The Flash (2023) is hopelessly lost in its multiversal lore, amounting to nothing more than action figures brawling while actual characters or emotions get left in the dust.
Ezra Miller must be wishing they really were the Flash right now and had time traveling powers. There must be so many things they want to undo.
Okay, that will be the first and last time I associate the Ezra Miller controversy with this movie in this review. I know it’s so easy to bludgeon The Flash with this issue, but there’s three things to keep in mind. One, that would bring a level of toxicity into this that I don’t wish to indulge in. Two, I firmly believe you should separate a movie from the actor at some point. After all, I don’t think anyone should view say, Se7en or The Usual Suspects in a lesser light for starring Kevin Spacey. And three, this movie already has enough problems as it is.
The Flash follows Barry Allen (Ezra Miller) as the titular character, who hasn’t had the smoothest childhood. His father ended up wrongly indicted of killing his mother, and has lived in prison ever since. Barry discovers that he can travel back in time with his powers of super speed, and immediately uses it to save his mother. However, that ends up landing him in a completely different timeline, one where general Zod (Michael Shannon) is about to invade Earth. In order to save this timeline and fix things, he enlists the help of his alternate universe self, Supergirl (Sasha Calle), and Batman (Michael Keaton)
The central question of the movie is this: should you change the past, at the risk of endangering the future? If you have seen stories about time travel or changing the past, this should be nothing new. And just in case you had too much popcorn and got into a food coma before the movie started, the film has Barry’s mother spell the final message out for you in a painfully obvious manner in a flashback from the very beginning.
It is a fairly simple plot, almost hackneyed by now. That itself doesn’t condemn the movie immediately. It just means the film has to now use its other elements, such as characters or action, to create an engaging experience out of those more common themes. Unfortunately, it is in that area where the film completely trips over its own feet, as The Flash is perhaps the worst example of how to handle characters in a multiverse story.
What is the allure of a multiverse/alternate reality story? It’s seeing just how different this new timeline is from the original one. The same goes with characters. The fun part about seeing other versions of familiar characters is to see what different lives and personality they have. Therefore, it allows for unique and creative interactions that is only possible with that version of the character. Some films have done this well, such as Spider-man: Into the Spider-Verse, where we got wildly different Spider-men, each with unique personalities and backstories that played off each other in fun ways.
And then you have The Flash, whose treatment of its multiverse characters basically amounts to flipping through different skins in a video game and going “hey, do you get this reference?!” Yes, Michael Keaton is here as Batman and none of the promotional material lets you forget that. But there’s nothing about his dialogue or mannerisms that indicate he is the Batman from the 1989 Batman. He is literally just another Batman, with his looks being the only thing that defines him.
Other characters don’t get as egregious as Batman, but still suffer the same issues. With Supergirl, we get a somewhat interesting backstory and hints of a Superman-type character that is more jaded and cynical. But the movie barely focuses on that, instead making her be action fodder for 90% of her screentime. The same goes for the villain: general Zod is there in name only, serving more as just a big strong CGI monster for the VFX artists – I mean the characters – to struggle over. It all makes The Flash feel like tossing a bunch of action figures into a box and shaking them around.
There is one more villain that the film introduces. Without getting into spoilers, I think this is where the film shows the most potential and uses its timeline-jumping setup the best. But like everything else, we just don’t get enough. Said character appears towards the beginning of the movie then completely disappears until the climax, with almost no buildup or suspense, because the movie is too busy going “LOOK MICHAEL KEATON BATMAN.”
The one possible exception is Barry, the alternate timeline one. He gets just as much screentime as original Barry, and he works as a more naive, excitable foil to the much more tired and experienced one. The only catch is, he is completely insufferable. They play up the “excited newbie” trope far too much for far too long, to the point where I wished he would talk in super speed to get his dialogue over faster. Only briefly do we see glimpses of genuine heart, but they are nowhere near enough to make me care about him.
So the plot is rather stale and the characters amount to nothing but pretty action figures. In that case, the least the film could do is entertain me visually. However, The Flash fumbles in that aspect as well. First off, dear god, who designed the costumes for this film? Flash looks naked in that rubbery new suit, and his head ends up looking like a christmas bauble. What’s more, the CGI is possibly the worst out of the entire DCEU, with the lightning from Flash’s super speed looking straight out of a Youtube fan film.
The action choreography also suffers. Characters move in such a stilted and awkward way, and the fact that Flash’s super speed action is often rendered in slow motion only makes this more noticeable. The only exception is Batman, but that’s because I can’t see his movements properly with how bad the lighting is. I know his shtick is stealth, but I don’t think that should extend to the audience.
I have one more major issue to talk about, and it has to do with the ending, so full spoilers for the rest of the paragraph. In the end, Barry learns that messing with time will end in chaos and he cannot solve every past problem, in this case the death of his mom. He even says a tearful goodbye to her. That’s nice. And then it’s revealed that he changed the past after that anyways, this time by making it so that there’s conclusive evidence to bail his dad out of prison. And that changes the universe once more. So in conclusion, Barry learned… absolutely nothing. It’s what knocked the movie down an extra half star for how much it butchers the overall message.
I guess I am not angry or want to rip the film apart (apart from how poorly its ending is handled). But The Flash just feels… empty. Its plot is far too “been there, done that”, especially with the influx of multiverse stories in recent years, and the rest of the film doesn’t work in elevating that story into an engaging one. And a flat disappointment is worse than an ambitious failure in my book.
It’s kind of laughably sad (and I’m going back on the whole “won’t mention Ezra Miller debacle” promise just one time) that this is the movie WB so desperately had to release even amidst all the controversy. Was it really worth all the hassle, all the press, all the delays? In the end, The Flash is a film where the drama behind its release is far more interesting than the actual product.
The Flash (2023) is now available to watch on digital and on demand.