Producers: Barbara Muschietti and Michael Disco Director: Andy Muschietti Screenplay: Christina Hodson Cast: Ezra Miller, Michael Keaton, Sasha Calle, Michael Shannon, Ron Livingston, Maribel Verdú, Kiersey Clemons, Jeremy Irons, Antje Traue and Ian Loh Distributor: Warner Bros.
It would be unfortunate if Ezra Miller’s personal problems overshadowed the young actor’s deft, imaginative performance as DC Comics’ Scarlet Speedster in “The Flash.” Miller, who’s been doing strong work in films and television for some fifteen years now, is easily the best thing about Andy Muschietti’s movie, which starts out strong but, as is usual in superhero fare, degenerates into rote CGI action in the second half, in the process also capitulating to the nostalgia bug and multiverse mania that have been infecting the genre of late. Happily, though, even that doesn’t totally squelch the comic tone Miller had established earlier on.
Christina Hodson, who brought a light touch to the “Transformers” franchise in her script for 2018’s “Bumblebee,” bases the plot on what’s certainly the constant in Barry Allen’s life—the murder of his mother Nora (here Maribel Verdú) while young Barry (Ian Loh) is elsewhere in the house, followed by the wrongful conviction of his father Henry (Ron Livingston) for the crime. It’s been a central element in Flash mythology that since he can travel faster than the speed of light, he might be able to zoom into the past and fix things—though in this case his friend and mentor Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck), who knows something about the traumatic loss of parents, advises him against it because of the butterfly effect, the law of the unintended, potentially catastrophic, consequences of time travel.
But after a literally whirlwind prologue in which Barry rescues a bunch of babies threatened by a disaster at a Gotham hospital while Batman and some friends foil the escape of a bunch of bank robbers, he gets the bad news that his hope for new evidence that could exonerate his dad has been dashed. That persuades him to take the dangerous step of attempting the jump into his past.
Naturally it all goes wrong. He finds himself not where he hoped to land—his house on the morning of his mom’s murder by an intruder—but in an alternate world where Barry Allen (also Miller) is a goofy college student of eighteen and his mother is still alive and well. But there is a crisis nonetheless: General Zod has arrived on earth (via footage repurposed from “Man of Steel,” plus newly-shot material) and there is no Superman to oppose him. Frantically the out-of-place Allen sets things up for his young doppelganger to get Flash powers (unfortunately, losing his own in the process), and the two then enlist this world’s retired Batman (Michael Keaton) to help them restore Barry’s super-speed and find the missing Superman. The Kryptonian they locate, however, is instead Supergirl Kara (Sasha Calle).
Defeating Zod, however, takes the two Flashes back to the time-and-space arena where Barry wound up in his wrongheaded original jump, and their attempt to correct matters results in a nostalgia trip in which different TV and movie iterations of famous DC characters (and one from a movie that was never made) make brief appearances. This whole segment may be considered an example of elaborate fan service, and will probably fare well with long-time viewers. But in fact it’s rather a mess in narrative terms—the editing by Jason Ballantine Paul Machliss falters here—and the effects in it aren’t so great either.
The effects supervised by John “DJ” DesJardin in most of the earlier action sequences are better, but only in the prologue, where the Flash deals with the hospital disaster, are they really outstanding—the concurrent Batman section is mediocre. Not much better are the battle sequences to free Supergirl from captivity later in the film, and those against Zod and his minions in the film’s last act, both of which also demonstrate the essential banality of Benjamin Wallfisch’s score.
The technical aspects of the picture, in other words, do not set a new standard, though Paul Denham Austerberry’s production design, Henry Braham’s cinematography and Alexandra Byrne’s costumes are perfectly fine. But in actuality, the best special effect in the movie is the double performance by Miller, who differentiates between the two Barrys with great comic flair; he makes them a strong pair of characters, and a great deal of fun. But the actor invigorates the movie’s comic set-pieces not only when in duplicate—the sequence in which the two Barrys combine to recreate the accident that gave the “real” Flash his powers is a hoot—but when in individual mode (like a coffee shop scene at the very start). Miller’s scenes with Barry’s parents and with Kiersey Clemons, introduced as his future fiancée Iris West, show considerable range as well.
Keaton also demonstrates his comic chops as Bruce Wayne/Batman, but those have long been well-known. Further down the list, the cast is not as impressive. Calle makes a fairly passive Supergirl, and Shannon’s talents are wasted as Zod, just as they were in “Man of Steel.” Affleck brings a low-key charm to Bruce Wayne at the start, and the capper at the close, when Barry returns home, is a cheerful surprise, one that would seem to dictate the direction any sequel would have to take.
“The Flash” is one of the last films in the first wave of the so-called DC Universe, and it’s one of the better entries. But it does makes one yearn for a time in which the very concept of a multiverse, a terrible screenwriting crutch, didn’t exist. And it makes one hope that every superhero movie will not become a nostalgia trip for comic-book obsessives.
On the other hand, it also makes one look forward to further starring vehicles for Ezra Miller.