The Flash (2023)
Director: Andy Muschietti
Screenwriters: John Francis Daley, Jonathan Goldstein, Christina Hodson
Starring: Ezra Miller, Sasha Calle, Michael Shannon, Michael Keaton, Ben Affleck, Jeremy Irons, Maribel Verdú
When the DC Extended Universe (DCEU) debuted with Man of Steel in 2013, it was already playing catch-up with the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). The Avengers had recently whetted our appetites for big superhero crossovers. As such, we got Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice before we’d even been introduced to a new iteration of Batman. Nearly ten years later, we’re preparing to say goodbye to the DCEU in favour of James Gunn’s latest project as the head of newly-created DC Studios, but they’re still doing the same thing. Spider-Man: No Way Home created its own legacy as a film that held the power to bring audiences back into cinemas at a time when a lot of us were still worried about the consequences of going to see a film during a pandemic, and what The Flash seems to have taken from that is a message that we need more multiverses and more cameos than ever before.
From the very beginning, The Flash feels like a cynical cash-in. On the strength of the premise alone, it becomes little more than just another film in a long line of DCEU projects trying to have a stab at something that the MCU has recently done to some applause. Weirdly enough, though, it’s actually alright.
The Flash’s story starts by framing Barry Allen’s The Flash (Ezra Miller) as a kind of low-level member of the Justice League who Alfred (Jeremy Irons) turns to when everyone else is busy. There’s a disaster going on a few blocks away that only he’s available to help with, so he does with some comedy segments of varying success interspersed. He’s essentially the nerdy kid who’s just happy to be there, and a lot of relatability comes with that as we see him performing extraordinary actions in order to save a bunch of babies falling from a higher-level floor in a multi-storey hospital. Admittedly, this sequence in particular is an example of one that perhaps tries a bit too hard for laughs, but restraint is shown where it matters.
We get into the multiverse stuff because The Flash himself has a multitude of reasons to need to. His mother (Maribel Verdú) was murdered when he was a child, and his father (Ron Livingston) was wrongly sent to prison for it. When Barry discovers that he has the ability to run so fast that he can time travel, of course he wants to go back to change it all. The method is farfetched, but the character’s motivation is absolutely reasonable and believable. That can’t always be said of the actions that precede a multiversal adventure.
The big cameo coming into this one was the return of Michael Keaton as Batman, and his appearance does indeed go as far as it possibly can. We get all of the sets and the visuals from Tim Burton’s 1989 classic, along with snippets of the score and a gallery of batsuits. The biggest relief of The Flash though, is just how aware it seems to be of the purpose its cameos are serving.
The idea of worlds colliding so that we can see our favourite heroes on screen with one another can easily and quite quickly begin to feel tacky. There are only so many times a film can deliberately elicit the kind of emotion that makes a packed cinema say “Oh!” in unison before it begins to feel manipulative. The way that The Flash avoids that is by keeping those moments in the realms of tribute above anything else. It feels as if we’re seeing these different worlds as a way to pay respect to them, and it never veers far away from that.
Most importantly, The Flash is a superhero movie that does more than just the required lot of providing us with a fun, good time. By exploring Barry’s backstory – the tragic events that he went through as a child and the trauma that’s still developing to this day – it tells the kind of story that rarely makes its way into a blockbuster with so much thought. Not only is it a decent action movie, but it carries the spine of a devastating tearjerker too.
Some of the aesthetic choices are a little strange – all of the visuals that we see during the moments where Barry is time travelling are CGI reconstructions of real footage but stylised in a way where everything looks like plasticine. There’s an argument for why this might have been necessary – to make sure everyone and everything could share the same visual style in a certain context – but it’s so reminiscent of videogame cut scenes of the past that it just becomes distracting rather than immersive.
At the heart of The Flash there is a touching story about loss, grief, and our collective regret at not being able to do much about either. It’s just as heartbreaking as it is fun, and it constantly matches its adrenaline-fueled highs with emotional peaks which are every bit as effective. The Flash can be forgiven for some of its humour sometimes failing to land, and its CGI looking a bit weird when it does so much right in other areas.
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Written by Rob Jones