Director: Andy Muschietti
Writer: Christina Hodson
Cast: Ezra Miller, Sasha Calle, Michael Keaton, Michael Shannon, Kiersey Clemons
Somewhere in the multiverse, there's a dearth of multiverse movies. Unfortunately, in the timeline we're in, The Flash is the fifth multiversal adventure to hit theatres in the past two years, after Spider-Man: No Way Home (2021), Doctor Strange In The Multiverse of Madness (2022), Everything Everywhere All At Once (2022) and the recently released Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse (2023). By introducing characters to alternate versions of themselves, these movies offer their heroes a chance to fix what is by giving them a glimpse of what could be, to reconcile the dead-ends of their lives with the limitless paths they could've taken. At their best, they're moving and meaningful character studies in which protagonists who travel far enough in search of their mirrored versions, find their own tragedies and triumphs reflected. More often than not, however, these movies are the opportunity for cheap nostalgia bait, a parade of cameos that take audience affection and applause for granted. The good news is that The Flash packs a universe-spanning crossover tale with an emotional intimacy. The bad news is that the film itself can’t outrun the allure of the past, succumbing to the same vices it chides.
Picking up after the events of Zack Snyder’s Justice League (2021), the film finds Barry Allen (Ezra Miller) serving as the unofficial 'janitor' of the group, cleaning up their messes and being taken for granted. His father (Ron Livingston, taking over Billy Crudup's role), wrongfully imprisoned for the murder of his mother, has an appeal coming up and it doesn't look optimistic. Lost, alone and with nowhere to go, Barry does the only thing he can do – he runs. He runs so hard that he’s hurtled back in time and then decides to alter it just enough so that his mother survives.
Of course, small changes have major consequences and Barry not only finds himself now trapped in an alternate timeline with his younger self, but must also relive Kryptonian general Zod’s (Michael Shannon) invasion of Earth without Superman to help save the planet.
By sticking largely to one alternate universe and initially attempting to save just one person – his mother – The Flash avoids the inbuilt fatigue that has come to accompany 'end-of-the-world- superhero movie stakes, in which total annihilation has been threatened so many times, it now means nothing. It helps that this film has the shortest and most concise version of what a multiverse is, and instead of fixating on the mechanics of one for too long, it wrings tragedy from the ripple effect of a single unfortunate choice. A lone forgotten can of tomatoes at the grocery store ruins three lives – potent imagery that the film revisits with incrementally increasing heartbreak. Barry’s ability to turn back the clock is visualized through the ‘chronobowl’, an amphitheatre in which the seats are filled with evocative imagery from his past and future. And while the film revisits Zod’s invasion from yet another angle, after Man of Steel (2013) and Batman V Superman (2016), it finds fresh pathos to the event.
Despite appearances from other superheroes – among which are Michael Keaton’s Batman and Sasha Calle’s Supergirl – the film’s most enduring relationship is between Barry and his younger self (also played by Miller) from another timeline. Mentoring another version of himself enables Barry to give the younger him the kind of guidance he never had. The older Barry is surrounded by broken men defined by their tragedy – his father, Batman (both Keaton and Ben Affleck) – and the film plays to the optics of him being the only person he can lean on in a quest to avoid the same fate. The idea has emotional resonance in the Zack Snyder's Justice League (2021), in which Barry doesn’t hear his father’s voice in his head motivating him at a crucial juncture, but must instead give himself a pep talk if he is to succeed. In a film about the loneliness of superhero life, Barry’s rings especially acutely. He’s been running in place, ruminating over the past and facing what looks like a hopeless future.
Despite these moments of tragedy, The Flash gives itself permission to laugh, its sense of humour locating what’s been missing from DC's self-important, serious slate. The opening sequence, in which Barry must save babies from an exploding hospital ward, combines its ridiculously over-the-top premise (shot in slow-mo!) with images of dark humour. The two Barrys play off each other with a lightness that still doesn’t fully conceal the weight of their trauma, their awkwardness never verging on grating. Miller – whose many alleged crimes and misdemeanours added to the production’s list of woes – is able to skilfully delineate between the two Barrys, despite the overlap in their personalities.
Despite the dodgy CGI in places, a reliance on cameos – including a resurrection that’s particularly galling – and a generic ‘save the world’ battle that the film culminates in, The Flash zips by as quickly as its titular hero, a cautionary tale about looking too far behind instead of forging ahead. If any film is to reset the DCU under the leadership of James Gunn, it’s only fitting that it be one about learning to move on.