The Fastest Men Alive
The Flash (DCU 14)
Throughout the life of the DC Extended UniverseStarted as DC Comics' answer to the MCU, the early films in the franchise stumbled out of the gates, often mired in grim-dark storytelling and the rushed need to get this franchise started. Eventually, though, the films began to even out, becoming better as they went along. Still, this franchise has a long way to go before it's true completion for Marvel's universe. (which we're soon going to have to call the DC Universe), fans have been waiting for the film franchise to hit a reset, to finally "get good" in the face of more and more mediocre films. Man of Steel got the series off on an awkward start, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice made it all much worse, and the, ever since, the series has been lumbering along as DC desperately tried to figure out what people actually wanted (all in the face of the continuing success of the Marvel Cinematic UniverseWhen it first began in 2008 with a little film called Iron Man no one suspected the empire that would follow. Superhero movies in the past, especially those not featuring either Batman or Superman, were usually terrible. And yet, Iron Man would lead to a long series of successful films, launching the most successful cinema brand in history: the Marvel Cinematic Universe..
At this point we don't really want a reset. We don't need one. The universe is getting reset soon enough when James Gunn starts up the new DC Universe. Cast has already been announced for Creature Commandos, prospective Supermen are being bandied about for Superman: Legacy, and yet, somewhere in all of this, the remnants of the old DCEU still linger. Black Adam failed to set the world on fire, Shazam!: Fury of the Gods crashed at the Box Office, and now we have The Flash, the long-troubled production that just couldn't catch a break.
When Justice League was in production we were told that it would be the jumping off point for the franchise to then do solo movies for Cyborg, the Flash, and Aquaman. We did get Aquaman, but the other films bandied about (including Ben Affleck's The Batman and a Man of Steel 2) never appeared. it took six years, and who knows how many fits and starts, for The Flash to finally appear, but the landscape for superhero films is very different now than it was then.
Let's be clear, if 2023's The Flash had come out in, say, 2018, it might have seemed fresh and interesting. It's main competition would have been... oh, Spider-man: Into the Spider-Verse, and those two films could have shared introducing the Multiverse to audiences. Instead, DC dragged their feet and Sony was able to create a second film, Spider-man: Across the Spider-Verse, that pushed the idea of the Multiverse so far that even Marvel themselves are trying to play catch up. Beyond that, we also had Crisis on Infinite Earths over in the ArrowverseWhen it was announced that the CW was creating a show based on the Green Arrow, people laughed. The CW? Really? Was it going to be teen-oriented like everything else on the network and be called "Arrow High"? And yet that one show, Arrow has spawned three spin-offs, various related shows and given DC a successful shared universe, the Arrowverse on TV and streaming.. There's What If...? and Spider-man: No Way Home, and so many other productions that have done the Multiverse so much better that The Flash feels tragically late to the party (which, okay, is kind of on brand for him).
What The Flash has is a goofy script with a fair bit of humor and heart, but that's not enough to stand apart from three Spider-man films that also had goofy humor and a lot of heart all centered around the Multiverse. This is a film that would have been funny and amazing six years ago. Now, though, it's tragically behind the times, start to finish. It could have been a good reset point for the DCEU, a way to wipe the slate clean and start fresh, but even that isn't needed now. This film doesn't really need to exist at all... but it does.
The film starts off in the DCEU we know. Flash, aka Barry Allen (Ezra Miller), if off to work at the crime lab when he gets a call from Alfred (Jeremy Irons), saying that Batman (Ben Affleck) needs Flash's help with a mission in Gotham. While Batman goes off chasing after bad guys, Flash is left to clean up after an explosion at Gotham General. This does lead to am amusing sequence where Barry ends up nearly stopping time so he can eat breakfast and save a bunch of babies falling out of the building. After, though, he starts to wonder if being a superhero is really what he wants. He'd really rather just have his mom (Maribel Verdu) and dad (Ron Livingston) back. See his mom was killed over two decades ago and his dad was framed for the crime. If Barry could just go back and change it, tweak time just a little to save his parents, everything would be okay.
Despite Batman warning him not to do it, Barry goes ahead and runs back in time anyway. He makes one small change and then tries to run back to the present to see if it worked. Except some speedster he's never seen before comes out of the time stream and ejects Barry from the Speed Force, a little over ten years too early. His parents are alive, which is great, but there's also a younger version of him running around and, surprise surprise, many other things are different. Things that shouldn't be different, that couldn't be. What did Barry change, and how could it have affected the whole world so drastically?
The Flash, for good and ill, has a lot of ideas about time travel and the Multiverse, some of which are interesting (and will get explored in a spoiler article). But because of the way the film handles it all, it leads to the film feeling like something of a mess. Barry discovers there's a different Batman (and much older Batman played by Michael Keaton), that Superman never came to Earth, that Wonder Woman and Aquaman and Cyborg don't exist. Things aren't right, but this world still needs saving (as revealed when General Zod comes to Earth). Barry could save this world, or he could go back and change things again and maybe set things right, or make them worse or... hell, we don't know because it never feels like the film knows. It's just throwing things at a wall to have an adventure.
This is a big flaw that sets this film apart from the Spider-verse movies. This one uses time travel as a conceit to muck around chaotically in the Multiverse haphazardly. The Spider-verse films, meanwhile, are clearly tightly constructed films that tell very strong, very cohesive, very well planned adventures. Every character, every new world, every alternate hero is there for a reason and not just because, "wheee, Multiverse". But it never feels like The Flash has a plan. If anything, it has a storyline, and a Multiversal conceit, that could be cleared up in five minutes if Barry would just run back and time and make another change. That's not a spoiler, that's in the trailer. And when your entire movie can be undone by the hero just not being an idiots and running back in time again, you know there's an issue.
Beyond that, it is hard to get past the Ezra Miller at the center of it all. Over the last six years the actor has had a roller coaster of a time. I think they went a bit COVID crazy and just couldn't handle lock down, so they went about it in probably the worst way possible. Whatever the motivation, they assaulted multiple people in bars, probably kidnapped a family, maybe started a cult, and then realized this was all blowing up their career and went on a apology tour to try and make up for it. While I think their performance in this film is actually pretty good, that doesn't absolve them of their past actions and if that keeps people from watching this film, I can't blame them.
Miller, in their dual role as the older and younger Barry, is actually pretty good. They're funny, charismatic, all the things we saw in Miller's performance as the Flash in Justice League. Hell, all the actors in this film, from the hold over DECU characters making cameo appearances, to Keaton's Batman and Sasha Calle's newly-introduced Supergirl, are really pretty great. The film doesn't have time for much of any of them other than Barry and Barry, but they all do fine work in t a film that can't stop rushing around showing off new Multiversal ideas before getting bored and rushing somewhere else. Okay, that, too , is on brand for The Flash, but there are a lot of times where you wish the film would settle down and let the characters have complete stories in one time period. It never really does.
The Flash is, in short, a mess. It's funny, at times enjoyable, and very nearly a decent film. It's one of the better DCEU movies we've gotten, but considering the fact that the bar for that is still very near the floor, that's hardly a rousing endorsement for the movie. It's a lingering vestige of a franchise that's very nearly out the door, an inessential watch that could be forgotten as soon as James Gunn remakes the universe. I enjoyed it in the moment, but for so many reasons I struggle to recommend it.
Would it have been nice to get this film six years ago? Absolutely. That time has passed, as has the era of the DCEU. DC and Warners put a lot of money into finally getting this film off the ground and, I guess, that's commendable. It's also too little too late for this dying franchise. Maybe in six years, when Gunn has done all his magic (we assume he'll do) we can get a new version of The Flash without all this baggage and a much tighter script. A fan can dream.