Fifteen years after Iron Man and The Dark Knight cemented superheroes as a cornerstone of modern franchise filmmaking, The Flash arrives as an uncanny embodiment of the highs and (mostly) lows the genre faces today. Yet another comic-book blockbuster revolving around multiverse shenanigans, it’s perfectly watchable summer entertainment with surprisingly sharp humor and a few excellent performances. But now, when there’s always two or three superhero movies competing for audiences’ attention, “just fine” will no longer cut it (see also: Black Adam, Ant-Man & the Wasp: Quantumania, etc.).
Still, for most of its first half, The Flash is actually much better than fine. In fact, when it slows down to focus on Barry Allen’s fight to save his parents from a past tragedy, it’s quite good. Unfortunately, in the second half, that emotional core takes a back seat to a whirlwind of empty CG spectacle, uninspired plot mechanics and some truly desperate fan service.
At the outset, the movie does an impressive job of turning Ezra Miller’s incarnation of the Flash — who was mainly just the chipmunk-voiced comic relief in 2017’s Justice League — into an engaging lead. When Barry was a kid, his father (Ron Livingston) was wrongfully convicted of murdering his mother (Maribel Verdú), and since then Barry has been balancing his role in the Justice League with a job as a forensic scientist in order to prove his dad’s innocence.
One night, Barry discovers that if he runs fast enough, he can literally break through the space-time continuum and travel back in time (thankfully, the movie never gets tied up in its own time-travel logic). These powers present him with an opportunity to save his parents from their grim fates by altering a few minor details in the past. Naturally, time travel doesn’t prove so simple, and Barry finds himself in a new timeline with yet another Barry Allen (allowing Miller to play two very different takes on the character), an entirely different Batman (Michael Keaton) and no Superman but a Supergirl (Sasha Calle in a standout performance).
Many people, this critic included, are probably more intrigued by seeing Keaton return to his most iconic role after 30-plus years than they are a standalone Flash movie. And indeed, despite the fairly thin material he’s given, Keaton’s take on the Dark Knight remains as enthralling as ever — injecting Batman’s steely resolve with a tinge of lunacy. That reckless abandon is still present here, and it’s a joy to see him back, even if it’s a bit jarring seeing him removed from the striking gothic imagery of Tim Burton’s world.
If Ezra Miller hadn’t spent a good deal of last year embroiled in legal troubles, their performance as Barry Allen this time around would signal a promising career ahead. Frankly, Miller’s comic timing is excellent, and they have a knack for outsized physical comedy that pairs well with their motor-mouth delivery. The Flash is at its best when it plays like a zany, superhero take on Back to the Future (which the movie directly references in one of its best gags); the stakes feel smaller, and Barry’s motivation to save his parents is grounded and relatable.
It’s when those stakes rise in the final act when the movie begins to fly off the rails. In a bizarre decision, the crux of the conflict revolves around the events of 2013’s Man of Steel and its grimacing big bad General Zod (Michael Shannon). Even as someone who enjoyed Man of Steel back when it came out, I imagine most audiences are going to have a difficult time recalling who General Zod is or what his evil plan was in that film … something The Flash absolutely assumes they’ll remember.
But by that point, we’re already awash in forgettable third-act mayhem, as Keaton’s Batman shoots missiles at a massive alien ship, Supergirl creates sonic booms with her punches and the Flash runs around in a hideous vortex of seemingly unfinished CG effects. Most offensively, the movie’s climax devolves into what’s essentially a slide-show of other, better DC movies, rendering beloved past portrayals of heroes (and one baffling deep cut I’ll leave unspoiled) with computer graphics that wouldn’t feel out of place in a Sega Dreamcast cutscene. The poor effects only emphasize how empty the fan service is in that moment.
There was plenty of pre-release hype calling The Flash one of the best superhero movies ever made. And now, before it’s even officially out in theaters, there’s a growing backlash calling it a complete disaster. Truthfully, neither of those sentiments is accurate. For what was advertised as a bold swing for the DC Universe, The Flash simply plays it too safe.