Man of Steel didn’t kill the DC Extended Universe (DCEU), but it set a tone that has persisted through The Flash — a film that moves us closer to this whole moribund experiment’s supposed endpoint with December’s Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom. Thank god.
When I look back at the last four-ish years of films released by Warner Brothers featuring DC superheroes, I realize I’ve hated nearly all of them. Shazam! Black Adam. Shazam: Fury of the Gods. Joker. The Batman. The Suicide Squad. Aquaman. All total garbage.
Going back a bit longer: Justice League by Joss Whedon? An abomination.
On the meager plus side, Birds of Prey and the Fantabulous Emancipation of Harley Quinn was fun and I generally enjoyed the Wonder Woman films. Let’s not pretend Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice was good. But in hindsight, it was at least interesting and gave us the equally fascinating Zack Snyder’s Justice League, perhaps one of the hallmark film industry stories of our quickly decaying social media age.
But Jesus, let it end. Please.
The Flash is probably worse than all of those films, a half-assed attempt at latching into nostalgia without understanding what has made the better 1980s and 1990s retro-revivals of the last 10 years so successful. It’s also a half-assed attempt at telling a superhero story without ever creating a superhero for whom you can root. Much has been made of Ezra Miller’s alleged offscreen crimes, but diving into that is totally unnecessary: Their greatest crime with regards to this movie is that they’re awful, just as they always have been in the role, but now there are two of them. And one is written to be more annoying.
God, what a disaster.
This film picks up a little while after Zack Snyder’s Justice League (here explicitly referenced as the canonical version of that story). Barry Allen (Miller) is a weaselly little goon of a man who spends all his time acting awkward and trying to save his convicted murderer father, Henry (Ron Livingston), from a lifetime in jail. See, back when Barry was a kid, his father was accused of, and imprisoned for, the murder of his mother. We never learn what compelling evidence was used to put his father away. All we know is that her death ruined Barry’s life and he dedicated the rest of his days to becoming a crime scene investigator to find the evidence and exonerate his father. He’s no hero.
The addition of a dead mother in Barry’s past came about in the late 2000s under writer Geoff Johns, who played a pivotal role in reviving the publisher’s brand during that decade’s nascent superhero craze. Johns tends to give his heroes dead parents as motivation. It was controversial at the time and mostly just setup for a franchise-spanning alternate timeline series called Flashpoint, which saw Barry go back in time to save his mother only to cause a cataclysmic dystopia to develop. It was always well-known that Johns had film-industry aspirations, and his storylines often played like pitches for big-budget adaptations (not necessarily a knock against him). Naturally, Flashpoint has since been translated into an animated movie, a major arc on the Flash CW show, a novel and now a tentpole movie. Not bad, I guess.
The Flash follows the basic template: Barry, realizing he can travel back in time, decides it wouldn’t hurt anyone to travel back to save his mother from her grisly murder. His pal Batman (Ben Affleck, saying goodbye to the role that got him nowhere) says “Hey Barry, that’s a really bad idea. You could harm untold billions of people.” But Barry, deep in his selfish little heart, doesn’t give a fuck. So he does it anyway and ends up messing up the stream of time.
What follows is an adventure in shallow excess. Barry meets up with another version of himself, one who grew up with a mother and thus became socially likable but “worthless” to our Barry, who nobody has ever liked in his world because he totally sucks. Alt-Barry is generally fun to be around, doing drugs and hanging out with his pals. Naturally, our Barry hates him, but the two set out to “fix” the timeline and let Barry’s mom die anyway. As a way of establishing that our Barry’s mission is justified, the events of Man of Steel start to play out and he realizes he needs to assemble the Justice League early to take out General Zod (Michael Shannon) and save the world.
Because Warner Brothers had no other way of selling a Flash movie to audiences who already rejected Zack Snyder’s continuity, Barry quickly learns his one little change caused a ripple across time and changed more than he realized. In this ripple, Batman is no longer Ben Affleck but a returning Michael Keaton, slumming it in a script that isn’t any better than the Batman Forever role he turned down almost 30 years ago. Superman (Henry Cavill) is also forgotten, replaced by his cousin, Kara (Sasha Calle), who is briefly angry but doesn’t have enough screen time for any development. Barry, Alt-Barry, Batman and Supergirl set out to save the world. Whatever. There’s so much to The Flash, and yet so little.
Keaton is perhaps the saddest bit of this whole affair.
There have been plenty of controversial big IP revivals over the last few years (and we’re getting another one with Indiana Jones in just a few weeks), and they are rarely universally beloved. One exception seems to be Spider-Man: No Way Home, which brought back two past Peter Parkers and a slew of villains for another round at bat. The essential ingredient of that film is that these were Peters we knew and loved, squaring off against villains we enjoyed seeing again. We got glimpses of their lives past the end of their cycle. It felt like revisiting old friends and their presence was a natural inclusion in the No Way Home story.
That’s just not the case with Keaton, whose inclusion is purely arbitrary. This isn’t the dark, gothic Batman from a Tim Burton universe. This is just Keaton as a CGI-enhanced Batman, a little gruff but not significantly different from the Bruce Wayne we meet earlier in the film. He lives in Affleck’s mansion, for god’s sake. I guess this is good news for anyone who recently rewatched Batman (1989) and Batman Returns only to think: “I wish I could see Michael Keaton get beaten up by the generic Kryptonians from Man of Steel,” but god help them if so.
At least Keaton gives it his all, though; with Calle’s help, he carries their bits of the story. It’s a welcome respite from Miller acting “against” himself, usually with depressingly obvious facial replacement technology. That’s just the surface of how awful The Flash looks. If you think Ant-Man & the Wasp: Quantumania looked like a visual-effects rush job, just wait until you see this. Every major action sequence occupies an awful space between trying to look real and looking too cartoonish. One of the greatest assets to developing a coherent, comic-book aesthetic in these types of stories is that you can get away with something looking bad if it fits within the overall tone of a film. For example: Burton’s Batman movies don’t look real, but they look like visually coherent worlds. The Flash has no vision for where it’s taking place in either reality and thus everything looks like complete shit.
And that’s before the big cameos at the end, which are equal parts ghoulish and superfluous.
There’s so much more to pick apart about The Flash — especially the way Barry never learns a single lesson from his entire alternate-reality experience, never takes responsibility and never puts the world ahead of himself. He’s not a hero. He’s just a little monster, selfish to the last. It’s the antithesis of superhero storytelling. In a way, it’s an appropriate place to end a series that started 10 years ago with a Superman that struggled with his lack of inherent interest in humankind, who grappled with the question of why he had to be a hero. It wasn’t a good take on the character, but Snyder was at least trying to do something different with Superman that just didn’t work. It’s inconceivable why The Flash feels even more selfish and oddly mean-spirited.
That brings me back to those last four-ish years. Bland to miserable experiences, most of which I’ve hated. Every single one is an example of two or three hours spent sitting in a movie theater rather than playing with my kids — and to take that thought further, every single one of these movies is another potential two or three hours I’ll spend later if one of my sons decides he likes superhero movies and has the same sense of completist fervor that keeps me coming back to the slop bucket. The possibility of watching any of these movies again, even for my kids, makes me contemplate signing them up for sports.
God help me.