Review: The Flash (2023)

I approached The Flash with optimism: after all, this is THE FLASH, staple of the JLA, the Scarlet Speedster, whom I've loved ever since my pre-school days watching Super Friends back when disco ruled (okay, disco still rules). What's more, it brings back Michael Keaton--MY Batman, mind you, and the first big-screen Dark Detective, solving crimes with his investigation skills decades before Pattinson. Plus, The Flash promises a fun thrill ride across time and space, which is a welcome change of pace from the angsty grimaces that fill most of WB's comic book movies. How could anyone screw this up? 

It really hurts to say this, but The Flash is a mess. Where to begin? 

This is a multiverse movie. A few years ago, the prospect of seeing comic book multiverses brought to cinematic life felt fresh and exciting, but we've been fire-hosed with them lately (I can think of four others so far this year alone) and they already feel stale. In this story, Barry Allen, aka The Flash, has the ability to run so fast that he can tap into something called the Speed Force (something the movie never successfully establishes) allowing him to travel through time. But beware, Barry Allen, for a single change will alter reality, twisting characters and settings we know into fresh variations we've never seen. Of course, that's what we're all waiting for, but Ezra Miller's portrayal of an alternate Barry Allen--shallow, selfish, and apparently fueled by a diet of brain-cell-depleting paint chips--irritated me so much that I considered bailing on the movie. It's that annoying. 

Michael Keaton's return as Batman is wonderful and he's lost none of the quirky intensity that he brought to the role almost 35 years ago; by contrast, the addition of Sasha Calle as Kara Zor-El/Supergirl comes too late in the movie for us to care and I found myself wondering if she was a late addition to the screenplay. The movie never really knows what to do with her. Presumably, someone gave the filmmakers a stack of comics from DC's 2011 Flashpoint company-wide crossover event, but I'm not sure anyone read them--on the contrary, I have it on good authority that movies based on literary source material are often made without most of the filmmakers ever bothering to read the inspiration for their tale. Supergirl's presence here is a subversion of something that happened with Kal-El/Superman in the Flashpoint comics event, but here's the rub: everyone knows who Superman is. Supergirl is being introduced here for the first time, but she doesn't really fit into this story. She feels like an afterthought, included to sell action figures and merchandise, not because the story needs her--it does not.

There's a tonal inconsistency that has become common at Warner Bros. (indeed, in many modern spectacle films from most of the studios) that comes from too many cooks in the kitchen. Christina Hodson is credited for the screenplay and I adored what she brought to Bumblebee, which is the only installment of the long-running Transformers film franchise that I feel comes close to touching the fun of the Generation 1 source material. Her next screenplay, Birds of Prey, was a mixed bag. However, three other writers have "screen story" credit on The Flash: the filmmaking duo of John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein--who delighted me with this year's Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves--and Joby Harold, who has contributed to Disney's Obi-Wan Kenobi series and Transformers: Rise of the Beasts, which did NOT delight me. Director Andy Muschietti is best known for helming the two-part big-screen version of Stephen King's IT. Success with horror doesn't necessarily translate to success on a superhero tentpole film. Not surprisingly, there is no authorial tone here; this story is disjointed and all over the place. It feels like a collection of scenes, not a cohesive narrative. 

The Flash is obnoxious and unfunny. The movie's attempts at humor feels fratboy-ish with a distinct dude-bro tone that will appeal to pubescents at the expense of a larger audience. The jokes here would be more at home in the unfortunate Baywatch movie, not a story about a superhero that has lost connection with everything and everyone he's ever known. Keaton is great, but the script seems content to have him play his greatest hits, not write new ones: When he says "I'm Batman" and "You wanna get nuts? C'mon, let's get nuts," I cringe. Those lines are here for nostalgia, but fan service must never come at the expense of servicing the story. It's a movie reminding us of another (better) movie. Those lines are included here as a shortcut to nostalgia: by including them, the filmmakers are hoping to piggyback off of our affection for the 1989 classic.

The CGI/VFX here are embarrassing. They'd have been out of place ten years ago, but in a 2023 film, they come across looking like a cartoon or even a 15-year-old video game. The release date for The Flash was delayed multiple times by the same studio that outright cancelled at least one superhero film (Batgirl) for not being good enough. This movie needed more time, both for the effects and for the script. The Flash is not ready for prime time. How ironic, since the DC TV shows from the Berlanti-verse have done a bang-up job at adapting some of DC's greatest storylines. The Flashpoint storyline was a major influence on The Flash television series, which feels 100 times more fun and epic than anything here. It looks better, too, despite having a much smaller budget. Warner's insistence on keeping their television properties separate from their films continues to befuddle me, especially when that television department--and the animation department, too--continue to run circles (pun intended) around the theatrical division.

It's a shame. As a life-long comics fan who wants to love things, I'm the target audience for this movie. The return of Keaton as Batman sends me into a nostalgic sugar rush, but the film simply doesn't work. Sure, there are cool scenes: early in the film, The Flash rescues a bunch of babies from a collapsing building. It's great to see Batfleck and Wonder Woman saving people together instead of fighting each other, Keaton back in the Batmobile (and Batwing!) and even the digital cameos during the film's climax are cool in theory--though spoiled by the awful, cartoony digital effects. Besides, great scenes don't make a great movie and the pieces never come together to form a satisfying whole. Too many of these comic book movies assume you've seen other installments and therefore don't tell a complete story. They don't develop our characters and they aren't really about anything. A movie has to be more than a collection of cool scenes: it has to tell a story with a beginning, a middle, and an end; what's more, it has to make us invest. The Flash barely manages. 

Look at some of the great DC superhero films: 1978's Superman, 1989's Batman, and even Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy: they're movies about characters. The action scenes are there to support the story, not to be the story. Somehow, that's been lost over the last 10 years or so, and that's my biggest complaint about Warner's modern DC films: they mistake spectacle for story. The Flash is a 2 hour and 24 minute movie that feels like 3 1/2 hours because it's one big digital action set piece after another with no reason for me to care. I already love most of these characters, but the filmmakers don't bring any of what I love into the film. Human moments--the moments that make us invest in superheroes in the first place--are few and far between, and when they do pop up, they're ruined by obnoxious dialogue and childish body-function humor. These characters have appealed to readers and viewers for many decades, but I no longer recognize them in these movies that bear almost no connection to their source material. The Flash could have been a fun tour of a comic book world that many of us love. Unfortunately, it's just another loud, dumb spectacle that reminds us of how cool things used to be. 


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