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‘The Flash’ Review: Ezra Miller Brings Kinetic Energy to a Movie Caught Up in Nostalgic DC Fan Service

Jul 08, 2023

The breathless buzz that followed Warner's CinemaCon debut of The Flash in April made it sound as if director Andy Muschietti and screenwriter Christina Hodson had successfully orchestrated the second coming of the DC Extended Universe. That might have been overexcited exaggeration, but this long-gestating stand-alone showcase for the Fastest Man Alive is enjoyable entertainment, even if it spends more time spinning its wheels than reinventing them. Much of the advance publicity has focused on Ezra Miller's string of controversies and legal issues, but the troubled star turns out to be the film's chief asset, bringing humor, heart and a vulnerability not often seen in big-screen superheroes.

That Miller manages to make such a funny, fully dimensional impression as Barry Allen, better known as the Flash, is no mean feat given the movie's slavish devotion to nostalgic fan service. While the actor's claim on the role started with Zack Snyder's Superman v. Batman: Dawn of Justice and Suicide Squad, the filmmakers here go considerably further back, tipping their hats to Tim Burton's original Batman movies and even to the towering heyday of Richard Donner's Superman blockbusters.

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The biggest news on the retro front is the return of Michael Keaton, more than 30 years after he last squeezed into the Batsuit. The frisson that exhilarates the audience when he first appears as a long-retired, reclusive Bruce Wayne, and shortly thereafter as a reborn Batman, continues in waves as each of his iconic Bat-vehicles revs its engine. And The Flash takes a leaf out of the Spider-Man: No Way Home book by welcoming back multiple actors who have played the Caped Crusader.

Spoiler avoidance makes it essential to keep the many cameos under wraps, but they pluck from both contemporary and vintage DC entries, even including one anticipated project that never came to fruition.

The script by Birds of Prey writer Hodson is at its best in the early scenes establishing Barry as a virginal nerd who has gone through college without managing to acquire much self-assurance, even after mastering his superpowers. Part of that insecurity stems from the tragic loss of his mother (Maribel Verdú) and his anxiety over the drawn-out appeals process of his father (Ron Livingston), who was falsely charged with her murder. Barry's consuming desire to go back into the past and fix things to save his family is the emotional engine driving the plot.

But before all that gets underway, Muschietti makes the smart decision to show us Barry at full speed in an amusing superhero riff on a James Bond-style action prologue.

Habitually late for his job in criminal forensics analysis at the Central City Research Center, Barry is further delayed at the breakfast bar where he picks up his regular morning fuel. An urgent call from Bruce Wayne's butler Alfred (Jeremy Irons) alerts him to a situation unfolding that requires his immediate presence. Batman is in pursuit of fiends who have stolen a potentially deadly virus from Gotham Hospital, which is now collapsing into a sinkhole caused by their explosive entry.

The sequence gets us acquainted with the Flash's red suit and zippy movement — a cool combo of high-cadence Tom Cruise sprint and ice-skater elegance, trailing luminous ribbons of electricity — as he sparks up and bolts across land and sea. It also introduces the self-deprecating humor that amps up the charm in Miller's characterization as Barry. He describes himself as "the janitor of the Justice League," always last on Alfred's emergency call list and invariably cleaning up some Bat mess.

The resulting set-piece involves the destruction of a neonatal care unit on a high floor of the skyscraper, causing what Barry calls a literal "baby shower" and clueing us in to the movie's infectious sense of fun. As he gulps down whatever snacks he can grab to recharge his depleted energy reserves, Barry quickly calculates how to rescue a bunch of tumbling infants, a hysterical pediatrics nurse and a therapy dog.

Back in Central City, Barry encounters his college crush, Iris West (Kiersey Clemons), now a journalist reporting on his father's case. But that character's presence here is more of a placeholder for later developments with which fans of the Flash comics will be familiar.

Pained by raw feelings stirred up by the trial, Barry stumbles on a way to use his superpowers to travel back in time, ignoring Bruce's warning that tampering with the past will trigger an uncontrollable butterfly effect. The kinship between veteran and novice superheroes whose lives have both been defined by tragedy weaves in a moment of poignancy. Barry's experiment works to a degree, but he gets punched out of the time-space continuum before completing his journey, landing him in the same timeline as his 18-year-old self, on the day he got his powers.

That glitch allows for Miller to display their sharp comic timing, as mature, mindful Barry and his impulsive adolescent counterpart struggle to find a workable middle ground. Their differences become more pronounced when a corrective experiment goes wrong, leaving the more seasoned Barry powerless and his reckless younger self equipped with gifts he can't wait to use.

Hodson's script strikes an initially playful note in the discovery of how history has been altered in unforeseen ways. She goes right for a movie-geek sweet spot by confusing grown-up Barry with the news that Eric Stoltz played Marty McFly in the Back to the Future franchise — a story cleverly echoed in the Flash's own narrative arc. (Michael J. Fox instead starred in Footloose.) But the situation becomes exponentially more serious when it's revealed that Superman's Kryptonian nemesis General Zod (Michael Shannon) has returned, again threatening to wipe out humanity.

That development prompts a desperate attempt to round up the rest of the Justice League to halt Zod, starting with a very ornery Batman, who takes a hard pass on stepping back into the fray. In a scene that will tickle anyone who has ever gotten lost in superhero time-travel plotting, jaded Bruce uses spaghetti to explain multiverse theory, with a bowl of cooked pasta representing the tangled mess created by screwing with the continuum.

But the combination of older Barry's reasoning and younger Barry's excitable obstinacy inevitably reawakens Batman's belief in justice and gains them access to the dusty wonders of the Batcave.

Like far too many superhero movies, The Flash gradually bogs down, devolving into rote mayhem as the protagonists go up against their mighty enemy in a chaotic clash where busy CG excess takes over from human — or humanoid — engagement. Shannon is wasted in generic snarling supervillain mode, while his vicious female sidekick (Antje Traue) looks fierce but mostly serves as a reminder of Sarah Douglas’ deliciously evil Ursa, second-in-command to Terence Stamp's Zod in Superman and Superman II.

The key variation on the climactic battle formula is the determination of young Barry to keep hurtling back in time to reverse each defeat, racing to save his life and those of the people he loves. This becomes a repetitious spin cycle of psychedelic CG world-bending, flicking through an encyclopedic history of DC screen representation with a reverence that will have fans cheering. For many audiences, that nostalgia will be sufficient reward on its own, enriched by the unmistakable strains of Danny Elfman's title theme for Batman and John Williams’ for Superman, woven into Benjamin Wallfisch's score.

While the nostalgia often threatens to marginalize the central plotline, those scenes do yield pathos as the older Barry explains the futility of all that exertion to his teenage self, forcing them both to make the most painful sacrifice in order to set the world right.

The other distinguishing factor of the later action is the introduction of another seminal figure from DC lore — which, like the multi-Batman element, doesn't really count as a spoiler since it's all over the trailers.

While the search for Superman in a Siberian prison is unsuccessful, it does turn up his cousin Kara Zor-El, aka Supergirl (Sasha Calle), who proves herself an invaluable ally and a tenacious opponent with a family grievance against Zod. In an impressive feature film debut, newcomer Calle is a quiet scene-stealer, channeling sullen Kristen Stewart energy and tough physicality that bodes well for her potential elevation to her own stand-alone movie.

If The Flash ultimately proves uneven, its wobbly climactic showdown far less interesting than the more character-driven buildup, the story's core of a young man struggling to reconcile with the loss of his mother carries it through. Miller effectively layers that vein of melancholy beneath both the smart-aleck brashness of 18-year-old Barry and the rueful introspection of his older self.

Navigating a considerable leap in scale from his work on Mama and the It films, not to mention a genre switch from supernatural horror, director Muschietti handles the action with confidence. But like the conflict between Barry's superhero exploits and his soulful attempt to mend the broken heart that has suspended him in arrested adolescence, the film often feels torn in two opposing directions. It's strongest when its focus remains personal, an aspect embedded in Miller's deftly layered performance and reflected in the corresponding sadness of Keaton's Bruce Wayne/Batman.

The early word on The Flash calling it one of the greatest superhero movies ever made was pure hyperbole. But in the bumpy recent history of the DC Extended Universe, it's certainly an above-average entry.

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