Pretty much everything worth talking about in The Flash – directed by Andy Muschietti, scripted by Christina Hodson and Joby Harold – constitutes a spoiler, so I honestly suggest you don’t read this until you’ve seen the film. Part of the pressure is off because – unlike Spider-Man: No Way Home – The Flash spoilered itself with trailers and ad-pub well before release. Even big reveals like the inhabitant of Wayne Manor turning out to be Michael Keaton rather than Ben Affleck or the Kryptonian stranded on Earth being Kara Zor-El (Sasha Calle) rather than Henry Cavill El are part of the selling stratagem of the movie rather than the good-grief-they-got-him-again reveals of Andrew Garfield and Tobey Maguire as overwritten heroes in NWH. Indeed, this has a clutch of unexpected (and expected) returnees in cameo – but does ill-advised Peter Cushing-in-Rogue-One trickery to bring back folk who probably would have been gettable as well as those who have passed on or aged out of their skinsuits. It’s a test case for a certain type of CG resurrection or yoking in of an unmade movie from an alternate universe. Have living actors been paid for their likenesses? Would manipulated footage from older movies have worked better for glimpses of [redacted] with cousin [redacted] or long-haired [redacted] as a hero whose film didn’t get made?
It may be a generational or personal issue, but I’m hardwired to go misty-eyed at a snatch of ‘look – up in the sky …’ or ‘purr-fect’ or Danny Elfman’s Batman theme but am stony-faced and bored by about three-quarters of an hour of homage to/revision of Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel. Though, if the Kryptonian ship’s doors opened and Terence Stamp instead of Michael Shannon were there, commanding ‘kneel before Zod’ rather than ‘bring me the Kryptonian traitor’ I’d have been in bits. An achievement of No Way Home is revisiting the least-liked Spider-film, The Amazing Spider-Man 2, and making it the emotional core of a new movie – Garfield’s Peter Parker needs redemption not just because Gwen died but because the film was derided … which is why ‘no, you’re amazing’ is so emotional a beat. The Flash can’t do that with the pompous aridity of the Snyder films. I was more charmed by minor call-backs to two of DC’s most-despised flops with cameos for CG [redacted] and live-action [redacted]. Muschietti, of the It films and Mama, stages several impressive comic-book-style set-pieces – the ‘baby shower’ is the funniest – but too often the film defaults to computer-generated folk leaping, flying, hitting and zapping each other. A message that still hasn’t got through is how many of these movies would be improved by much less of that stuff (the same goes for some classic comics) and more of the character material (Craig Mazin and James Gunn’s The Specials, a superhero movie with no fights at all, is surprisingly satisfying).
It’s also an issue that so much of the material has been pre-empted. A near-decade-run of The Flash on TV did a Crisis on Infinite Earths (Ezra Miller even guested on that), for something theoretically infinite the multiverse has been overly explored (besides the big ticket superhero and Oscar movies and the much-referenced here Back to the Future series, there were The Lathe of Heaven, Tomorrow I’ll Wake Up and Scald Myself With Tea, Gentlemen I Have Killed Einstein, Sliding Doors, Yesterday, etc), and no matter how hard the Snyder-derived DC films strain for effects the Flash superspeed sequences never match the Quicksilver set-pieces of Fox’s X-Men films (which rewrote their timeline several times). Plus the baggage of building a big summer blockbuster around ‘troubled’ Ezra Miller – who gives two complex, interesting performances as different Barry Allen Flashes. A couple of freebie Flashes are tossed in – including an amalgam of Professor Zoom and Doomsday they somehow miss calling Zoomsday. Maybe when Warners and Marvel get tired of multiverses, they’ll remember comics’ Amalgamverse and we’ll get a Dr Strangefate or Super-Soldier film?
The plot hook – which was done with more sardonic black humour in Teen Titans Go! To the Movies – is that Barry runs fast enough to travel back in time and interfere in his tragic origin story. Wait – the Flash has a tragic origin story? Didn’t he just get doused by chemicals and struck with lightning? Missed joke opportunity – Keaton reminiscing about who happened the last time he doused someone with chemicals. In the last few comics retcons, and the TV series, Barry Allen’s Mom was killed and his Dad unjustly convicted of the crime – which is why he’s become a forensics tech (it used to be because that was a cool job, but forget your silver age simpleminded straightforwardness) and later a hero. So, this film will be all about who did kill Nora (Maribel Verdu – wholly wonderful) and framed Henry (Ron Livingston, replacing Billy Crudup from Justice League)? Nope, you’ll have to read a comic to find that out. Instead, Barry puts an extra can of tomatoes in a shopping cart and alters the timeline creating a world where his ten-years-younger student self is happier and less responsible but still neurodivergent (it’s admirable that Barry’s OCD and ADD aren’t the result of his trauma but just who he is). Only this Earth – like the one in TTGTtM – has no metahuman heroes so it’s bad news when General Zod shows up with world-destroying tech and only Superman can stop him … though this fumbles that, as if several drafts were stapled together, and rather than Kal-El the strange visitor is Kara, imprisoned in a Russian superscience facility (you know, like the one where Winter Soldier was brainwashed). In the alternate timeline, Eric Stoltz starred in the Back to the Future movies, which is another deepcut but kind of funny.
Calle is second-billed as a pixie-cut Supergirl in a Superwoman outfit modelled on the New 52 Superman look – which seems more orthopedic than flattering. She’s fine, but this isn’t her movie and she gets short shrift. Keaton’s Batman Beyond version of Bruce Wayne has more to do – and it’s a satisfying callback to Tim Burton’s Bat-movies – but the whole plot whips up an elseworld with Barry 2.0, Keaton-Bat and Calle-Kara only to devote a wedge of the not inconsiderable running time to a battle with no outcome. The cry of the overwritten character at the second act curtain of J.M. Barrie’s Dear Brutus (‘I don’t want to be a might-have-been!’) – which is where a whole lot of this thinking comes from – is much more affecting than the big muddle which restores or further perverts the timeline here.
For what it’s worth, Earth-89 – the Keaton Bat-verse world – was previously wiped out in the CW’s Crisis crossover event, which also did for Adam West’s universe (‘holy red skies of death’) and a bunch of other DC iterations too under-the-radar to count here. The DCEU still has Aquaman 2 to come, with a Keaton-featuring Batgirl in limbo and maybe other shards of its unreality due to be reclaimed by whatever James Gunn comes up with. It’s quietly hilarious that shifting the tomatoes yet again does what Shannon-Zod, Steppenwolf, Starro, Mr Mind, Ares and Black Adam failed to do … wipe out Zack Snyder’s DC canon the way X-Men Days of Future Past overwrote Bret Ratner’s X-movie. Given how passionate the yays and nays are on this issue, it’s a wry, mind-warping joke that what immediately replaces the Snyder as canon in The Flash is built on probably the most despised DC film property to date. Goodbye Snyder-Verse, welcome back [redacted]-verse. With Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse also out now – featuring, perhaps cannily, takes on Spider-Man which haven’t previously appeared in movies so it’s all new rather than fan-service – The Flash suffers from a typical Barry Allen problem – so busy and energetic and super-fast that it still manages to be late for work.
But I’m not going to lie, when George Reeves showed up in black and white and I wept.