2023, PG, 142 mins.
Ezra Miller as Barry Allen / The Flash / Sasha Calle as Kara Zor-El / Supergirl / Michael Shannon as General Zod / Ron Livingston as Henry Allen / Maribel Verdú as Nora Allen / Kiersey Clemons as Iris West / Antje Traue as Faora-Ul / Michael Keaton as Bruce Wayne / Batman / Ian Loh as Young Barry Allen / Saoirse-Monica Jackson as Patty Spivot / Rudy Mancuso as Albert DesmondDirected by Andy Muschietti / Written by Christina Hodson
THE FLASH has its roots deeply embedded in The Butterfly Effect, which refers to the idea that a butterfly flapping its wings in one part of the world might create changes in the atmosphere that could drastically alter severe weather patterns in another location.
In short: tiny and localized changes can have far-reaching implications.
In this 13th installment of the DCEU, Barry Allen (Ezra Miller) realizes that being the fastest man on the planet has granted him the ability to run so fast that he can travel back in time. That's tantalizing for him, mostly because his mother (Maribel Verdú ) was ruthlessly stabbed to death when he was a child, and while his father (Ron Livingston) was away at the grocery store getting tomato sauce for their supper that night. Unfortunately for Barry's dad, he had no airtight alibi and was subsequently charged with his wife's murder, criminally convicted, and spent decades in jail for something he didn't commit.
Barry, in the present, confides in his Justice League partner and mentor, Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck), very early on in THE FLASH about his newfound abilities to tap into the "Speed Force" and go back in time to right wrongs. Barry is prematurely convinced that he could save his mom and dad...and could even go back further and save Bruce's own parents from being killed. Bruce, always a rigid pragmatist and smart enough to know the ramifications of The Butterfly Effect, thinks that playing with the space-time continuum is a mistake and could "destroy everything." Barry may be able to solve one problem in his life, but it could have massive negative consequences on countless other lives and...universes.
Being young and stubborn, Barry doesn't heed
Batman's dire warnings and goes back in time to save his parents.
hell breaks loose.
It seems that multiverses are all the rage these days in super hero blockbusters. Films like SPIDER-MAN: NO WAY HOME and the animated SPIDER-VERSE entries come immediately to mind, and don't even get me started on non-comic book extravaganzas like EVERYTHING EVERYWHERE ALL AT ONCE. Director Andy Muschietti (IT) and writer Christian Hodson (the very underrated BIRDS OF PREY) do their best to infuse some genuine pathos as well as some thanklessly ambitious script detours with their time and universe hopping flick, which is astoundingly the first solo live action film to feature the Scarlet Speedster. The makers here dream impossibly big with their narrative aspirations, not to mention that they're essentially paying homage to the Zack Synder-verse (that launched the DCEU with MAN OF STEEL back in 2013) while also using Barry's time travel exploits (and their unintended side effects) to function as an overhaul/reset of the DCEU to pave the way for James Gunn and his creative team to completely retool this universe in the years to come. THE FLASH has a tremendous amount of storytelling and world building (or destroying) responsibilities on its shoulders, not to mention that any film - super hero or not - that engages in dicey time travel has a whole other set of complications coming up. This is some kind of large-scale and sprawling super hero movie, alright. It's perhaps too busy, too messy around the edges, and too chaotic for its own good at times, not to mention that it employs some questionable technical choices (more on that in a bit), but on a level of pure fun factor and swing for the fences audacity, THE FLASH is a pretty admirable accomplishment.
One thing that you can easily tell within the first few minutes of THE FLASH is that Muschietti and Hodson are passionately enthusiastic about the titular character and the whole world of possibilities that come from his unique powers. This is reflected in an opening sequence that has Barry being disrupted by his early morning routine of getting just the right caffeinated beverage from his barista of choice to assist Batman, who's on the hunt for some fleeing criminals that are wreaking havoc in Gotham City. Why is Barry summoned by Batman? Wonder Woman, Superman, and Aquaman are all busy on assignment elsewhere, leaving Barry having to once again serve as what he calls "janitor duty" for Batman ("I can’t help but notice that it’s always a bat mess I seem to be cleaning up," he complains at one point). Barry is able to assist the Caped Crusader with thwarting the crooks, but in the process discovers that he has the power to run fast enough to go back in time. Despite the aforementioned warnings by Batman, Barry defies the dangers and journeys back in time to save his mother from being murdered and, in turn, saves his dad from a lengthy and false imprisonment.
Here's the problem though:
Multiple catastrophic problems emerge because of Barry playing God.
Firstly, he finds himself marooned without powers ten years in the past and in an alternate version of his reality after he saves his parents. Secondly, he comes face to face with his 2013 self, who has become an ultra-douchey young adult thanks to Barry's time meddling. Thirdly, the alternate Earth he's now stranded on has no super-powered heroes at all (no Superman, no Wonder Woman and no Aquaman). Fourthly, because Superman never made it to Earth, he's not present to defend the planet from General Zod's (Michael Shannon) invasion (as presented in MAN OF STEEL). Lastly, Ben Affleck's version of Batman ceases to come to life in this different universe, but it does have a Batman in an older and long-since retired Dark Knight, played by Michael Keaton. Yes, that same one from those Tim Burton helmed movies from three decades ago. Realizing that he's no match powerless against Zod, Barry (along with alternate past Barry) seek out Bruce Wayne to coax him out of retirement to help him find a way to get his powers back and stop Zod once and for all. Oh, they will also need to free the one Kryptonian that does exists in this universe, Kara Zor-El (aka Supergirl, played by newcomer Sasha Calle), who has been imprisoned and left in a near vegetative state by the military.
There have been so many time travel centered films over the years that it has become impossible to count, so I'll give THE FLASH some points for finding novel ways to approach it throughout the film. When Barry reaches top speed and breaks the "time barrier", he enters a realm where the past appears as ghostly vignettes in a coliseum-like sphere. When he pinpoints the day of his mother's murder in this "Chrono-Bowl" and then resets that event, it wreaks havoc on not only his known timeline, but also allows for it to drastically alter into another whole new timeline tangent that's familiar, but wholly different (anyone that has seen BACK TO THE FUTURE: PART II will understand this). Even though the smart, but naive Barry thinks this tiny change won't affect anything else, it just...well...does...and then some. This, of course, leads to some extremely funny moments featuring the totally flabbergasted Barry reacting to the limitless changes that he has essentially created, like how his past self is now an annoying simpleton without much career ambition and (gasp!) the actual BACK TO THE FUTURE movies in this alternate universe star Eric Stoltz and not Michael J. Fox. Later on, when the two Barry's have to confront Keaton's Bruce Wayne (who now looks like a Howard Hughes-esque recluse in Wayne Manor), he's puzzled by the existence of a Superman in Barry's old timeline. "Isn't Super-man a little on the nose," he amusingly asks.
THE FLASH garnered some massive pre-release publicity when it broke that Keaton would be returning to don the cowl once again after playing the character so famously in 1989's BATMAN and 1991's BATMAN RETURNS respectively. What seems like a plot gimmick initially ends up feeling pretty well tied in, when all is said and done, and it's interesting to see Barry play off of a different Batman from a different time and with a different personality that actually needs to be convinced to jump back into crime fighting when he's easily approaching care home age. Fan service-y to the max? Absolutely. But is it an unmitigated thrill to see the seventy-something suit up again as Batman after all these years? Unquestionably, and it gives THE FLASH its forward momentum in its latter stages when this newly formed Justice League has to go toe-to-toe with Zod's forces. Equally welcome is Calle as a more moody (and appropriately so) Supergirl, who has a serious bone to pick with not only those that jailed her, but also with fellow Kryptonian's coming to Earth to ravage it. Calle looks sensationally in the role and brings great screen presence to it, but there's no denying that she's a bit underwritten in the film overall and - after a certain point - is jettisoned in the larger story machinations and is given literally nothing to do afterwards. Plus, Michael Shannon returning to play Zod is a large letdown, seeing as he's never really given much to do here and doesn't do more with the character that he established in MAN OF STEEL. That's a shame.
It's perhaps the last act of the picture when things start to seriously derail and to the point of exhausting viewers versus thrilling them. Story wise, Barry starts to tinker more and more with time and comes across a mysterious threat that has an even more sinister obsession with changing the past, which causes even more headache-inducing complications with cosmic implications. Beyond becoming too convoluted for its own good as it crosses the finish line, THE FLASH also sports some of the most inconsistent visual effects I've seen in a large scale $200 million budgeted blockbuster. To be fair, Muschietti and his VFX team concoct some of the most convincing illusions featuring the same actor playing two versions of himself interacting together and sharing space that I've ever witnessed. They're unendingly convincing. There's rarely a moment when you doubt that there is in fact two Barry's on screen at the same time. It's simply sensational. Early scenes showcasing The Flash building momentum and bending space and time to hurtle himself at unfathomable speeds are also awe-inspiring. But when the film gets to its climatic battle between Barry and his new super friends and Zod, the effects work gets distractingly uneven and - in some cases - borderline difficult to look at. There's a precise moment in THE FLASH when the titular character is doing so much traversing of so many different timelines in his Chrono-Bowl that we get glimpses of alternate universe takes of classic and iconic versions of multiple super heroes that have become the stuff of big screen and small screen legend. There is a smorgasbord of blink and you'll miss them cameos here (which I'll keep secret), but they're the product of such atrocious CG artifice that you have to wonder what the makers were doing with the money and time they were afforded to make this film look like a polished final product. THE FLASH was delayed multiple times because of COVID (and other reasons), so it has no business looking so unreservedly shoddy at times.
If there's an element that saves THE FLASH from its undisciplined excesses and missteps, then it would be that Barry's tragic backstory hits strong emotional beats, especially when it comes to the character's grief over what happened to his parents. The film does a good job embellishing his traumatic history, the birth of his powers, and why he wants to intrude and fix past events when given the power to do so. And the film does so without succumbing to the usual pratfalls that taint so many other origin stories for super heroes. Even when THE FLASH falters, Barry's strong ties to his mother and her fate provides much of the film's heavy dramatic lifting and brings the story down to a much needed grounded level. Miller easily gives the best performance in the film as his emotionally fragile, idiosyncratic, but thoroughly determined hero whose motivations feel justified, even if they lead to disastrous outcomes. THE FLASH builds to a potent moment between present Barry and his mother in the past that's legitimately moving and well earned. One of the large elephants in this film's room is - ironically enough - the presence of Miller himself, who, well before this film's release, got into criminal and legal trouble that seemed to be caused by some seriously unstable mental health issues (this renders some of the scenes of would-be hilarity - like when The Flash recommends to a shocked woman that he saves to seek out counseling - more than a little cringe worthy in retrospect). I can understand why some audience members will have a difficult time ignoring Miller's past ill deeds while watching this film. I find myself in a strange middle ground position when reviewing THE FLASH. I mostly admired Miller's performance, but, yes, his presence here carries a lot of unwanted baggage.
The pre-release hype machine for THE FLASH didn't help matters either. From early fan screenings that gushed with praise (yeah, probably the easiest to please crowd) and Gunn himself - the newly anointed Kevin Feige of the new DC universe of films to come - cheerleading on social media that this was one of the greatest super hero films of all time probably set expectations up to near PHANTOM MENACE proportions. THE FLASH is epically envisioned, well acted, and scores a healthy balance between comedy and drama. It's unquestionably enjoyable, even though its self-indulgent bloat becomes obvious in the late stages (having said that, the film builds to a thoroughly shocking WTF ending that I doubt even the most die hard DCEU fanboys will ever see coming from a proverbial mile away). As mentioned as well, far too many scenes are punctuated by amateurishly iffy VFX that really take you out of the film itself. If you've been invested in the Synderverse DCEU films over the years (I'm in the minority of appreciating them), then there will be a lot to take in and relish in THE FLASH. However, if you want to see the slate wiped clean and usher in something different, THE FLASH also attempts to do that as well, but with mixed bag results. The film's unending passion to please, though, and the exuberance of its makers and cast is what ultimately sealed the deal for me. There are so many super hero entries (and sequels, for that matter) that seem phoned in these days, but THE FLASH rarely, to its credit, feels like its lazily coasting by on autopilot.
This film takes wild gambles, only some of which it cashes in on, but there's commendable method to its multiverse of madness.