It is very difficult to look at ‘The Flash’ movie without taking a look at its context as a movie, a product of a studio with a lot of uncertainty hanging above its head. First off, there is a bit of a comic book movie weariness that hangs over its head. This is the most recent superhero film that explores the idea of the multiverse, and to think that one of the most successful explorations of this concept, ‘Everything Everywhere All At Once,’ was not a comic book movie but an original one that received multiple awards from various bodies including the Oscars. Second, with the studio bringing in James Gunn to restart the DC Universe in the film landscape, there’s an uncertainty whether this film is a part of any larger thing. While there’s a lot of press that talks about its possible inclusion, there are elements within that come from a different era such as Ben Affleck playing Batman.
And then there’s the star, Ezra Miller, who carries with them (Miller prefers to use the pronouns they/them) allegations of criminal behaviour that even the studio has admitted to and are willing to give them the benefit of the doubt that they will overcome their issues and come off a better person. It’s hard to root for a character when the person playing them is accused of the things Miller is accused of.
And it is unfortunate, because Miller has always been a terrific actor. Since the first time I came across them in ‘We Have To Talk About Kevin,’ Miller has been nailing every performance that has come his way. In ‘The Flash,’ they play a dual role, sharing scenes with two versions of Barry Allen and Miller wonderfully portrays both with such distinct textures that they are two individuals with essential similarities. They are characters cut from the same core but their gait, their posture, their mannerisms and approach to life is so unique to each character that it is a wonder to see. Miller handles that really well.
But it’s still Miller and it gets in the way.
Because, if anything, ‘The Flash’ is your all-out comic book superhero movie. It appeals to our child-like inclinations of super powered human beings who are fighting for truth and justice. It’s a CGI-infested smorgasborg that even offers a sort of mini-Justice League ambitions by bringing in Batman (albeit a different version) and Supergirl. The action sequences are meant to elicit “oohs and ahhs” from the audience and by using the multiverse concept, there are story moments and production choices that are meant to evoke a thrill amongst hardcore fans.
Even the opening that introduces us to Miller’s Barry Allen has an action sequence that shows us the speedster’s superpowered speed in a very elaborate, long-winded set up involving physics, falling babies, and a lot of visual gags. It’s bonkers, it’s over-the-top, it’s unrealistic, but it’s a tongue-in-cheek way of setting the tone, which should be all about having fun.
It’s no secret that Michael Keaton returns as Batman on this movie, and let me tell you, there are a few more surprises along the way that comes with any sort of story that involves the multiverse. Marvel has done it twice with ‘Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness’ and then ‘Spider-Man: No Way Home.’ It’s fan service, through and through, and so when the film tries to get serious, like it feels off and discordant. Director Andy Muschietti does a good job at playing for the laughs and playing for fan service but can’t balance that out with the tender moments of the film.
Because, at the heart of ‘The Flash’ is a story of a young man who wants to turn back time to save his parents from the tragedy that befell them. The crux that starts this whole adventure in the first place is the fact that Allen’s mother is murdered when he was still a child and his father is the main suspect even if Allen is sure he’s innocent. When this part is handled, it is handled with such vulnerability and tenderness that runs counter to the rest of the film’s wackiness. And while it’s resolution manages to pull the heart strings, there’s not enough of it to give this film any real weight.
While ‘The Flash’ is fun and all over the place (which can be a good thing, for the right audience), the fact that it does try to play with this level of emotional depth is where the film loses its footing. It has the elements for something more real, more purposeful but never gets there. It’s swallowed up by way too many gags, way too much special effects that some of the human elements are replaced by CGI created people that really register badly on screen.
The experience of a comic book movie, especially in this day and age of shared universes, and comic book and game tie-ins, ‘The Flash’ had to hit the ground running. It’s hard to invest in a film that can be rebooted the moment the box office returns have come in or the lead actor is replaced. It’s hard to invest when the film’s continuity is uncertain. And while the film is still fun with all of its superhero antics, it sacrifices developing the story with gags and plot that favors a more team-oriented adventure that really digging deeper into Barry Allen’s relationship with his parents.
It’s great for the hardcore fans. But for the audiences who needs just a bit more to their comic book movies to reel them in, it’s still in need of something more character-driven.