I’m not sure I’d call The Flash a mixed bag; that implies a fairly equal good-to-bad ratio, and The Flash is more bad than good by a wide margin. And what’s bad is abysmal, not only embracing many of the grating modern superhero movie tropes but hooking them up to rockets and shooting them into the stratosphere. But the good elements are sometimes great, things you’ve wanted to see for years and were convinced you never would. So, to extend a metaphor past the point of acceptability, it’s a mixed bag spilling over with garbage but retaining a few gems beneath the muck.
Barry Allen (Ezra Miller) wrestles with the knowledge that his innocent dad (Ron Livingston) will spend the rest of his life in prison for his mother’s murder. But when he discovers he has the ability to run so fast that he can travel through time, Barry goes to the past and saves his mom (Maribel Verdú). But this seemingly minor change creates a world in peril and no heroes to save it… well, almost none.
The biggest problems with The Flash begin in the opening scenes and don’t let up till around the midpoint. Front and center is Ezra Miller, who is still terrible in this role. He’s too silly and jokey, and none of the jokes are funny. What’s amazing is that this film has amplified his obnoxious personality from Justice League – or maybe it just feels that way because he’s in more of it. He’s awkward, but to a degree that feels like he’s doing it on purpose, like he wants to be weird and off-putting. Every social interaction is a mess in a way that no human being would ever behave. Think of Tobey Maguire’s Peter Parker, especially in the first Spider-Man; now, make him about fifty times worse and with no heart or anything resembling an honest personality, and that’s Ezra Miller’s Barry Allen.
This is worse when he changes the past and, suddenly, there are two of him. The Flash is like the Doublemint commercial from hell, with two Ezra Millers competing to see which can be more annoying. Watching these two bumble their way through a time travel story is enough to make you get up and leave, and part of that is because the movie relies so heavily on comedy. The complaints about how the MCU has devolved into a series of broad comedies that don’t know how to be funny is true of The Flash as well, and this one is led by a much lesser actor than those typically are. And the jokes are all on Barry, which is a disaster because it turns him into a buffoon, someone it’s impossible to take seriously. The Flash doesn’t work primarily because we can’t believe in the Flash as a hero.
The second half begins to change that, and you can probably guess why. That’s when Michael Keaton shows up, and he is everything you could have hoped for him to be. He slips into the character like he never stopped playing him, and the weathered face time has given Keaton works to his advantage. His arc is not only great for Batman, but it perfectly fits Keaton’s Batman, and it’s mostly done with a subtlety the rest of The Flash lacks. When he shows up, so does a more serious tone because Batman takes over the film for a decent chunk of time, and it’s spectacular. Miller’s Barries still suck, but Batman is center stage, and he rules this movie like he rules the night.
In fact, Batman takes over so much that this middle section feels like an entirely different movie from The Flash’s first hour. Sasha Calle’s Supergirl is good, much better than many feared, and she also has a decent character arc, albeit with much less screen time than Barry or Batman. But these scenes, despite the occasional silly nonsense from Barry, are a vast improvement, and for a while, it looks like The Flash may redeem itself. But it doesn’t; the final act feels meaningless because Zod is not so much a character in the movie as an obstacle for the heroes to face. There’s nothing to the big battle you’ve seen snippets of in the trailers; they may as well be fighting an avalanche. And while I won’t say what’s going on or who’s involved, the film’s resolution is unsatisfying and a real bummer note on which to leave the DCEU. (Although the DCEU was a bummer in general, so I guess it fits.)
The technical aspects of The Flash are similarly mixed. The special effects range from pretty good to some of the worst I’ve seen in the modern era. An early action sequence features a moment that should be tense, heart-stopping, and, ultimately, triumphant, but it’s undone not just by the desperate-for-a-laugh tone but by the terrible effects, which nullify any sense of danger and make the scene look like a bad Saturday Night Live sketch rather than a superhero rescue. They had years to work on this movie, and that was the best they could come up with for the hero-establishing scene? There is imagery that works, and The Flash occasionally looks beautiful, but the bad CGI sticks out even more in comparison. The score is excellent, however, with a good fantastical hook that incorporates themes from other superhero productions. (If you’re wondering, Danny Elfman’s classic Batman theme is on full display, and it’s exhilarating every time it pops up.)
That leaves the thing superhero movie audiences are growing to hate: the multiverse. The Flash is a multiverse story, and while the trope itself is getting tiresome, it also isn’t used particularly well this time. Outside of Batman, not much is made of it outside of a series of cameos and Easter eggs that have been rumored, confirmed, and discussed for a while. And they’re fine, but they don’t hit nearly as hard as they should. Part of that is because the movie isn’t very good, so it’s hard to care what happens, but part of it is also the odd way they’re executed. They feel like they’re being crossed off a checklist more than they’re here to excite and entertain; one of them doesn’t even make sense if you’ve seen the show it references. Like the rest of The Flash, they’re a letdown.
And The Flash is a major letdown, not necessarily because anyone expected it to be great or even good, but because it could have – and should have – been. A better script that took itself seriously, a better lead actor who could deliver lines with sincerity (and jokes with good timing), a villain worth a damn, and much better special effects could have made something of the concept – read “Flashpoint,” on which this was based, for proof of that. Batman and Supergirl are great, but this movie is called The Flash, and that’s not enough.