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‘The Flash’ Review
It’s a mad, mad, mad Multiverse.
Plot points for The Flash, including a discussion of surprise cameos and the ending, to follow. If you complain about them I will run so fast that I enter the speed force and cause a temporal paradox that destroys all of existence.
In 1997, Dante’s Peak and Volcano—two movies about volcanoes unexpectedly erupting, putting nearby populations of Dante’s Peak, Oregon and Los Angeles, California at enormous risk—came out just eleven weeks apart.
In 2023—this very year!—The Flash and Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse were released just two weeks apart. Both movies are about multiverse-hopping superheroes. Both movies feature quippy protagonists making older and wiser friends who help them understand the consequences of their actions. And both movies, crucially, present their protagonists with a terrible choice: to either let a parent die or watch the universe unravel before their very eyes. It’s 1997 all over again, except a version of 1997 in which Volcano makes a vigorous philosophical argument that, for the good of the universe, Los Angeles needs to be wiped off the map with the cleansing power of unyielding and unstoppable molten lava.
As I noted in my review, Across the Spider-Verse asks an interesting question about superheroes and their dedication to “the trauma plot”: Is Spider-Man defined by his losses or something else? While it ends rather abruptly without answering that question, one gets the sense the filmmakers are leaning in the direction of Miles Morales’s “Naw, I’m gonna do my own thing” when he’s told he has to suffer the loss suffered by so many other Spider-people to truly be Spider-Man.
The Flash asks a nearly identical question: Barry Allen (Ezra Miller) realizes that by running very fast he can slip the surly bonds of time and go into the past, which he immediately realizes could be used to help save his mother’s life and his father, who was wrongly convicted of her murder, from a lifetime of imprisonment. After a brief chat with Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck), who warns against the foolishness of doing this—not only because of the damage it might do to all of existence but because what has happened to us in our past defines our present—Barry decides to do the foolish thing. By saving his mother, he somehow creates a world in which Michael Keaton rather than Ben Affleck is Batman and there is no Superman to defend against General Zod (Michael Shannon).
That none of this really makes any sense causally is handwaved away with some jibber-jabber about multiverses and key moments and fulcrums. (Spaghetti is prominently involved as a visual aid, if you want a sense of how silly it all is.) Point is: Barry is now in another universe and it’s not an ideal one. And when he tries to fix things by continually mucking with the timeline, he only makes them worse. And worse. Eventually universes are literally crashing into each other, somehow. So, he’s forced to accept what Bruce told him way back at the start of the movie: for the good of the universe, Barry Allen’s mom has to die.
This is kind of wild stuff; imagine Batman going to Crime Alley and pulling the trigger on momma and poppa Wayne, a vaguely psychotic twist on the flashback we’ve seen in so many Batman movies before. It’s certainly interesting, in the sense that it is the reductio of so much comic book logic: to save thousands, maybe millions, the hero must be not only willing to sacrifice everything, they must actively choose to do so. There’s a lot to chew on here.
And that’s why so much of the rest of the picture is so frustrating. Yes, it has its charms—Miller is genuinely amusing as the twitchy Barry Allen, though his portrayal of the younger Barry learning his powers occasionally veers toward the annoying; Keaton is always fun, though there’s something strange about seeing Tim Burton’s Batman portrayed as a modern, rubbery, CGI creation; Sasha Calle’s Supergirl brings genuine pathos to her battle with Zod, though this does have the problem of reminding us just how much better Man of Steel is than this—but those charms are all wrapped up in layers of fan service so deep you won’t even be able to make sense of them unless you’re steeped in the lore of unproduced DC projects.
To say nothing of the genuinely awful CGI that lards up so much of the last act. It’s not just the weightless battle on a flat desert landscape that we’ve seen done a million times (again: Man of Steel did it better because it put the action in the midst of a city where there was stuff to crash into and where civilians are dying), it’s also the rubbery, nightmarish look of the multiversal cameos, the way they resemble early computer-animated efforts like Agent Smith in The Matrix Reloaded’s “Burly Brawl” sequence. I can give that film a pass all these years later because the Wachowskis were, two decades ago, trying something new; what director Andy Muschietti has accomplished in the present is an impressive mixture of ugly, confusing, and desecrative.
Again: I mostly enjoyed The Flash. But the most confusing aspect of all this is the continued brand maintenance, the ongoing effort to rescue certain parts of the so-called DCEU from obsolescence even as the rest of it comes to an end. You saw something similar at the end of Shazam! Fury of the Gods, when Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) showed up to bring Shazam (Zachary Levi) back to life for some reason, one of the most baffling and enraging choices I’ve been subjected to in a theater for quite some time. DC has hired James Gunn to reboot their universe. Maybe executives at Warner Bros. need to take a lesson from The Flash and kill everything that’s lingering in that weird state of cinematic limbo for the studio’s greater good.