There’s a scene in The Flash where a character is resurrected over and over, each return a little more hollow than the last. It’s a lost cause. Barry Allen (Ezra Miller) knows it. The audience knows it. And yet, this shambling corpse that wears the face of a character we once loved continues to live despite the pain of knowing we can never go back to how it was.
That’s the gist of Andy Muschietti’s The Flash, a jumbled culmination of Hollywood’s obsession with IP and nostalgia masquerading as an earnest time-skipping adventure. There’s a good movie buried somewhere in there, and maybe if The Flash wasn’t propped up as a multiverse-spanning crossover event, that movie could’ve shined through. Instead, it limps over the finish line, a splashy but inconsequential end to Zack Snyder’s DC Extended Universe (barring the upcoming Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom).
The Flash picks up some years after the events of Justice League. The League is now a well-oiled machine, but Barry Allen is mostly left clean up their messes. He even dubs himself “The Justice League’s janitor.” Even his greatest successes — like a bizarre opening scene where The Flash saves an entire hospital wing full of babies — barely earn him any appreciation. Throw in the pressures of his day job as a forensic investigator and dwindling personal funds, and Barry is feeling hopeless. And then there’s the upcoming appeal for his father Henry Allen (Ron Livingston, taking over for Billy Crudup), convicted for the murder of Barry’s mom. The evidence Barry and Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck, at his growly best) unearthed isn’t enough.
In the throes of depression, Barry does what he always does: he runs. But this time he runs so fast he goes back in time. Realizing he now has the power to save his mom, Barry goes back to his childhood, altering events to save her life. But on his trip back to the present, Barry instead gets stuck in the recent past. Worse, he’s created an alternate timeline where he never got powers, Superman never landed on Earth, and Bruce Wayne looks like Michael Keaton. Now, with General Zod (Michael Shannon, reluctantly hamming it up once again) still threatening to destroy the Earth, Barry must figure out how to stop the alien invader — and the answer may lie in a mysterious captive Kryptonian.
The Flash zips through its jam-packed plot with admirable energy and never loses steam — until it comes to a screeching halt in the climactic final battle. This is largely thanks to Birds of Prey scribe Christina Hodson, who manages to craft an emotionally honest origin story while folding in all the required time-hopping plot twists, cameos, and multiversal shenanigans.
The Flash is based on the DC Comics arc Flashpoint, which used its timeline-altering storyline to reset comic book canon. The movie was supposed to do the same for the now-scrapped DCEU. That Barry Allen’s first solo outing was also a crossover-turned-reset feels like a waste of the biggest scene-stealer in Batman v. Superman and Justice League, and The Flash tackles that imbalance with a vengeance, delivering a surprisingly decent Barry Allen story that interweaves a heart-wrenching narrative about grief with Back to the Future-style misadventures.
Despite all the narrative (and visual) noise of the movie, The Flash expertly communicates how lonely Barry Allen is. He craves friendship and, more than anything, yearns for the simple happiness of his childhood when his mother and father lovingly made pasta together. It’s what drives him to try to save his mother and try to maintain this new timeline, at any cost. Ironically, The Flash can’t see that its many Easter eggs and cameos are doing the exact same thing — flooding us with nostalgia for simpler times, without any consideration for how hollow those joys are.
The Flash attempts to coast through a thinly-constructed premise (one that relies heavily on the events of 2013’s Man of Steel) by delivering hit after hit of nostalgia in a way that’s so blatantly transparent it’s almost insulting — even if there’s no denying the surge of endorphins that come with Keaton’s return as Batman, complete with his classic theme from Danny Elfman. Keaton certainly brings the charm, slipping back into the role effortlessly and providing a grounding foil to Miller’s frantic dual performances. But when Keaton delivers his old line from the ‘89 Batman with a dead-eyed stare and a voice that certainly doesn’t sound like he wants to get nuts, you can’t help but feel scammed by your own nostalgia.
It’s certainly not aided by director Andy Muschietti’s bizarre mishmash of tones, whiplashing between goofy and glib, to heartbreakingly sincere. (It’s the same tonal weirdness that Muschietti showed off in the misfire that was It Chapter Two.) The confusion is compounded by the most baffling element of The Flash: its terrible VFX. An alarming number of characters look like they just stepped off The Polar Express, while whole scenes appear to be composed for a 2001 video game cutscene.
Of course, we can’t talk about The Flash without addressing the troubling allegations around its star. Over the past three years, Ezra Miller has been the center of multiple allegations of harassment and assault. Their legal issues and various charges have been largely swept under the rug, in stark contrast to other actors of color with lesser scandals. Does this make The Flash harder to watch? In many ways, yes. But, surprisingly, Miller is one of the best parts of The Flash. Barry is the unequivocal emotional anchor of the movie, bringing home its central narrative about grief. And yet, despite how successful Barry’s arc is, it’s tainted by the hypocrisy of the star’s real-life actions.
All of this culminates in a fun movie that’s ultimately so lightweight it feels weightless. Moments of sincere emotion can’t offset the jumble of multiversal cameos and canon-resetting bloat. It’s been a long wait and a troubled road for The Flash. It wasn’t worth it.