's good about "The Flash" is very good. The film puts a lot of thought into what it wants to say and not enough into how it says it. It avidly warns against a thing while at the same time doing a version of that same thing. Barry, driven by a desire to resurrect the dead, grapples with the ethics and advisability of actions that the film constantly performs, in small ways and large, without breaking a sweat. Ezra Miller's performance, despite their current woes off-screen is perfect for the neurotic Barry. Everyone else acquits themselves admirably.
Critics will hate it but as a fan of DC, I enjoyed it and will watch it again.