It’s been roughly a decade since audiences first heard that a big-screen version of The Flash would be part of Warner Bros.’ DC Extended Universe, long enough that the saga of the film’s development became one of the more fascinating aspects of the DC movie story so far. Now the film is finally here and it couldn’t have arrived at a stranger time, thanks to the impending overhaul of the DCEU, and the offscreen struggles and controversies of Flash star Ezra Miller. It’s enough to make the film itself feel like a punctuation mark at the end of a very long, convoluted sentence.
But, of course, the right movie can make you forget all that, and early buzz for The Flash hailed it as a rollicking sprint through DC’s version of the multiverse that bridges the old era of the DCEU and its incoming new age of heroes. So did comic book fans finally get the Fastest Man Alive film they’ve been waiting for? Like everything else surrounding this film, the answer isn’t simple. For all its focus on fun and adventure, and its ability to sweep us away in a lightning storm of spectacle, The Flash ultimately runs too hard to achieve any real sense of narrative grace, and the result is a film that feels overstuffed, uneven, and a little frustrating.
Miller plays Barry Allen, reprising the role they’ve played in Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice, Suicide Squad, and Justice League. Barry’s finally gotten past his awkward phase in terms of his involvement with the Justice League, which is now an established crimefighting team scattered across the world, taking on missions as they come. For his part, Barry sticks pretty close to Batman (Ben Affleck), helping out on crimefighting jobs when he can spare the time away from his actual job as a researcher at Central City’s crime lab.
Of course, Barry’s real passion is finding evidence that will get his father (Ron Livingston) out of jail for the murder (which he didn’t commit, of course) of Barry’s mother (Maribel Verdú) years earlier. Frustrated by the limitations of the legal system, Barry discovers a way around the conventional means of saving his dad: Running fast enough that he can actually roll back time and change the circumstances leading to his mother’s murder so it never happens.
Of course, as anyone who’s seen any time travel movie knows, this action has consequences and, upon attempting to return to his present, Barry finds himself in an alternate reality where a slightly younger version of himself (also played by Miller) doesn’t have powers yet. While Barry tries to get his bearings, disaster strikes with the arrival of General Zod (Michael Shannon), the Kryptonian war criminal hellbent on wiping out humanity and repopulating Earth with his own kind. So Barry has no choice but to team up with an aging Batman (Michael Keaton, donning the cowl for the first time since 1992’s Batman Returns) and a young Kryptonian named Kara Zor-El, aka Supergirl (Sasha Calle), to save this reality and find a way to set things right with his original timeline.
Screenwriter Christina Hodson, who impressed with DC titles like Birds Of Prey and the Transformers spinoff Bumblebee, handled what would become the final version of The Flash script, and she had her work cut out for her. It’s not just that the film has to establish the stakes for the original version of Barry and send him off on his new quest. It also has to establish the threats, fears, and conflicts of an entirely different world, populate that world with characters, create a memorable final battle built on the ingredients of a previous DC installment (in this case, Man Of Steel), wrap it all up, then get back to the original emotional stakes of Barry and his long-lost mother. It’s a lot for any screenwriter to handle, and Hodson manages to pack enough wit and fun into the proceedings, even if the final product ends up feeling like three or four movies jockeying for position in the same 140-minute runtime, rather than one cohesive thing.
At least the cast is having fun with this wild mix of elements, timelines, and tones, starting with Miller, who gamely handles the dual roles of the older, more experienced Barry and the younger, more immature Barry with enough charisma to keep the film going even when the only person they have to share the screen with is themself. It will be understandably difficult for some viewers to watch this film without being reminded of Miller’s alleged misdeeds, and Warners’ handling of them, but for what it’s worth, the film does carry with it a palpable sense of fun that works particularly well when The Two Barrys are doing their Odd Couple schtick.
For a lot of movie fans, though, Miller was never why they planned to show up for this film. That honor goes to Keaton, who’s undeniably good in his return as Bruce Wayne, even if he does have to shoehorn a couple of his famous lines from 1989 into this film. There’s an ease and a grace that comes from his presence which makes the film better even when it’s clumsy, and you’ll be reminded why you love him as an actor and as a big-screen Batman. Throw in Calle as the rough-edged, uncertain hero trying to find her way, and you’ve got a solid ensemble, along with enough cameos to leave your head spinning.
The real star of The Flash, though, is director Andy Muschietti (2017’s It), whose set pieces, while sometimes over-reliant on glaring CGI, move with inventiveness, beginning with a witty opening sequence and continuing through the climax. His steady presence—embracing the brightness of The Flash when he’s moving and the fun to be had in this wild world of superheroes and speed— makes you wish we’d gotten one of these movies sooner. The Flash is, put simply, a lot, and Muschietti deserves some kind of award for bringing us something coherent and even, at times, joyful.
Whether or not this was all worth the long development saga and the troubles with its star will, of course, be for individual fans to decide, but there is undeniable entertainment value in The Flash. It’s sometimes buried under layers and layers of storytelling knots that the film never fully untangles, but the fun is there, and when the film is really working, that turns out to be enough.
The Flash opens in theaters on June 16