Time to Take out ‘The Flash’

DC Multiverse movie has its high points, most of them involving the return of Michael Keaton, but it’s also exhausting overkill

Despite an old-fashioned gee-whiz spirit and the incredibly welcome return of Michael Keaton as Batman, DC’s ‘The Flash’ suffers from a bad case of multiverse overkill. In the last year, we’ve seen several iterations of the Marvel multiverse concept, so what once felt cool and imaginative is quickly turning into audience exhaustion. Add into that the basic narrative incoherence of the DC Universe, and we end up with a movie that, while not horrible, mostly refers to other, better movies.

Hollywood naughty person Ezra Miller plays Barry Allen, a crime-lab tech who becomes the World’s Fastest Person after lighting strikes an array of chemicals, giving him access to something called The Speed Force. Barry’s tragic backstory is sort of a sub-Batman situation. Someone murdered his mother after his father went out to buy canned tomatoes, and what appears to be an incredibly incompetent justice system ended up sending dad up the river. So when Barry discovers that he can run so fast he can actually turn back time (something Christopher Reeve managed to do in 1978, saving Margot Kidder without causing the universe to cave in on itself), it sets a plot into motion. To the movie’s detriment, the plot is incredibly complicated and difficult to incorporate into what is essentially an origin story.

THE FLASH ★★★(3/5 stars)
Directed by: Andy Muschietti
Written by: Christina Hodson, Joby Harold 
Starring: Ezra Miller, Michael Keaton, Sasha Calle, Ben Affleck, Ron Livingston, Michael Shannon
Running time: 155 mins

A kitchen-sink thing gradually unfolds and then eventually degenerates into a special-effects mess. It involves multiple Batmen, a Supergirl who is basically Superman, two Flashes, the return of Michael Shannon in front of a green screen as General Zod, and lots of slow-motion and also very fast motion Flash action. Some of the sequences are quite cool, particularly the ones involving Batman deflecting bullets with his cape, while others look like the studio churned them out in a hurry on a computer at the end of April.

The movie features cameos from current DC stars Gal Gadot and Jason Momoa, the final brief appearance of Ben Affleck, and some surprising other blasts from the past that are both kind of strange and kind of amazing to see again. But this is definitely Miller’s movie. He’s in pretty much every scene, often playing two versions of himself at once. He handles the dramatic bits quite well, able to wring genuine emotion out of what could easily be cornball material. But he’s not much of a comedian, and when he’s bantering, especially with himself, it’s cringey and unfunny and on-the-spectrum-y, as though Young Sheldon somehow acquired superpowers. Your mileage may vary.

There are only two other characters that matter much. Newcomer Sasha Calle plays Kara Zor-El, the movie’s resident superperson. And while she will inspire many 12-year-olds to fantasies with her supersuit, the movie doesn’t give her a satisfying plot arc, and she also cannot act. She’s a dull woman of steel in a role that requires magnetism.

Yeah, that’s right, he’s Batman. Michael Keaton in ‘The Flash.’

Michael Keaton, on the other hand, is one of our major movie stars, and ‘The Flash’ allows him to reprise one of his most iconic roles. In many ways, the movie is most interested in what his version of Batman has been doing all these years. And the answer is: going to seed in his decaying manor without of the assistance of his butler Alfred, who is now deceased. The movie uses the old mansion sets, the old Batcave tech, the old suits, and the Danny Elfman music, but places it all into a modern, effects-driven context. And Keaton’s Batman even gets a semi-satisfying plot resolution. The movie is alive in every scene in which he appears. The sequence where he fights the two flashes with Wayne Manor kitchen implements, though kind of a ripoff of the Quicksilver set piece In X-Men: Days Of Future Past, is a relatively low-CGI highlight.

This movie not only has other superhero movies on the brain, it also has Back to the Future on the brain, to the extent where Barry realizes out he’s in a different timeline when someone tells him that Eric Stoltz played Marty McFly. But that movie is an immortal classic that created a genre, full of laughs and weird twists. The Flash is just another ingredient in the grand IP content churn.

In this movie, Barry Allen doesn’t have to dodge his mother’s romantic advances. He’s trying to save her life, because he loved her so. As someone who also sadly lost his mother, and also didn’t really get to say goodbye, I can admit that those scenes had me blubbering. And if you had told 10-year-old me that there was going to be a Flash time-travel movie featuring two Flashes and like six different Batmen and a Superwoman, I wouldn’t be able to sleep until it appeared.

But I’m not 10 years old anymore, mom isn’t coming back, and I’m a grumpy man on the back nine of life. Though I can’t help still liking superheroes, I’ve also found myself at a saturation point of our super-era. Like Michael Keaton’s Batman, I want to retire to my cave, grow my beard long and white, and play out the string in the darkness. Until someone needs me, that is. And then, I’ll start the Prius and slowly, fuel-efficiently go into action one last time.

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Neal Pollack

Book and Film Globe Editor in Chief Neal Pollack is the author of 12 semi-bestselling books of fiction and nonfiction, including the memoirs Alternadad and Stretch, the novels Repeat and Downward-Facing Death, and the cult classic The Neal Pollack Anthology of American Literature. A Rotten Tomatoes certified reviewer for both film and television, Neal has written articles and humor for every English-language publication except The New Yorker. Neal lives in Austin, Texas, and is a three-time Jeopardy! champion.

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