By now, we’ve established that the standalone DCEU films are middling at best, and all-out sucky at worst. Their world-building also can’t be trusted, as Zack Snyder raced through the Justice League setup like George Costanza with a Glamour magazine. So, The Flash eschews all that, in favor of a chambong filled with fizzy, headache-inducing nostalgia. Hell, it even takes the unprecedented step of dredging up the worst moments in the franchise’s long, spotty cinematic history. (Remember Joel Schumacher’s bat-nipples? What about Nic Cage’s Superman screen test? Yay!) A few of these moments are good for a real chuckle, while others feel like unabashed fan service. Either way, Flash runs too long for a movie that never quite earns its emotional payoffs.
This high-speed hootenanny kicks off sometime after Snyder’s four-hour Justice League laxative, assuming you haven’t deleted that experience from your brain. Barry Allen has settled into the JLA, even if he often feels like junior varsity material compared to Bats (Ben Affleck), Supes (Henry Cavill), and Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot). Often, those heavy hitters get to fight the main baddies and strike cool poses, while Barry’s Flash gets stuck with the grunt work.
What’s worse, his personal life is also a source of frustration. Barry’s father (Ron Livingston) languishes in prison, wrongfully convicted of murdering Barry’s mother (Maribel Verdú). In a moment of exasperation, the Flash takes off in a sprint, eclipsing the speed of light and accidentally traveling back in time. This presents the alluring temptation to go back and alter history, so he can get his parents back. Bruce warns him of fiddling with the temporal fabric of the universe, but Barry is determined. He races back to his childhood, with he aim of preventing his mother’s killing.
Of course, the gods punish Barry by answering his prayers. His mother may live, but the consequences are dire. Much like Peter Parker in No Way Home, Barry finds his world plunged into chaos. He also gets marooned in an alternate timeline, where his past self is now a spoiled college kid. Many of his Justice League buddies are no longer present, and the few allies he has look very different. For example, Bruce Wayne (Michael Keaton) is now an older, shambling hermit. Kal-El has been replaced by his younger cousin Kara (Sasha Calle).
These few superheroes must contend with the arrival of General Zod (Michael Shannon), a Kryptonian madman bent on terraforming Earth. Meanwhile, Barry makes a desperate attempt to restore history while also saving his mother. And he has to prevent other realities from crashing into his own and destroying life as we know it.
In other words, this is a busy movie. Even at 144 minutes, The Flash feels longer and more crammed than it is. That’s mainly because the filmmakers carve out time for winky nods to Keaton’s Bat-verse, Schumacher’s toyetic schlock, and even Christopher Reeve’s indelible take on Superman. It’s a bumpy, overlong trip down memory lane, potholes and all. If you’re feening for such geeky deep tracks, you can probably smack another star on this review. Otherwise, your eyes will spend some time rolling skyward.
On the subject of snobby annoyance, let’s talk about this film’s final act. The Flash commits the same sin as so many other comic book tentpoles that it’s fast becoming a trope: Namely, the climactic CGI battle orgy. Or, thousands of computerized beings slamming into each other during a sweeping, incongruous action scene. (And I’m not just whacking DC on the knuckles. Marvel is equally guilty.) Everything feels shiny, weightless, and without stakes. That’s especially true of Barry’s trip into the multi-verse, which resembles a very expensive foray into Microsoft Paint. A film with a nine-figure budget should really do better.
Despite such faults, Flash gets a few things right. Miller has finally settled into the role of Barry Allen, and he anchors the film with the casual confidence and charisma of a star. (It’s a shame his real-life controversies will probably end his involvement with the franchise.) With that said, half of this movie’s theater seats will be filled with people desperate to see Keaton in bat-garb once again—me being one of them. And, of course, he nails it. In fact, Keaton slips into this sculpted rubber suit so well, there are a few moments you’ll swear it was 1992 and Clear Pepsi is still a thing. The minute Tim Burton’s Bruce Wayne steps into the movie, everything kicks up a notch.
While Keaton’s Batsy serves as an integral part to the story, many other icons get relegated to mere cameos. And there are lots and lots of those. I won’t spoil any surprise guests, but simply say that some of these walk-ons are cute, and many are not. As with Lebron’s wrongheaded Space Jam retread, Warner Bros. seems desperate nudge as many properties as they can onscreen, like a chain-smoking pageant mom. In these moments, The Flash is working a little too hard to make everything look fun, and it bogs the entire story down.
At this point, let me borrow a golf metaphor: All that hard work amounts to an even par. DC has certainly shoveled more money into worse movies. But they’ve also made better ones in recent memory…at least, I think. Maybe? Either way, The Flash has moments of genuine entertainment, but these are spread across the length of a difficult marathon.
142 min. PG-13. In theaters.