It’s a bit of a weird time for DC movies as they’re positioning themselves into the next DC Universe reboot under the planning and guidance of James Gunn and Peter Safran, and we’re in the “winding down” phase where we see if the current iteration goes out with a bang or a whimper. Frankly I’m a little sad to see it go.
DC’s attempt at creating a universe fumbled hard early with the financially successful but atrocious Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and Suicide Squad movies. The hastily assembled Justice League was further hurt by the exit of director Zack Snyder (its completion was overseen by Joss Whedon and met with middling reviews).
Yet despite early troubles, DC’s movie universe has arguably righted itself with plenty of bangers: Wonder Woman, Shazam, Birds of Prey, and Gunn’s own followup The Suicide Squad provided a more fun and approachable playground of ideas, and Snyder, when given the opportunity to complete and release his own version of Justice League, slammed it out of the park. But with soft audience response to Black Adam and Shazam: Fury of the Gods (which is a lot of fun), it’s increasingly clear that this version of DC’s superheroics is winding down with just a couple of hands left to play.
The Flash, directed by Andy Muscietti (a fan favorite of the horror genre, known for Mama, It, and It: Chapter 2), has a lot of ingredients for success, but also a giant millstone around its neck: that of star Ezra Miller, whose outrageous and violent offset behavior has fueled plenty of controversy and negativity. To many fans’ dismay, the film moved forward with its embattled star. The film’s marketing has seemingly downplayed Miller and instead focused on the much anticipated return of Michael Keaton’s Batman.
If you can get past the distaste of Miller’s involvement (and I’m not saying that you should; I absolutely understand and applaud the choice of many fans who are opting not to support Miller with their dollars), the good news is that The Flash is a deeply rewarding time at the movies.
Barry Allen, aka The Flash, is now a full-fledged superhero and a member of the Justice League, but despite his superpowers and even the help of billionaire genius Bruce Wayne, he can’t fix the one thing he wants to most: to vindicate his father (Ron Livingston), who was falsely imprisoned for the murder of his mother.
As the Flash, Barry discovers that his super speed can not only break the sound barrier (that’s a normal Tuesday), but also a time barrier, turning back the clock and allowing him to physically travel backward through time. This sets him off on a bold plan to save his parents from their respective fates, but you’ve read A Sound of Thunder (or at least seen it parodied on The Simpsons), so you know where this is going. By moving into an alternate timeline, Barry unwittingly enters an alternate universe as well, and in this intersection of space and time, General Zod (Michael Shannon) and his forces are attacking the Earth – events we saw in Man of Steel – but this time there’s no Man of Steel in this universe to stop them.
Knowing what he does of the possible future, Barry sets out to round up any superheroes he can find – a younger version of himself and an aging Batman (Michael Keaton). And with luck, some clues to finding Superman.
Multiversal storytelling is the current trend in cinematic structure (not only with the MCU’s Multiverse and its connected “Spider-verse“, and DC’s Television “Arrowverse”, but alternate concepts like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Everything Everywhere All at Once). But going back to the world of comics, it was DC who most notably acknowledged, pioneered, and embraced multiversal concepts, leading to major events like Crisis on Infinite Earths. So it’s cool to see that come around and finds its way into their movies.
For all of their offscreen misconduct and impropriety (Miller uses they/them pronouns), Miller plays an affable and charmingly dorky character. Two of them, in fact – both past and present versions of Barry Allen who encounter each other, providing the basis for a lot of character-based humor.
The film cleverly works on a “same but different” basis of delivering up great surprises, alternate versions of familiar characters and events, including a new take on Supergirl (Sasha Calle) and the return of Michael Keaton as the 1989 Batman: old, tired, lonely, and just maybe willing to put on the cape and cowl for one last fight because the stakes demand it.
I certainly won’t ruin any fun surprises but there are plenty of them. Supergirl’s introduction is perfect; fans will anticipate exactly what’s about to happen but that doesn’t make it any less enjoyable. Michael Keaton seems to be having a great time back in the role, and makes a great show of it. We spend some time at Wayne Manor and the Batcave, and it’s a great rush of nostalgia. And we even get a peek at the wider multiverse, which is a blast full of surprises and references that fans will have fans losing their minds. (At one particular moment, my wife grabbed my shoulder and gestured madly at the screen as if to ask “YOU SEE THIS?!?”)
The Flash is a big, bold, colorful crowd pleaser, and like its Marvel counterparts (Across the Spider-Verse, What If?, Spider-Man: No Way Home), it’s creative with its multiversal shenanigans – in some ways a bit more so, since DC has a richer history to draw from.
Given the real life realities, I don’t think Ezra Miller should return to the role regardless of how well it succeeds, but taking this movie for what it is – this is a film where everyone involved seems to be setting out with the goal to making you site back and enjoy yourself, and they’ve succeeded wildly.