For a movie about a guy who can move incomprehensibly fast, The Flash sure did arrive late. Originally planned for a 2016 release, according to a 2013 DC movie plan that ultimately proved too ambitious, The Flash arrives a full decade later from a chastened DC that’s getting ready to restart its cinematic universe with James Gunn in charge. In 2023, The Flash now serves as one of the final films in the Snyderverse, a eulogy for the Zack Snyder era of DC — but also, surprisingly, for all DC’s page-to-screen adaptations. The result is messy and strange: It’s a bright, breezy film that is overwhelmed by corporate hagiography, a pat on the back for a bunch of movies that never really worked out.
Given all this, the worst thing a movie called The Flash could do is feel slow. To its credit, the movie’s two-and-a-half-hour run time moves at an impressive clip. This is even more astonishing given that it has one of the most convoluted plots in a recent stretch of superhero films that are absolutely lousy with multiversal exposition. While it lacks the clarity or resonance of, say, Spider-Man: Across the Spider-VerseChristina Hodson’s script keeps the story squarely focused on its protagonist’s emotional journey and treats the finer points of its metaphysical world-building as flavor, an excuse to do some extremely comic book stuff.
The opening briefly reestablishes Barry Allen (Ezra Miller) as a part-time Justice League member and full-time forensics lab analyst on a personal journey to clear the name of his father, Henry (Ron Livingston), who’s been convicted of murdering Barry’s mother , Nora (Maribel Verdu). The plot kicks into gear when Barry learns that the last big potential break in his dad’s case will not exonerate him. In a moment of anguish, Barry discovers that if he runs fast enough, he can surpass the speed of light and travel through time, observing history in a ring of space-time he calls “the chronobowl.” Ignoring a warning from Bruce Wayne/Batman (Ben Affleck) about the perils of altering history, Barry decides to time travel to prevent his mother’s murder and his father’s imprisonment.
In spite of this angst-fueled premise, director Andy Muschietti (It and It: Chapter Two) smartly infuses the film with a Looney Tunes sensibility, reintroducing Barry with one of the goofiest opening sequences in a superhero film to date, and using the time-travel premise to make The Flash a comedy buddy, pairing Barry with a younger, more obnoxious version of himself from the past.
Most of the film takes place in a new timeline Barry creates, where the decision to save his mother ripples outward to create a version of the DC movie universe with no metahumans, on the brink of its foundational disaster: General Zod (Michael Shannon) arriving as he did in 2013’s man of steel, but this time, with no one to stop him. Barry is forced to recreate his superhero origin with his younger self, and to team up with the only known superhero in this timeline: Batman, but the one played by Michael Keaton in Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman and its sequel.
This is where The Flash stops being a movie and instead becomes several other things, some of them outright cynical. There is the blatant nostalgia play in making Keaton’s Bruce Wayne/Batman the film’s biggest supporting character — a role Keaton, to his credit, does not phone in. Yet The Flash doesn’t stop there. Like Barry, the filmmakers run too far, too fast, and too wild, until their film nearly spirals out of their control in a confused tangle of meta-commentary and eulogy, contemplating the history of DC movie adaptations as well as the Snyderverse that began it, and that’s coming to a close shortly. (There’s still a second Aquaman movie and Blue Beetle on the way before Gunn’s universe, labeled the DCU, kicks off.)
In pivoting from time-travel caper into multiversal doomsday epic, Muschietti treats Barry’s emotional arc of acceptance less as the heart of The Flash, and more like its bookends, an experience Barry grows from in the hopes that the audience will also find it worthwhile. But so much of the substance of The Flash isn’t for Barry. It’s for the DC stalwarts who’ll get all the meta nods and in-jokes. The movie is a chronicle of corporate synergy, mashing together the old and new in an attempt to lure DC fans from across generations, with the assumption that meaning will emerge from mere recognition.
What’s so peculiar about The Flash‘s version of the multiverse shenanigans that have now taken place across three Spider-Man films, an entire Marvel animated TV series, and a Doctor Strange sequel is that so much of it leans on its audience knowing what might have been, and still craving it. It’s a film full of wistful what-ifs. What if Michael Keaton stayed on as the definitive movie Batman? How would he fit into the modern landscape? What if the Snyderverse wasn’t coming to an end as the James Gunn era of DC begins to lay its plans? What if The Flash could be free of having to address the controversy surrounding star Ezra Miller, and a bankable franchise could be built on their frankly bighearted and earnest performance?
The Flash is a bright, colorful, imaginative film with enough verve to pop off the screen, even though it’s often nonsensical in its wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey stuff. But as fun as its imagery can be, it also signals the same priorities Muschietti showed in the It movies. So much of The Flash gives way to computer-generated effects, not just for the depiction of super-people fighting to save the world — Sasha Calle puts in a rage-fueled performance as Supergirl, even though the film leaves her with frustratingly little to do — but for its longing glances at alternate possible pasts, as Barry travels through time and space to see what might have been.
In these glances, the audience is shown a computerized guernica of faces and characters they know, or might have known. Yet disconcertingly, almost none of those familiar faces and familiar properties are played by real people. They’re just likenesses. Brands. A reward to the faithful who have actively followed not just the DC stories that came out in theaters, but the ones that almost did. In this, The Flash is the biggest, the ultimate DC comics movie. And it feels so much smaller for it.
The Flash opens in theaters on June 16.