Should Warner Bros have shelved The Flash? I’m honestly not sure I have an answer. The accounts of its star, Ezra Miller, and their two-year downward spiral – which include allegations of harassment, grooming and physical violence – is distressing in a way that extends beyond all critical analysis. What needs to come, before even the matter of accountability, is the question of why there was no support system in place. Why was no one empowered either with the tools or with the moral imperative to intervene in a situation where an individual was in such a clearly dangerous state?
There’s no real sense that anyone would be helped by either the release or the cancellation of Miller’s movie. In both scenarios, Warner Bros gets to shrug all responsibility and focus on the fate of its product and not the people it employs. And though the actor is (as their representatives stress) currently seeking treatment, the hand-wringing over a proposed sequel brings with it the perverse implication that said treatment will end not when medical professionals say so, but when Hollywood decides it’s time for Miller to go back to work.
The Flash, which has been in active development for nearly a decade, now also arrives after the announcement that DC’s new leadership, Peter Safran and James Gunn, will largely be starting over from scratch. Farewell to 10 years of impotent franchise blueprints. It means that the film arriving here is an odd one – muddled and uncertain of its own identity, coloured by outside circumstance, but oddly poignant at times. It’s stuck somewhere in between cynical fan service and a more sincere yearning to create art out of corporate strategising.
Much of that division is inherent to its plot, which sees The Flash, aka Barry Allen, on an intimate journey of metaphysical implications. Barry, when we first meet him, is frustrated by his place in the superhero pantheon, having essentially become “the janitor of the Justice League” and left to clean up Batman’s (Ben Affleck) messes. He’s also pained by his inability to prove his father (Ron Livingston) innocent of the murder of his mother (Maribel Verdú). And so he uses his powers to, as Cher would put it, turn back time. But that screws up the space-time continuum in the process – leading Barry to cross paths with a younger version of himself that’s never experienced any of the same loss or any of the same heroics.
Screenwriter Christina Hodson, who also wrote DC’s Birds of Prey, is thankfully able to tease some of the humanity out of this meta-human. This is, after all, a story about the grief process, and a literalisation of the concept of healing one’s inner child. Barry gets to see who he’d have been without the personal pain, and naturally starts to resent his more fortunate, unperturbed self. Miller consistently hits the right balance with these dual, sometimes competing performances – a step up for a character whose only defining trait used to be “irritating”. It’s a product of the strong writing here… when you can actually hear it over the sounds of explosions and cheques being cashed.
As has been exhaustingly teased, Barry’s timeline shenanigans land him in a universe where Michael Keaton is Batman, as he was in Tim Burton’s double-dose of films in 1989 and 1992. Keaton turns up with the same winsome smirk as Andrew Garfield in Spider-Man: No Way Home, if very little of the same emotional closure. Director Andy Muschietti is probably the one having the most fun here, as he enthusiastically launches his film into the gothic, fog-encrusted aesthetics of Burton’s work and the desaturated gloom of Zack Snyder’s DC contributions (Michael Shannon’s Zod, of Man of Steel fame, also returns). There are additionally two Flash-centric sequences that pay unexpected homage to the Looney Tunes, complete with babies freefalling out of skyscrapers and a band’s worth of musical instruments tumbling out of a truck. They’re so self-indulgently silly that they kind of work. That’s if you ignore the wildly inconsistent special effects.
There are a handful of other cameos, some of them so ludicrous you almost have to admire the tenacity, as well as a featherlight appearance from Sasha Calle’s Supergirl. It’s clear that DC doesn’t really know what it’s paying tribute to, other than the knowledge that other comic book movies exist. The Flash, much like Barry himself, has been stranded with no real sense of history, and no real sense of the future, either. It does the best it can.
Dir: Andy Muschietti. Starring: Ezra Miller, Sasha Calle, Michael Shannon, Ron Livingston, Maribel Verdú, Kiersey Clemons, Antje Traue, Michael Keaton. 12A, 144 minutes.
‘The Flash’ is in cinemas from 16 June