2023 | PG-13 | starring Ezra Miller, Michael Keaton, Michael Shannon, Sasha Calle, Ben Affleck, Kiersey Clemons | directed by Andi Muschietti | 2h 24m |
In South Park, an army of emboldened Member Berries swarmed into the White House, lined up in front of President Garrison ready for their marching orders – and did nothing. In reality, the Member Berries swarmed into the offices of Marvel and Warner Brothers, bounced on little typewriter keys and banged out scripts for Spider-Man: No Way Home and The Flash. In the case of Spider-Man it was a happy accident that fell into Marvel’s lap. Years of rebooting the franchise with new actors in the role folded beautifully into a solid multi-verse story. In The Flash, it’s a clumsy attempt to do the same, always one step behind Marvel in the universe building game and capitalizing on all of the actors who have rotated through Superman and Batman over the years for a series of cameos and nostalgia bait.
Barry Allen (Ezra Miller) is unhappy with his clean-up role in the Justice League until one day he learns that he can use his speed ability to go back through time, and specifically to bring his mother back to life and free his father (Ron Livingston) currently on trial for her murder. Unheeding the cautions of Batman (Ben Affleck), Barry goes about setting it right, but is knocked out of the time stream and into a past multiverse where he meets his 18 year old self, loses his powers and must relive Earth’s invasion by General Zod (Michael Shannon) this time in an alternate universe without the Justice League.
What am I supposed to do with this? The Flash is as dull as dishwater, a 2 and a half hour cartoon without an original idea in it’s head cranked out on a studio assembly line and I’m supposed to give it some sort of reverence because it’s the year’s big superhero movie. The Flash is both not as bad as it detractors say and not as good as it’s fans say, a big blah of a cartoon full of recycled superhero stories, unexciting fight scenes without a lot of invention and well worn themes of family, letting go and believing in yourself. Instead of delivering a Flash origin story or even a stand alone movie (the kind of movie that should have been put together before Justice League) we get this weird quasi-Justice League movie featuring some, but not all of them in limited roles, an old Batman and a new Supergirl, all for reasons that feel like they have more to do with behind-the-scenes scheduling and contracts or universe set-up than anything that works toward a story.
But let’s start at the top. The Flash’s big marquee moment that everyone will be talking about occurs in it’s first 20 minutes, when it quite simply delivers the most bizarre Save the Cat scene in superhero movie history. In the set-up where we see the normal day-to-day of our hero, usually saving a cat out of a tree or busting low-level bank robbers, Barry here is confronted with a hospital that collapses and spills a maternity ward full of babies out the windows so that he can quip “baby shower” before saving them from plunging to their deaths. For some reason he decides it’s easier to catch one of them by tossing them in a microwave and slamming the door on it. Hearing that Ezra Miller put a baby in a microwave sound smore like the actor’s real life crimes than the unintentionally horrific opening of your superhero movie, but there you have it. I have a feeling this was one of those studio mandates where they had the punchline and worked backwards to get to it. “We need Barry to say “Baby Shower”, figure out how to get babies falling out of the sky.”
The plot concerns Barry using his speed to reverse time – something introduced very effectively in the un-cannon Zack Snyder’s Justice League – meeting a slightly younger version of himself and alternate Justice League heroes. The script leans hard on comedy, forcing Miller to camp it up, play dumb and Mickey Mouse laugh to a degree that he has no consistent character at all – playing both awkward nerd and the serious straight man whenever the script requires at that minute. The script is credited to Christina Hodson and John Frances Dailey and Jonathan Goldstein and I would bet any amount of money that what’s on screen here is the results of a script by Dailey and Goldstein completely re-written by Hodson. I have a hard time believing the guys that wrote Game Night and Dungeons and Dragons wrote an exchange like “Why’s it so cold? / It’s the arctic, Barry”, but I do suspect the writer of Birds of Prey and Bumblebee could have. Now in fairness, director Andi Muschietti (It) let’s every gag hit the floor with a loud thud and makes every action scene look like a cartoon. With a horror filmography at his back, Muschietti is hitting off key notes here.
Stakes? Forget them. Not only are we not in our universe, but we’re in a world where Barry can reverse time and undo anything he needs to. What does work? For 2 and a half hours it is well paced. It doesn’t drag and keeps unfolding new things. It also doesn’t feel over-stuffed. A lot of characters are in this, but they aren’t in it a lot, leaving Barry to bounce from one cameo to the next and keeping the focus on him. Our new heroes include Michael Keaton again donning the Bat Suit with Danny Elfman’s Batman theme delightfully cued up. However, neither Keaton or Sasha Calle’s capable Supergirl get much of their own to work with. They are simply pieces in the machine.
It doesn’t help that The Flash harbors some of the worst Hollywood trends in existence today. From the over-use of cameos to the multi-verse storyline to the use of bringing back the dead with CGI imagery (the very thing the actors are striking about in 2023). This movie wants us to cheer for inside baseball Hollywood references (such as recreating a famous Kevin Smith story involving Superman and a giant spider from The Death of Superman Lives documentary) or the bastardized appearance of a long-dead actor’s likeness. It both tries to be niche comic book fan service and a broad-based big studio popcorn film. And none of that is to mention the bizarre off-screen advocacy for it’s star particularly in a time when movies are being re-cast and reshot around actors (All the Money in the World, Fantastic Beasts) based on off-screen behavior all the time.
The Flash is a mess. A lot about The Flash doesn’t sit well as a mark for movies to come and that behind the scenes ugliness bleeds into the film. Too little, too late and too uninventive. A work that exemplifies the most cynical aspects of Hollywood blockbuster filmmaking.