With ‘The Flash,’ the DCU Gets A Little Less Meta, and A Little More Human

First things first. The Flash doesn’t change the hierarchy of power. It’s not the best superhero movie of all time, or this year. Hell, it’s not even the best Multiverse-based superhero movie this year. But it’s good, really good, and course-corrects a lot of what DC films have been lacking in the past, and most importantly, it course-corrects a character who typifies where the now-dead DC Extended Universe went astray.

Ostensibly, the world between the frames of this film has been untouched by the chaos surrounding DC Films, its parent company Warner Brothers Discovery, the overall creative direction there, and the tumult surrounding the future of their superhero stars, including the star of this film. Quaintly, this film right out of the gates introduces us to a Flash who has undergone several upgrades at the hands of his “fancy friends” in the Justice League, one who can save hundreds of lives hundreds of miles away before his breakfast order is ready, but is still mired in a past that keeps him from living his best life. Within the text of the movie, it’s standard hero origin pathos stuff, but as subtext for the DC filmic enterprise as a whole, it reminds us that it’s important to reckon with the regrets of a past that might have been different and a road not traveled, before ultimately recognizing that not everything can be retconned, then moving forward.

And the key to unlocking this theme is in our “other” Barry Allen. It’s hard to navigate this without spoiling, but it is in this dual performance that star Ezra Miller really shines. They (as in the actor, Miller) give each Barry his own twisted freaky mirrored experience tinged with a mixture of jealousy and annoyance, as in the other, there’s some of what each wants, and some of what each wishes he’d be better without. And for people who have in the past been put off by Miller’s overly manic portrayal of the role, the movie is savvy and self-aware enough to lampshade those negative aspects and organically turn their dial down. Miller’s also doing the bulk of the emotional heavy lifting here, as they bridge that gap between the loving boy with two doting parents whose happiness was crushed by tragedy, and the young man who may be the fastest alive, but he’s nowhere close to the most invulnerable. Barry can be hurt, and it’s possible that Barry’s hurting all the time, but that’s the price of being a hero. And Miller conveys that.

But not to be undone, if it’s boyhood trauma as an impetus for heroism you want, this movie treats us to Bruce F’n Wayne, The Batman, times two, played by Ben Affleck and Michael Keaton, each a little bit too old for this shit, but in each case, damn right the old guy’s still got it. While this movie doesn’t establish the kinship of equals that makes their comics relationship so compelling — Bats is still very much the grizzled hero delivering sage wisdom to the up-and-comer — the mentorship feels more lived in and their mutual respect feels more earned. Even when the respect comes from a version of Bruce who has clearly had a long run.

Visually, the action is solid, but not groundbreaking, as we’ve seen superspeed sequences similarly rendered. (There’s even a nod or two to Quicksilver from the Fox X-Men films in there.) But it doesn’t get old seeing Bruce handle a room full of gun-toting baddies his way, and then seeing Supergirl (more on her later) handle those same baddies hers. The special effects get a little bit messy in the 3rd act, which (sadly) is to be expected nowadays with blockbusters, but it remains mostly visually coherent.

Sasha Calle‘s Kara Zor-El does a lot with a little, as she has to take us through an entire Kryptonian hero’s journey in the course of minutes. But overall, there’s a fierceness to her performance that’s balanced by the weight of what she’s experienced during her time on Earth, and what she has failed to do. She doesn’t get a ton of screen time, but what she gets makes it easy to root for her.

On the villain front, General Zod is competent and capable, but you can understand why Michael Shannon considered it unfulfilling compared to his role in Man of Steel. That film did the work of establishing his motivations and complexity. This one just wound him up and let him kill people while glowering and grimacing. But the point of the film isn’t really for The Flash & Friends to win the Battle of Metropolis — it’s for Barry to win the war within himself.

If you see only one superhero film this year, make it Across the Spider-Verse. Obviously. But on the DC side of things, this more than earns its praise while setting the stage for a bold new era of films under James Gunn and Peter Safran. It delivers heartfelt moments, humorous sequences, lively action, and says hi (and goodbye) to some old DC friends. Plus, it’s colorful and fun. If you choose to check it out (and it’s perfectly reasonable to choose not to), you’ll have a good time.

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