Nurse, The Screens!
I was somewhat surprised when, late last week, my collected thoughts on the considerable merits of Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse provoked what sounded like an episode of ontological trauma in the distinguished brain of the Post Editor, to the point where he suggested I was now reviewing imaginary films. Well, stand by with the calming music and relaxing aromatherapy oils, for this week we begin to answer the question which I posed in the last edition: 'How many films about multiple versions of famous superhero characters visiting parallel dimensions, featuring Nicolas Cage cameos, are we likely to see this summer?' And the answer is: more than you might think.
Let the uninitiated strap themselves in: Andy Muschietti's The Flash concerns the doings of the prominent DC superhero whose main schtick is being able to run at the speed of light. Here he is played by Ezra Miller, and the film opens with him drafted in to help deal with a collapsing hospital while Batman (Ben Affleck, reprising the role he first played in 2016's Batman Vs Superman) catches the bad guys responsible. Affleck, at what is essentially the last gasp of his time in the role, has finally figured out how to play Batman and this whole sequence is fantastically winning and fun.
In his civilian life, the Flash's alter ego Barry Allen is mainly concerned with trying to get his dad released from prison for a murder he didn't commit – but even with the vast resources of Bruce Wayne to assist him, it seems an impossible quest. Until it occurs to Barry that, if he can run faster than the speed of light, he can travel back in time and change the past so the murder never took place and his dad never got slung in the clink. Batman thinks this sort of thing is a very bad idea, but of course if the Flash listened to this it would be a much shorter and less interesting film, so off he zooms.
All initially goes well, but a mysterious dark presence boots the Flash out of the surreal transtemporal transnarrative space he accesses when time travelling and he ends up somewhere in the early 2010s. Rather to his surprise he meets his younger, obnoxious self (Miller again) and finds he has to ensure he still receives his powers on schedule (a very neat way of incorporating the Flash's origin story into the movie). But things rapidly get more serious when the Kryptonian invasion from 2013's Man of Steel starts happening, led as before by General Zod (Michael Shannon). However, on this occasion Superman is nowhere to be seen, and most of the other superheroes – Wonder Woman, Aquaman, and so on – seem to have been removed from history by Barry's monkeying with the timeline.
However, there does still seem to be a Batman, and so the two Barry Allens set off to recruit his help in finding Superman. Rather to their surprise, he is a grizzled old recluse in this new reality, and looks quite different – in fact, he looks rather like Michael Keaton, who first played Batman in the 1989 Tim Burton film. After the usual grumblings he agrees to help, and with the aid of a new version of Supergirl (Sasha Calle), whom they come across in slightly peculiar circumstances, they all set off to stop Zod and save the world (again)...
The Flash can't come close to matching the two hundred Spider-People of Across the Spider-Verse, but that doesn't stop it from going for quality rather than quantity. The film eventually hits upon the winning metafictional conceit that every previous DC Comics adaptation constitutes another parallel timeline, all of which gradually start bashing into each other. The film only has three Flashes, four Batmen, four Supermen, and two Supergirls (and some of these are deepfake cameos), but there are some very famous and well-loved faces here – most bizarrely and obscurely, even an unmade Superman film from the 1990s qualifies for inclusion, resulting in a brief glimpse of a uniquely nouveau-shamanic version of the Man of Steel.
This will all be catnip for a certain segment of the audience, but – once again – if you are suffering from multiversal malaise it will probably make you want to hide under your seat until it all goes away (which could be a long wait, as the film is getting on for two and a half hours in length). That said, The Flash does an impressive job of making what could have been a bafflingly impenetrable story rather accessible – there's a witty use of an analogy with Back to the Future to smooth the way, and the story is generally pretty clear. And in the end it all boils down to a rather affecting fable about accepting loss and grief as an inevitable part of life – not even superheroes can fix everything. This seems to me to be a worthy and commendable moral premise for a blockbuster movie.
Maybe the plot doesn't quite hang together in a couple of places, but the result is a more than acceptable blockbuster movie, with spectacle, wit, and an engaging willingness to acknowledge its own absurdity. The actors don't get lost, either: the well-publicised legal travails of Ezra Miller – which at one point led to many suggesting this long-in-the-works film was destined to be canned as another tax write-off – can't help but colour one's opinion, but on the most basic level this is an extremely competent and technically deft lead performance. Sasha Calle doesn't get a lot to do except smoulder balefully as Supergirl, but she handles this very limited requirement well. Michael Keaton, on the other hand, makes the best of a great opportunity, playing recognisably the same quietly unhinged version of Bruce Wayne from the Tim Burton films.
In the end The Flash never quite escapes the sense that it's just a bit too tangled up in the DC movie mythology for its own good – and the word is that the universe-bashing that happens here will provide incoming DC maestro James Gunn with a perfect pretext to keep or discard elements of previous films as he sees fit. But on the other hand, it's the willingness to engage with all this that enables most of the film's best features and moments, including an astonishingly impudent final gag. So it's arguably a flawed film, but still a hugely entertaining one.