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The Flash

(2023) *** Pg-13
144 min. Warner Bros. Cast: Ezra Miller, Ron Livingston, Sasha Calle, Michael Keaton, Ben Affleck, Michael Shannon.

/content/films/5281/1.jpg[Spoiler-free review:] Barry Allen is a man with a certain set of skills. In the bravura sequence that kicks off The Flash, the filmmakers wisely establish why Barry's metahuman superhero alter ego is finally the star of his own movie, even a movie that also features the seemingly unstoppable Batman and the Kryptonian powerhouse Supergirl. In almost the same breath that Barry wonders aloud why Batman can't take care of his own "Bat-mess," fate hands him an answer in a nail-biting and funny action extravanganza that's its own mini-Flash adventure, perfectly demonstrating his unique capabilities as a hero—and a personality suffused with ingenuity, humor, and heart.

Although Andy Muschietti's film moves with alacrity, it must proceed through its own multiverse-of-madness minefield, in keeping with the hot superhero trend. On a therapeutic "run it out," Barry (the, it must be said, enormously troubled but enormously talented Ezra Miller) discovers that his super-speed, pushed to its limits, allows him to penetrate the fabric of the universe. Within the plot, this spells an irresistible opportunity for Barry to erase the pain he carries with him by preventing the murder of his mother (Maribel Verdú), which led to the wrongful arrest of his father (Ron Livingston). Flash fans will recognize this storyline as one of the most important canonical Flash texts: "Flashpoint," adapted into a screenplay credited to Christina Hodson, from a story by John Francis Daley & Jonathan Goldstein, and Joby Harold—but rumored to have gone through as many as 45 screenwriters, including star Miller. 

As Barry attempts to clean up the flashpoint of his life, he immediately creates his own mess, turning the film into a variation on the Back to the Future films: in an alternate universe, Barry meets the version of his eighteen-year-old self that would naturally evolve had the flashpoint never occured (the plotline intriguingly plays with Barry's identity as a Frankensteinian scientist who should know better but finds himself blinded by emotion). Now super-powered by two Miller performances so seamlessly integrated and so precise in their comic timing as to make one often forget the filmmaking and acting wizardry involved (for this alone, the film must be considered a front "runner" for the Best Visual Effects Oscar), The Flash becomes a unique buddy comedy exploring the nature—or, rather, the nurture, of identity. Barry's younger self sports unconscious privilege but also a puppyish free spirit that's dimmed in the traumatized and anxious older Barry. As such, the story explores the old chestnut—through both Barry and that legendary orphan Bruce Wayne—that our pain makes us who we are.

After exiting the "Snyderverse" (for which this film represents pretty close to a last gasp) and saying so long to Ben Affleck's Batman, The Flash reintroduces us to Michael Keaton's lion-in-winter Batman and, eventually, introduces us to Supergirl (played poker-faced, to little effect, by newcomer Sasha Calle). Keaton remains a prodigiously intelligent and wry screen presence, and his Batman-return adds to the picture's big-time fun, but nearly every time he goes into action, Muschietti throws down Danny Elfman's Batman theme from Keaton's late-'80s double feature for director Tim Burton, counterintutively squelching what's supposed to be a thrill by reminding us of those films' completely different tone. It's here that The Flash develops a wobbly wheel, making the ride considerably less smooth. Once Supergirl and General Zod (Michael Shannon) figure into the story, it's clear that the film feels as obligated to giant superhero-movie stakes and multiverse fan-service as to the story's emotional core.

For all its flaws, The Flash proves strong on character where it counts as it serves up its MCU-style comedy, tragedy, and wow-factor visuals. Though the humor will grow wearing for many (depending on one's tolerance of Miller's quippy silliness), the film's resolution neatly and poignantly pays off its "Flashpoint" adaptation, suggesting what fate remains in our hands (that which is yet to be written) versus the lesson offered to child-size Barry over his math homework: "Not every problem has a solution." Warner has done the film no favors with overhype (no, this isn't the greatest superhero every made) or by releasing it so swiftly on the heels of top-tier superhero movie Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse. The multiverse special effects also plunge us into the ol' uncanny valley, with digital doubles that at times imply the film underwent "digital reshoots" as well as the traditional ones. In the final equation, the Scarlet Speedster gives us a largely enjoyable run for our summer-movie money.

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