review: The Flash (2023)

When I decided to go see The Flash, I expected it to be a trainwreck. Between being in production superhell for years, the controversies surrounding its leading actor Ezra Miller, the state of the DC Extended Universe, and the clips I saw online, I figured that anything interesting or good about this movie would be buried under a gigantic mess. Rarely have my instincts been so wrong. While The Flash is a mess, it’s the kind of mess that you only see when creative people cram as many ideas as possible into a single movie while a gigantic studio breathes down their necks. In other words, it’s a wildly entertaining and even sometimes thought-provoking mess.

The film opens with a mid-20s Barry Allen, aka “The Flash” (played by Ezra Miller) who is crumbling under the stress of being a superhero, not having a social life, and trying to help his wrongfully imprisoned father. This status quo is disrupted when Barry runs extremely fast to vent his frustrations and accidentally time travels (if this is too stupid for you then back out now). This gives him the idea to undo his mother’s murder by time travelling again. While Barry succeeds in his mission, he also becomes stuck in an alternate timeline. This original Barry teams up with the Barry of the new timeline in order to fix his mistakes. This new Barry is a lot younger, has no superpowers, and his mother is still alive, and all of these cause tensions between the two Barrys. Since time travel and multiverses are involved, things start to spiral out of control.

The relationship between the two Barry Allens is the film’s most compelling element. The original Barry became the person he is due to the trauma of losing his mother and trying to get his father out of prison, and the younger Barry serves as a foil to the original. The original Barry does not want to tell the younger Barry why he travelled back in time in the first place, as he does not want the younger Barry to worry about losing his mother too. This dynamic, where the older Barry is simultaneously critical and protective of the younger Barry, shows the effect that pain has had on the original Barry’s life, and how erasing that pain would fundamentally change who he is. The way the two Barrys talk to each other reminds me of the of internal dialogues that I used to have with myself, so it was easy for me to get emotionally invested in both characters. Characters meeting alternate versions of themselves is hardly a new idea, particularly in the world of superheroes, but this film is one of the best executions that I have seen.

Ezra Miller’s performance as both Barrys merits praise. They play the two characters similarly enough to recognize them as the same person, but it never feels like watching someone talk to themselves (Yeah I know about the Ezra Miller stuff. Yeah, it’s really bad. Moving on.) The rest of the cast also does a great job, with Michael Keaton (reprising his role as Batman) being the other standout performer.

The film’s visual effects are rough. Some of the roughness is probably because the film has so many CGI-heavy set pieces and the VFX artists did the best they could, however questionable creative decisions are also likely to blame. Several sequences look more like a video game than a live-action film. I enjoyed some of the uncanny visual effects, but I could see it being an eyesore for some viewers. Some effects are indefensibly bad, like Barry poking his head into the past, but these are few and far between.

I recommend giving The Flash a watch, even if you don’t usually care much for superhero films. If you strip away all of the flashy comic book action and fanservice, you’re left with a touching story of someone learning who they really are and trying to let go of pain rather than trying to fix everything. However it’s still a superhero movie, so if you’re averse that, you probably won’t enjoy The Flash. That being said, I do think that it’s one of the best of its kind, so unless you really have reservations with watching superhero films, I would say that this is solidly worth your time.

Extra Thoughts: The Flash and Comic Book History

What elevates The Flash from good to great is that it’s not only a fun action movie but also one of the most interesting commentaries on comic books, superheroes, DC, and nerd culture. It embraces the highs and lows of superhero stories and DC’s own history. And it tells nerds to let go of the past, which is gutsy for a superhero movie. I’ll try to avoid spoilers, but I will make vague references to important plot points.

The structure of the film mirrors how much comic book stories have changed over time. Before Barry travels through time, the film is goofy and centers around Barry dealing with problems that are mundane by superhero standards: he saves people from a falling building and catches some crooks trying to escape by car. As the film progresses, the plot gets more and more convoluted, culminating in a climax featuring a bunch of multiverse shenanigans. This highlights the absurdity of comic book continuity. Modern comic book stories by DC (and Marvel) focus very heavily on existing within and building upon a complicated universe. As a result, a lot of modern comic book stories focus on changes in the history of their universe and how these changes affect certain characters. Yet, a lot of these stories choose to avoid or conceal the fact that these universes and characters often began as silly and light-hearted. By starting off with a silly tone and (relatively) low stakes action, The Flash properly sets the stage for an examination of DC history: if you want to start at the beginning, you must start with silliness.

During the multiverse shenanigans, a lot of references are made to older DC films, famous DC comic stories, and even a cancelled film. You would think that this level of fanservice would be extremely grating, but The Flash uses fanservice in an interesting way. During the film’s climax, Barry and the viewer get brief glimpses into a bunch of different universes, each one providing just enough material for hardcore fans to get excited over. After this brief sequence, the film reiterates that Barry needs to learn to let go of the past. This is a recommendation for the audience to do the same: stop focusing on hypotheticals and instead learn to live with what you have. By cleverly making use of fanservice, The Flash can indulge in the fun parts of fanservice and hypotheticals without revolving around them, so it gets to have its cake and eat it too.

If you read the plot summary and thought “oh this is just live-action Flashpoint huh”, it does a lot of things differently enough to not just be a straightforward adaptation. The two Barrys is a big change, plus Batman in this film is much more compelling than the Flashpoint version. The Flash also manages to drive home the message of letting go much better than the comic or its other adaptations.

The Flash condenses a lot of what that makes comic books fascinating into a single film. It’s refreshing for a live-action comic book film to be so engrossed with its own source material, especially since a lot of Marvel and DC films recently seem to have been distancing themselves more and more from it. The Flash might be another big studio superhero action movie, but it has so much going on that it manages to feel special nonetheless.

being barry allen is suffering

tl;dr: The Flash is one of the most charming and fun superhero movies I've seen in a while, and it's easily worth your time if you like this sort of thing, even though the visual effects are rough.

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