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The Flash’s meta-ness is its only trick, and its undoing

While the core conceit of Warner Bros. Discovery’s The Flash is solid, the movie’s too-meta nostalgia plays highlight everything that has gone awry with the studio’s superhero movie experiment.

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Ezra Miller as two versions of Barry Allen and Michael Keaton as Batman.
Ezra Miller as two versions of Barry Allen and Michael Keaton as Batman.
Image: Warner Bros. Discovery

Even if Warner Bros. Discovery weren’t in the process of trying to pivot its way out of a messy cinematic universe of films based on DC’s comics, it’s not hard to see how some of the basic ideas at work in director Andy Muschietti’s The Flash could have still made for a genuinely interesting film. Had the movie debuted a few years back — before this age of big-screen multiversal experiments — the studio’s move to tap into but not outright adapt a story like Geoff Johns and Andy Kubert’s Flashpoint might have spoken to there truly being a cohesive plan at work to properly build a world around the Justice League, one feature-length origin story at a time.

The Flash, though, arrives at a point when superheroic time travel and multiversal stories have been so thoroughly done to varying degrees of success that it’s hard not to see it as a kind of Barry-come-lately to a party that it’s too late to simply show up to now with nothing to offer. From beginning to end, you can see how, like any sensible party guest sheepish about their bewildering tardiness, The Flash does come with an offering of gifts for the house meant to impress everyone and show off how thoughtful it is. 

But rather than bring something properly new and fascinating to the function, The Flash instead tries to jazz up a middling story with half-baked visual tricks and overly meta nostalgia plays that unfortunately feel like distractions meant to keep you from thinking about Ezra Miller while you’re watching Ezra Miller act against themself.

Caught somewhere in the multiverse between Flashpoint and every classic telling of how Barry Allen first attuned to the Speed Force, The Flash tells the story of how Barry (Ezra Miller) ends up putting the entire multiverse in danger after discovering that he can travel through time. As a kid who grew up wanting nothing more than to find a way to bring back his murdered mother Nora (Maribel Verdú) and exonerate his father Henry (Ron Livingston), who was locked away for her murder, Barry sees it as a gift when he accidentally ends up running so fast one day that he slips out of his moment and place in time.

Much like Barry, The Flash moves with a frenetic, twitchy briskness as it tries to play triple duty as the DCEU’s first proper movie about the eponymous speedster, a catch-up on a surprisingly large contingent of the Justice League, and Warner Bros. Discovery’s very conspicuous play at resetting its cinematic universe after years of misfires. Before The Flash picks up and becomes a full-on action adventure, the movie first feels the need to remind its audience that Barry’s meant to be the youngest, goofiest member of the Justice League — an extant squad of vigilantes who you’re meant to believe has been saving the day together for some time at this point.

Everything about the way The Flash comes together in its opening act — from Barry’s overlong comedic exchange at a bagel shop to the way he also has to zoom off from the shop mid-conversation to do damage control for Batman (Ben Affleck) — has an uncanny way of emphasizing how much time has passed since Zack Snyder’s Justice League, the last time many of these characters appeared together on-screen. Instead of creating the sense that you’re tuning in to a tightly constructed, ongoing story right as it’s starting to pick up steam, though, The Flash’s opening scenes play more like a supercut of some of the more peculiar choices that weigh the movie down as it progresses.

The Flash builds on the lightning-bathed superspeed motif first established in Justice League by slowing motion down and isolating Barry in physics-defying pockets of action designed to catch the eye and evoke the feel of a comic book. But in almost every single scene where Barry’s zooming around on the ground punching real goons or running up walls into a storm of grotesque CGI babies to catch and save them all from falling to their deaths, The Flash’s slowed bullet time has the unfortunate side effect of highlighting how truly ugly much of the movie’s digitally constructed elements are.

The same Polar Express-like unsightliness that makes The Flash’s “baby shower” such an unpleasant thing to watch is also the defining quality of the movie’s recurring time travel sequences that begin with Barry making a go at changing his family’s lives by altering the past. In a rather telling move, Warner Bros. Discovery’s so thoroughly given so much of The Flash’s plot away through trailers that it’s no secret how Barry’s trip, while somewhat successful in the sense that he’s able to save Nora’s life, also goes awry in the sense that he ends up becoming cut off from his own present and stuck with a slightly different, younger version of himself.

Even if one were to put stock in the idea that audiences can and should universally consume all art divorced from the context of the people who create it, that is uniquely difficult to do in the case of The Flash’s Barry Allen, a man and a teenager Miller inhabits with an exhaustingly “on” kind of tweeness. Though Miller plays the movie’s two Barrys rather differently — one, a weary, awkward man-child, and the other, a lackadaisical burnout — the actor’s seldom able to sell either of them as believable people, which only serves to make the mind wonder as to why these performances from this actor are what Warner Bros. Discovery is hitching its wagon to.

Even once The Flash is well into Parent Trap territory, the movie still often feels like it’s trying to distract you from the fact that Miller is its star by using its time travel plot to reheat beats from 2013’s Man of Steel involving a familiar version of Zod (Michael Shannon) and his hunt for a Kryptonian codex. The difference between multiversal narratives that shine and those that fall flat has always been the degree to which the stories use their conceits to complicate, challenge, and strengthen our understanding of their character. The Flash seldom feels capable of doing any of that kind of work, in part because of how little chemistry Miller has with themself and because of how relatively straightforward its handling of time travel is. 

Certain effects, like the way the world turns into a stream of beautifully blurred light whenever Barry’s using his powers just to run around faster than anyone else could ever hope to, are nice to look at, sure. And the film’s messages about missing departed loved ones are about as touching as your average drugstore condolence card. But The Flash knows that it isn’t really cooking with heat, which is likely why it spends so much time masquerading as a Batman film starring Michael Keaton.

For many people, the way The Flash makes excellent use of Danny Elfman’s Batman theme and brings the Barrys face-to-face with an older, wiser, more lonesome Batman who’s accustomed to working alone will be more than enough to make the movie a success that’s doing its part to get WBD onto relatively more level footing with its competition. But the truth is that there really isn’t all that much underlying meat to The Flash’s other Batman coming into the picture because the movie presumes that it’s Keaton’s presence rather than the character and his universe’s roles in the story that you’ve showed up for.

In a movie that so prominently features unplanned chain reactions, it is somewhat intriguing to watch Barry geek out over Batman doing all kinds of ridiculous things that weren’t technically possible in the comic book movies of the late ’80s and early ’90s. Similar to how The Flash would rather you see the Justice League cameos as evidence of a thriving cinematic franchise that doesn’t exactly exist, the alternate reality Batman’s supposed to help sell you on the concept of a sprawling multiverse. But instead, Barry’s feelings about Batman end up reading as Miller performatively freaking out about the Keaton of it all, which only further brings the focus back around to Miller themself, an actor so thoroughly mired in scandals that it’s truly a wonder The Flash exists as is.

By the time The Flash gets around to introducing its take on Kara Zor-el (Sasha Calle) — one of the few bright lights — the movie’s already so far along and barreling toward an overwrought, fan service-fueled finale that she never really gets a chance to do much besides remind you how simple the classic Superman origin myth can be. The Flash isn’t an especially good movie. But it is an ambitious one that speaks to how, even at this late stage of the superhero movie game, Warner Bros. Discovery’s seemingly just trying to hang in there and will everyone into not seeing how much of a state of disarray its cinematic universe is in.