When Barry Allen (Ezra Miller, WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN), a.k.a. The Flash, discovers that he can run so fast he travels through time, the first thing he does is what we all wish we could do: go tell Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck, SMOKIN’ ACES) about it. And his cool rich friend gives him wise, succinct advice: if it’s possible for you to change the past, such as by stopping the murder of your mother (Maribel Verdú, TETRO), it would be very dangerous, and besides, our scars make us who we are. Look at me, for example – I’m fuckin Batman!
But as Barry prepares one more desperate appeal for his father (Ron Livingston, KING OF THE ANTS), who was blamed for his mother’s death, it occurs to him that if he traveled back in time he wouldn’t have to intervene during the murder. He’d just have to make sure his mom had tomato sauce so his dad wouldn’t leave for the store, causing a burglar to believe no one was home. A loophole. One weird trick to save the Allen family. Of course, his changes cause reverberations (with the unusual twist that since time isn’t linear it doesn’t just branch off, it changes in all directions), and he spends the movie running around very fast trying to clean up his mess.
The Flash has an occupation and past trauma in common with Batman, and he’s very smart. Otherwise they’re opposites. Barry has incredible powers, not as many skills. He doesn’t seem to have much money, he’s very socially awkward, always in way over his head, apparently a virgin. He makes enough poor choices that Batman actually seems like a good role model to him. He at least tries to do the right thing, and thankfully he’s good at problem solving, because he causes alot of problems. I think Miller is genuinely funny in the role, so his Flash is my favorite of the “still trying to figure out these super powers” characters in these movies.
Barry and Bruce discuss the concept of “The Butterfly Effect” – that every minor change to a timeline could kick off an unpredictable chain reaction leading to catastrophe. For example, imagine a reality where Warner Brothers goes all in on Zack Snyder making a JUSTICE LEAGUE movie and it launches a “DC Extended Universe” to rival the Marvel movies. If someone then went back in time and told the executives that people want comic book movies to be funny now, that one suggestion could snowball into a present where Ben Affleck backed out of playing the DCEU Batman, his solo movie turned into an unrelated new Batman series, and now there’s a five-years-past-due THE FLASH solo movie where he returns to pass the DCEU’s Batman torch to a Batman from another reality, even though it’s already been announced that this storyline won’t continue because they’re rebooting the whole universe.
So the people who pay attention to Batman business are watching THE FLASH while anticipating Robert Pattinson in THE BATMAN 2 and somebody else in BATMAN: THE BRAVE AND THE BOLD, but for now they’re here to see the about-to-be retired Affleck Batman get switched out with our beloved 1989-1992 Michael Keaton Batman through multiversal gimmickry. That’s something that would’ve been mindblowing in 2018 when THE FLASH was originally scheduled for release, and seems pretty worn out after SPIDER-MAN: INTO THE SPIDER-VERSE and SPIDER-MAN: NO WAY HOME (plus DOCTOR STRANGE AND THE MULTIVERSE OF MADNESS and SPIDER-MAN: ACROSS THE SPIDER-VERSE). Tracing back those steps, though, I realize it probly wouldn’t have been a multiverse movie back then. They only needed that to get two guys playing Batman. Fundamentally it’s a time travel story, more like BACK TO THE FUTURE (which is openly referenced). In fact, he has to go to a place where he knows lightning is going to strike in order to get back to the future. This time it’s the lightning that gave him his powers.
The part that’s very different from BACK TO THE FUTURE, and the best part of this movie, is that he meets his stoner doofus alternate 2013 self. When alternate Barry gets his powers, our Barry loses his, so they have to work together to save the world. It’s a buddy movie, two funny bantering characters who I never really thought about being one actor filming separately.
It just so happens that Barry traveled to the time when MAN OF STEEL takes place, and he sees General Zod (Michael Shannon, GROUNDHOG DAY) and the Kryptonian space ships on TV and realizes he’s created a world where there’s no Superman to stop him. So Barry goes to get help from his super hero big brother Bruce, but discovers that in this universe he’s Michael Keaton – a totally different guy who doesn’t know him, and retired a long time ago. After a life of trying to make up for losing his parents, this Bruce is moved by Barry’s story of saving his mom, and also seems to have an itch to suit up again.
So – what the hell, kids. Get in the Batwing. We’re flying to Siberia where you believe this guy Superman is locked up (long story). Note: Due to the Comic Book Movie Anti-Collateral Accords of 2013, the climax of MAN OF STEEL now takes place in a big empty field instead of a populated area.
I was primed for Keaton’s Batman, but pleasantly surprised how much Affleck Batman we get. I have mixed feelings about his movie set during the dawn of justice, but I like him in the role, and it’s cool to see him in a big motorcycle chase here. We learn that Alfred (Jeremy Irons, DEAD RINGERS) sometimes calls The Flash for backup when Bats is occupied. In this case, he reports to the collapsing Gotham Hospital while Batman stops bank robbers from releasing a bio-weapon. A maternity ward full of babies are launched out the windows and, while the world appears to move in extreme slow motion, Barry runs up the falling debris to rearrange the newborns so that they land safely and avoid explosions, flying scalpels, etc. Later we’ll see Looney Tunes decor in Barry’s room, but this scene reminds me more of Roger Rabbit and Baby Herman.
When it’s almost all over Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot, KNIGHT & DAY) shows up to save the day. I love that even Batman acts bashful around her. The movie starts with this ground-level Super Friends stuff and builds up momentum until it’s running loopty-loops around cosmic time loop paradoxes and shit. A bunch of major scenes take place in an abstract realm called The Chronobowl that’s like a three-dimensional kaleidoscope of Barry’s memories that he can use to transport to different times. I’ve seen people making fun of the movie’s often phony-looking digital FX, which I guess I’m just not as finicky about, especially in strange imagery like this that’s not intended as realism. (There is a part right at the beginning though where I kinda chuckled at The Flash’s silly animated running.)
Even to me, a bigger fan of this series than most, the DCEU has been a mixed bag. You had to approach each one with caution, they were never consistent enough to gain our trust. The flagship title went over poorly, the superior extended cut is too weird for some people, and is inextricably linked to a nerd culture war we’d prefer to forget about. Two of the best DCEU movies, BIRDS OF PREY and THE SUICIDE SQUAD, were financial disappointments, followed by two movies considered bombs (BLACK ADAM and SHAZAM! FURY OF THE GODS) without the benefit of being great movies. So it’s no surprise that the “oh yeah, we got one more solo spin-off from that old JUSTICE LEAGUE movie” movie is flopping too.
While I think moviegoers at large are indifferent, the internet film discussion circles I’m in have all their knives out for THE FLASH. They went into storage and got out the fancy ones they usually save for holiday get togethers, and they’ve been joyously celebrating the occasion of its box office failure. I really shouldn’t care, because who gives a fuck? There wasn’t gonna be a sequel anyway, and that company deserves to lose money. But I love talking movies, and it’s frustrating to do when the discussion is so dominated by hyperbole and bad faith bullshit, pretending not to understand things, posting out of context clips saying it’s the worst shit you’ve ever seen, disingenuous arguments transparently motivated by things external to the movie. I think you can care about those things while still looking at the movie honestly. Or you can just ignore the movie!
Some have chosen not to support it because it stars Miller (who uses they/them pronouns – I’ll try to get it correct). During the long production, they got into bizarre legal troubles involving brawls at karaoke bars and breaking into a house to steal wine. There were stories of wearing a bullet proof vest, claiming to be Jesus, and publicly announcing a war against a specific chapter of the KKK that the Southern Poverty Law Center had no record of. In recent months Miller apologized for past behavior and claimed to be in treatment for “complex mental health issues,” and since I believe in rehabilitation I hope that’s true. But I can understand why some people aren’t gonna let it go, since there have also been accusations of grooming minors and being abusive. It’s all very strange and sad to read about, and I hope Miller and anyone they hurt really do get the help they need.
But the argument I’ve seen more of is a totally different hot button issue that has many of my internet film friends sounding like religious zealots. I’m going to mark this a SPOILER since it’s obviously meant as a surprise, even though I knew about it thanks to weeks of frothing Twitter outrage before the release of the movie. Like other comic book multiverse movies, THE FLASH includes a handful of what people are calling “cameos” by previous incarnations of DC characters. Some are just old footage, some are CG animation, and the one people are up in arms about is the one you would most expect – a simulation of Christopher Reeve’s Superman. It has been called an abomination, a desecration, an insult, and some people are probly annoyed by the fun part of the scene – that he’s (DOUBLE SPOILER) next to a less sacred character, Helen Slater’s Supergirl.
I don’t mean to dismiss fears of deep fakes, A.I., or the misuse of likenesses, but the way some of my friends react to this kinda stuff seems almost superstitious to me. Maybe they’re right, maybe it’s a slippery slope that needs to be shored up before it’s too late, but I just don’t have it in to me to get worked up about, for example, a cool part in one The Mandalorian episode where they came up with a digital way to fake a young Mark Hamill. And although I’m sure the angry twenty-something version of me would’ve been handing out pitchforks too, it seems like you gotta kinda contort yourself to see the Reeve scene as anything other than a quick “wasn’t Christopher Reeve’s Superman great? Don’t we all worship him?” It’s corny, it’s obvious, but I don’t agree that it’s sacreligious.
From the discussion you’d think they made some kind of fake Christopher Reeve performance, but they certainly weren’t trying to fool anyone, and even calling it a “scene” is kind of a stretch. It’s a couple brief shots, and doesn’t even take place in a literal reality – it’s in the Chronobowl and they’re looking out at spinning globes covered in frames of other realities. It’s more like a studio logo, or a rotation around a statue, than a deep fake. It’s a brief pause for Christopher Reeve Superman worship, no more offensive than celebrating the anniversary of Bugs Bunny or CASABLANCA or some shit. I thought it was fine. (Would’ve liked to see virtual Gus Gorman, though.)
Some motherfucker posted a cell cam picture of that part on Twitter, which I saw before the movie, and that pissed me off. I’m glad I stayed unaware of a couple of the other surprises, but the truth is they’re a very small part of the movie, gimmicks that pay off the multiverse concept, but fairly incidental to the plot and only taking up a minute or two of the movie. It’s less about fan service than sliding doors type concepts. A recurring bit involves the famous movie trivia that Eric Stoltz was cast as Marty McFly before Michael J. Fox. And there are background details like the Barrys having INCEPTION and MARS ATTACKS! posters in their bedrooms, making you wonder about those directors’ filmographies in a world where Batman is real. Even accidental stuff got me thinking about alternate timelines. Billy Crudup played Barry’s dad in JUSTICE LEAGUE, but bowed out of this one however many years later, so they could be alternate timeline Henry Allens. Kiersey Clemons (SWEETHEART) returns as Barry’s crush Iris West, and alludes to the time he rescued her from a car crash, but her entire role was cut from the theatrical JUSTICE LEAGUE and we only know it from the four-years-after-the-fact Snyder cut.
But the multiverse gimmick does get Keaton’s Batman into the movie, and that is a significant role and selling point. I don’t see many people say this, but Tim Burton’s BATMAN and BATMAN RETURNS are not just movies I like – they were crucial to my development as a film lover. The first one established an ideal for how a popcorn movie could be both a zeitgeist-riding pop culture phenomenon and a deeply idiosyncratic work of personal expression, the second set a high watermark for weird sequels that surpass the original artistically while alienating the studio bosses and the loudest mouths with the worst tastes. A double triumph.
For a surprisingly long time Batman was allowed to occupy that rare space as the valuable intellectual property that the suits leave to the artists. I believe Joel Schumacher was the first attempt to hand him over to a pliable, studio-friendly journeyman, but no matter what I think of those movies he built off of the Burton Precedent to create something crazy and distinct. And then we had Christopher Nolan’s entirely different trilogy that no other director would’ve made. Zack Snyder also got to make a Zack Snyder movie, though with some clashes with the executives and problems caused by trying to set up a shared universe. Matt Reeves, so far, seems to be a return to the “we trust you, go off and do your thing” tradition. Batman might even top ALIEN as the big time pop culture item entrusted to the most auteurs.
The Batmen of THE FLASH, however, are suiting up in a different era, when movies are more than ever run by business school asswipes who only care about raiding portfolios of “i.p.” and “content” long enough to announce a multi-platform franchise or rename a streaming service, then get out right before the bubble pops so they’re gone while the next asshole tries to figure out what the fuck to do with all this mess. They’ll either quit while they’re ahead or be forced to resign, and either way their severance will be way more money than our entire families’ lifetime earnings. If during their reign they ever empowered an artist to make art, it was probly an accident.
So I can’t blame my more cynical friends for seeing this as another WB movie waving around WB trademarked properties, saying “Hey! Remember this?” Of course I couldn’t help but smile to see that Wayne Manor, Bruce Wayne’s armor collection, the Bat Cave, the Batmobile (parked only), and the Batwing, while hearing Danny Elfman’s themes blasting in an Imax theater, and seeing Keaton (an actor I’m always happy to see anyway) extending his oddball Bruce Wayne into his Howard Hughes years, then getting back in the suit. And to see him kicking ass again! Maybe it’s phony that he’s doing better than he did when he was younger, but I think it’s an evolution of that blunt one-punch-per-enemy style developed for the limited mobility of his suit. (Fight coordinator: Mike Lambert, THE MUMMY: TOMB OF THE DRAGON EMPEROR, THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E., THE LEGEND OF TARZAN, KING ARTHUR: LEGEND OF THE SWORD, JUSTICE LEAGUE.)
I was pretty sure I’d get a kick out of that, but even more sure I’d never be 100% on it, because I believe Gotham is as important to a cinematic Batman as Batman himself is. (That’s why I believe Affleck’s Batman hasn’t really captured the public imagination. We never really saw his world. He was always traveling on business.) So Keaton as Batman but not in the Gotham of BATMAN or BATMAN RETURNS – no cartoon-noir atmosphere, no Burtonized superfreak villains, no retro-futuristic-‘30s-but-also-the-’80s timelessness – is just not the same guy. It’s a good illustration of what we traded away from the ‘90s era of comic book movies when the shared universes began. BATMAN, DICK TRACY, THE CROW, even shit like SPAWN or BARB WIRE, are not designed so you could pluck a character out and put them in any other movie. They’re inseparable from the worlds around them.
In an interview with Collider, Michael Shannon said that he liked THE FLASH but his part “wasn’t quite satisfying for me, as an actor” because “these multiverse movies are like somebody playing with action figures. It’s like, ‘Here’s this person. Here’s that person. And they’re fighting!’”
That’s what it is. It’s mixing up your Star Wars figures with your G.I. Joes. Fun for a bit, but it’s never gonna feel right. So it’s a lucky break that the fruitlessness of trying to hold on to the past forever is the theme of the movie. Barry realizes his first Batman was right, we have to accept and move on. The emotional climax of the movie (EMOTIONAL CLIMAX SPOILER) genuinely got me: Barry goes back to undo his undoing of the past, and ends up in a brief conversation with his mom, who doesn’t recognize him as the adult version of her son, but still shows him the kindness and generosity he remembered her for. What can I say, man? I have a dead mom. The idea of Barry getting to talk to his, knowing it’s the last time, and then having to turn around and walk away, it pulls those heartstrings.
For us, seeing Michael Keaton as Batman again is basically the same as Barry seeing his mom. He’s a cherished part of our past, it’s nice to see him again, to get a taste of what might have been, but it’s not right, it doesn’t work, it can’t last. What the fuck is he doing out in the bright daylight in snowy Russia, fighting CGI bad guys? That fleeting new Supergirl (Sasha Calle, The Young and the Restless) is really cool, but how the fuck are they together? Can you picture her on a giant set on a soundstage, in front of an enormous statue of a guy pulling a lever, talking to Oswald Cobblepot? I can’t. This wasn’t meant to be.
That inescapable “I love you Batman but what are you doing here?” hollowness keeps THE FLASH from feeling as fully formed as, say, AQUAMAN, but its thematic appropriateness saves it for me. I don’t think THE FLASH is a great movie, but it’s a fun one. On the recent live action super hero movies rankings I’d definitely put it below GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY VOL. 3 and THE BATMAN, maybe below WAKANDA FOREVER, but well above BLACK ADAM, MORBIUS, THOR: LOVE AND THUNDER, ANT-MAN & THE WASP: QUANTUMANIA, and SHAZAM! FURY OF THE GODS.
The script is credited to Christina Hodson (BUMBLEBEE, BIRDS OF PREY, deleted BATGIRL film), story by John Francis Daley & Jonathan Goldstein (DUNGEONS & DRAGONS: HONOR AMONG THIEVES) (who were previously attached to direct), and Joby Harold (KING ARTHUR: LEGEND OF THE SWORD, ARMY OF THE DEAD, TRANSFORMERS: RISE OF THE BEASTS). Despite all the mid-stream changes and moving parts I think they ended up with a funny, likable, well-paced story with a variety of super powered action, and it’s grounded in character and emotion. The “fan service” is nothing more than amusing, but there’s better shit beneath the surface. For example, the idea that our Barry increasingly resents 2013 Barry for having lived his life minus the tragedy, but 2013 Barry has no idea what’s going on because he hasn’t been told what happens to their mom. I think it’s a worthy continuation of the character I enjoyed in the previous movies. (If you don’t care about those, you don’t have to care about this one either.)
I’m not sure yet what I think of director Andy Muschietti. I really liked his first movie MAMA. I also liked IT, but I haven’t gotten around to CHAPTER TWO yet, so I must not have loved it. I think THE FLASH is another one in the plus column, but is he worthy of being added to that list of bat-auteurs? I’ve long wanted a Batman with all the Robins and shit in it, and now they’ve hired him to do just that. I hope we’re in the timeline where he doesn’t fuck it up.