Barry Allen uses time travel to prevent his mother’s murder and radically alters the world in Andy Muschietti’s The Flash.
To say this film has had a troubled production history would be an understatement. The behind-the-scenes issues that continually delayed its release are well documented as well as some unfortunate press about its lead so I won’t be going into those here. This is a review about the film that appears on screen rather than its production history but it’s worth noting just how long it took to come to fruition. There is no better illustration of this than Ezra Miller being cast as Barry Allen the day that The Flash TV show premiered and that show having recently completed its 9 season run. A lot has happened in comic book adaptations in the intervening years and this film at times serves as a snapshot of popular bygone trends that were added to it throughout its drawn-out development.
The story centres around Barry Allen (Ezra Miller) feeling anxious on the eve of his father’s (Ron Livingston) appeal. It prompts him to think about the circumstances that led to his father being in prison and consider what could have gone differently to prevent it. Conveniently, as a superhero with super speed he is able to travel back in time and prevent his mother’s (Maribel Verdú) murder. The rest of the film deals with the consequences of that decision as the change has wide-reaching consequences that fundamentally alter the world he knew.
A lot of time is spent setting up the moral dilemma associated with changing the future for personal gain. A brief conversation with one of the film’s Bruce Waynes aka Batman (Ben Affleck) outlines the considerations that come with changing the past. Those familiar with time travel stories will find warnings about not knowing how even the smallest change will impact the wider world and philosophical musings about both good and bad experiences being part of who a person is. Such considerations typically come into play in time travel narratives because they encourage the audience to think about their own lives and things they may have wanted to do differently.
Barry takes the debate further when considering how minor he sees the change he wants to make. In his mind, it’s a very small change that matches the perceived insignificance of the thing that ended his mother’s life, sent his father to prison and resulted in him growing up without his parents. The consequence of his small change is returning to a world nothing like the one he’s familiar with.
The most obvious change is that his mother is alive and his father is a free man. His initial reaction to learning this is joyful because he achieved what he set out to do and meet a younger version of himself without all the baggage associated with what he has experienced so he gets a very clear example of having achieved what he set out to do. It even seems that things are otherwise playing out as he remembers them the accident that resulted in him getting his powers is imminent and plays out exactly as he remembers it.
Ezra Miller has a difficult task when taking on the role of Barry Allen as they have to play two versions of the character. One is the present-day Barry shaped by his life experiences and the other is an alternate 18-year-old version of him unburdened by loss and trauma. The core dynamic is the two Barry’s bouncing off one another which means that Miller is in the unenviable position of acting against themself for a lot of the films running time. They accomplish this brilliantly with no hint of awkwardness on either side of the interaction. It’d be easy to forget that the same actor is in both roles because of how natural it comes across.
It’s a strong dynamic built on the older Barry effectively having to babysit his younger self who bumbles through life with very little in the way of common sense. There are hints of the older Barry having a mirror held up to himself and not entirely liking what he sees but the film doesn’t fully commit to the idea. Their dynamic is more like a savvy older brother guiding a bumbling younger brother who constantly embarrasses him. There was more that could have been done with it but what is delivered undeniably works.
A major difference between the two timelines is Bruce Wayne. Ben Affleck is replaced by Michael Keaton which includes all of the iconography associated with his iteration of the character. His purpose in the plot is to be the source of whatever resources the Barrys need to achieve their next objective. When they need to go to Russia he has the plane that will get them there, when Barry needs to conduct a life-threatening experiment to get his powers back Bruce has everything needed to facilitate this and so on. He also once again dons the cape and cowl to bring his pseudo-retro Batman aesthetic to proceedings which is intermittently fun, especially when drawing attention to how adaptations of the character have changed since his day.
Michael Keaton is engaging enough in the role but he’s largely playing the hits that were better executed back when they were fresh. Iconic lines are regurgitated and there’s a distinct lack of overall progression to the character beyond the fact that CGI can make him move in ways that cross the border into ludicrous. Despite that, Keaton’s charisma shines through and he has a heartfelt moment or two that land as intended.
Another new face is Kara Zor’El (Sasha Calle). She ends up on Earth instead of her cousin and takes on the mantle of Supergirl. She is a strong addition to the film thanks to Sasha Calle’s instantly impactful presence. Kara has a brief arc that the film races through before sidelining her for the emotional climax. It’s unfortunate that she doesn’t have more to do as there was a lot of potential that was unfortunately not taken full advantage of. More than anything else, her usage suggests a lot being cut or retooled to fit the final version of the film.
Michael Shannon’s Zod makes his return playing out an altered version of the events of Man of Steel. The character is a means to an end and Michael Shannon treats it as such in his performance. Zod and his forces exist to set up an action sequence with a bland backdrop and little else. All nuance to the character is drained away which means that his connection to Kara isn’t exploited anywhere near as well as it could have been. Man of Steel certainly has its detractors but there’s no denying that effort was put into characterising Zod and creating an engaging connection between him and Clark. Granted this isn’t Kara or Zod’s film but perhaps simpler fodder for an action sequence could have been introduced rather than piggybacking on something that had weight to it and removing it almost completely.
The action sequence itself is interesting and creative. It makes great use of the two Barrys dynamic with the older one acting as a mentor training his younger self on how to use his speed to fight the Kryptonians. It shows how far he has come since gaining his powers and the mastery he has achieved over them while also naturally explaining the mechanics of how his speed works. The backdrop may be the standard bland remote location that blockbusters -particularly superhero ones- have come to favour but the visualisation of the speed is excellent. A lot of care and effort went into giving those visuals a distinct look and the film generally makes great use of the potential that having super speed allows visually. It may not always look real but it’s usually imaginative which makes the unreality seem like an artistic choice rather than sloppily rendered. There are a lot of visual elements that look nowhere near convincing that can’t be justified by this reasoning but the artistry in places is definitely to be celebrated.
Another thing that stands out about The Flash is that its climax is an emotional one that completely breaks away from the action in order to give it the heft it deserves. It’s wonderfully acted and very moving in ways that are wholly earned by the story being told. Marketing hints at the possibility of Barry being lost in his own film and overcome by multiple Batmen as well as multiversal cameos but his emotional thread is never lost as the narrative progresses and the cameos are relegated to a single sequence that has no bearing on the film as a whole. This is Barry’s story and the film never forgets that.
A fun and visually creative experience with a strong leading performance that makes great use of the potential that a hero with super speed brings.
- taking time to properly set up the moral dilemma Barry wrestles with later on
- Ezra Miller’s effortless dual performance
- Sasha Calle’s Supergirl
- creative set pieces that make excellent use of super speed
- Michael Keaton’s charisma shining through
- an emotional climax rather than an action one
- very unconvincing visuals in places
- draining away most of the nuance associated with Zod
- untapped potential with Supergirl
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