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The breathless buzz that followed Warner’s CinemaCon debut of The flash Back in April it looked like director Andy Muschietti and screenwriter Christina Hodson had successfully orchestrated the Second Coming of the DC Extended Universe. That may have been an overexaggerated exaggeration, but this long-gestating standalone showcase for the fastest man alive is entertaining entertainment, even if it spends more time spinning the wheels than reinventing them. Much of the early publicity has focused on Ezra Miller’s string of controversies and legal issues, but the troubled star turns out to be the film’s main asset, bringing humor, heart, and a vulnerability not often seen in big-screen superheroes.
That Miller manages to make such a funny, fully dimensional impression as Barry Allen, better known as The Flash, is no small feat given the film’s slavish devotion to nostalgic fan service. While the actor’s claim on the role began with that of Zack Snyder Superman vs. Batman: Dawn of Justice AND Suicide squadthe filmmakers here go much further back in time, tipping their hat on Tim Burton’s original Batman movies and even to Richard Donner’s massive heyday Superman blockbusters.
It delivers, even if it doesn’t live up to the hype.
Release date: Friday 16 June
Launch: Ezra Miller, Michael Keaton, Sasha Calle, Michael Shannon, Ron Livingston, Maribel Verdú, Kiersey Clemons, Jeremy Irons, Antje Traue
Director: Andy Muschietti
Screenwriter: Christina Hodson
Rated PG-13, 2 hours 24 minutes
The biggest news on the retro front is the return of Michael Keaton, more than 30 years after he last slipped into the Batman suit. The thrill that thrills audiences when he first appears as a lonely, long-retired Bruce Wayne, and shortly thereafter as a reborn Batman, continues in waves as each of his iconic bat-vehicles rev their engines. AND The flash takes a leaf from Spider-Man: There’s no way back home book welcoming more actors to play the Caped Crusader.
Spoiler avoidance makes it essential to keep the many cameos under wraps, but they’re culled from both contemporary and vintage DC entries, including even an early project that never came to fruition.
The script of Birds of prey writer Hodson is at his best in the early scenes which establish Barry as a virginal nerd who attended college without being able to gain much self-confidence, even after mastering his superpowers. Part of that insecurity comes from the tragic loss of her mother (Maribel Verdú) and her anxiety about the lengthy appeals process of her father (Ron Livingston), who has been wrongfully accused of his murder. Barry’s burning desire to go back in time and fix things to save his family is the emotional engine that drives the plot.
But before any of that begins, Muschietti makes the smart decision to show us Barry at full speed in a fun superhero riff on a James Bond-esque action prologue.
Routinely late for his job in criminal forensics at the Central City Research Center, Barry is further delayed at the breakfast cafe where he gets his regular morning fuel. An urgent call from Bruce Wayne’s butler, Alfred (Jeremy Irons), alerts him to an ongoing situation that requires his immediate presence. Batman is looking for demons who have stolen a potentially deadly virus from Gotham Hospital, which is now collapsing into a sinkhole caused by their explosive entrance.
The sequence introduces us to the Flash’s red suit and dashing movement – a fantastic combination of Tom Cruise’s high-cadence sprints and ice-skater’s elegance, trailing bright ribbons of electricity – as he powers up and hurtles across land and sea. It also introduces the self-deprecating humor that amplifies the appeal of Miller’s characterization as Barry. He describes himself as “the keeper of the Justice League”, always last on Alfred’s emergency call list and invariably cleaning up a mess of bats.
The resulting set involves the destruction of a neonatal care unit on a high floor of the skyscraper, causing what Barry literally calls a “baby shower” and giving us an idea of the film’s infectious sense of fun. As he gobbles down whatever snacks he can grab to recharge his depleted energy stores, Barry quickly figures out how to save a group of tumbling babies, a hysterical pediatric nurse, and a therapy dog.
Back in Central City, Barry meets his college crush, Iris West (Kiersey Clemons), now a reporter on his father’s case. But that character’s presence here is more of a placeholder for later developments that fans of Flash comics will be familiar with.
Grieved by the raw feelings aroused by the trial, Barry finds a way to use his superpowers to travel back in time, ignoring Bruce’s warning that tampering with the past will unleash an uncontrollable butterfly effect. The kinship between veteran and rookie superheroes whose lives have both been defined by tragedy weaves into a moment of intensity. Barry’s experiment works up to a point, but he is ejected from the space-time continuum before completing his journey, landing him in the same timeline as his 18-year-old self, the day he gained his powers.
That glitch allows Miller to showcase their sharp comedic timing, while mature and self-aware Barry and his impulsive teenage counterpart struggle to find a viable middle ground. Their differences become more pronounced when a corrective experiment goes awry, leaving the more experienced Barry powerless and his reckless younger self gifted with gifts he can’t wait to use.
Hodson’s screenplay has an initially playful note in its discovery of how history has been altered in unexpected ways. Okay for a movie buff soft spot confusing adult Barry with the news that Eric Stoltz played Marty McFly in the Back to the Future franchise – a story deftly echoed in the Flash story arc. (Michael J. Fox instead starred in Loose.) But the situation becomes exponentially more serious when it’s revealed that Superman’s Kryptonian nemesis General Zod (Michael Shannon) has returned, once again threatening to wipe out humanity.
This development prompts a desperate attempt to rally the rest of the Justice League to stop Zod, starting with a very grumpy Batman, who takes a tough step back into the fray. In a scene that will tickle anyone who has ever gotten lost in the superhero time-travel plot, weary Bruce uses spaghetti to explain the theory of the multiverse, with a bowl of cooked pasta representing the tangled mess created by screwing up the continuum.
But the combination of old Barry’s reasoning and young Barry’s excitable willfulness inevitably awakens Batman’s faith in justice and gains him access to the dusty wonders of the Batcave.
Like too many superhero movies, The flash it gradually bogs down, turning into mechanical chaos as the protagonists collide with their mighty foe in a chaotic confrontation in which the excess of busy CG takes over human – or humanoid – engagement. Shannon is wasted in generic snarling supervillain mode, while her fierce female sidekick (Antje Traue) looks ferocious but mostly serves as a reminder of Sarah Douglas’ delightfully evil Ursa, second-in-command to Terence Stamp’s Zod in Superman AND Superman II.
The key variation of the climactic battle formula is young Barry’s determination to keep tumbling back in time to reverse each defeat, racing to save his life and the lives of the people he loves. This becomes a repetitive cycle of psychedelic CG world-bending, flipping through an encyclopedic history of DC screen representation with a reverence that will make fans clap. For many viewers, that nostalgia will be reward enough in itself, enhanced by the unmistakable notes of Danny Elfman’s title theme for Batman and by John Williams for Supermanwoven into the soundtrack by Benjamin Wallfisch.
While nostalgia often threatens to sideline the central plot, those scenes produce pathos as the older Barry explains the futility of all that effort to his teenage self, forcing them both to make the most painful sacrifice to set the world right.
The other defining factor of the subsequent action is the introduction of yet another pivotal figure from DC lore – which, like the multi-Batman element, doesn’t really count as a spoiler since he’s featured throughout the trailers.
While a search for Superman in a Siberian prison is unsuccessful, he discovers his cousin Kara Zor-El, aka Supergirl (Sasha Calle), who proves to be an invaluable ally and a tenacious opponent with a familial grievance against Zod. In an impressive film debut, newcomer Calle is a silent scene-stealer, channeling Kristen Stewart’s brooding energy and her tough physicality that bode well for her potential elevation to her own independent film.
Self The flash ultimately proving to be uneven, its shaky climatic showdown far less interesting than the more character-driven buildup, the core of the story of a young man struggling to reconcile with the loss of his mother carries him through. Miller effectively layers that streak of melancholy under both the intelligent cheek of eighteen-year-old Barry and the brooding introspection of his older self.
Navigate a significant leap in scale from his work onwards Mom and the It film, not to mention genre-shifting from supernatural horror, director Muschietti handles the action with confidence. But like the conflict between Barry’s superhero exploits and his earnest attempt to mend the broken heart that has suspended him in a arrested adolescence, the film often feels torn in two opposing directions. It’s strongest when his focus remains personal, an aspect embedded in Miller’s deftly layered performance and reflected in Keaton’s corresponding Bruce Wayne/Batman sadness.
The first word about The flash calling it one of the greatest superhero movies ever made was pure hyperbole. But in the DC Extended Universe’s turbulent recent history, it’s certainly an above-average entry.