There are few tasks more thankless than being a DC movie in the year 2023. The post-Snyder, pre-Gunn era of DC outings seems to serve very little purpose. It’s like they’re still pre-drinking when everyone else has already gone to the club. Sorry, Aquaman.
But even the most cynical among us had tentatively circled The Flash release date on our calendars. By adapting the famous Flashpoint arc from the comics, we thought, this could be the DC movie to reset the continuity and pave the way for James Gunn’s bold new vision for the DCU. It doesn’t do that, but what it does instead is sort of uncategorizable.
The Flash is one of the strangest mainstream blockbusters of recent years. It’s an ungainly but rather charming Frankenstein’s monster, bearing the scars and slashes of its various incarnations since the idea first formed. Lest we forget, this movie was originally slated for 2018 and has seen more directors than Dwayne Johnson has seen kettlebells.
Andy Muschietti, who has directed some of the best horror movies of the last decade and now takes the helm here, probably can’t take all of the credit or the blame for how this gloriously misshapen mixed bag has emerged.
It deploys time travel, multiverses, an enjoyably trippy visual style, and enough cameos to make Doctor Strange blush in order to construct a bizarre take on one of the best DC characters. Is it fun? Yes, absolutely. Is it good? I don’t really know.
The plot follows Barry Allen (Ezra Miller) as he discovers that he can run fast enough to actually travel back in time via a sort of multiversal crossroads called ‘The Chronobowl’. He decides to use this ability to save his mother’s life, only to find himself trapped in the past with his younger self. After a lightning-based mishap, he ends up powerless while the unreliable teen Barry becomes The Flash, which is all fun and games until General Zod (Michael Shannon) shows up.
Y’see, this universe doesn’t have a Superman to stop Zod, and so the two Flashes try to recruit Batman to help them. Instead of the suave Ben Affleck version of Bruce Wayne we’ve come to know in the main DC universe, we get a very gray and very beardy Bruce (Michael Keaton), who has long sworn off crime-fighting having cleaned up Gotham.
He’s also a time travel expert who explains through the medium of spaghetti that Barry has managed to mess up time in all directions. “It’s retro-causal,” he says as if it’s the most obvious thing in the world.
If that all sounds a bit confusing, the movie hasn’t even started boggling minds yet. Thankfully, the middle section pumps the brakes a little. It sketches out a charming ragtag group made up of the two Flashes, Keaton’s Batman, and Superman’s very powerful cousin Kara Zor-El (Sasha Calle). They’re working out how to match Zod in a rerun of the Man of Steel finale – albeit relocated from Metropolis to an empty desert, because collateral damage has really gone out of fashion in these movies since 2013.
There’s a real joy to these Batcave interactions, with scriptwriter Christina Hodson – she also wrote the excellent Birds of Prey – relishing the chance to slow things down a little. Miller, too, is at their entertaining best in these scenes, whereas the earlier scenes of the two Barry variants are an infuriating and exhausting meeting of two arrogant, jittery idiots. The presence of Keaton, holding everything together with pure gravitas, definitely helps.
The Flash dives thoroughly off the reservation in its third act, which mashes the time travel button like a Steven Moffat Doctor Who finale and dares the audience to keep up.
We won’t spoil any of the surprise appearances here – though Muschietti has already let at least one cat out of the bag – but DC fans will find plenty of moments to have them pointing at the screen like that Leonardo DiCaprio meme. Some of them are cool, some are a bit distasteful, and others are straight-up hilarious.
In fact, that’s a decent way of summing up The Flash as a whole. That it exists at all is sort of a miracle, and its sense of pure chaos is not a result of intelligent design, but instead the result of the screenplay being passed through so many hands and directorial visions. At this point, it’s part superhero movie and part Ship of Theseus.
But none of that stops it from being, at its best, a total blast. It’s funnier than any of DC’s best movies to date, save for Gunn’s hilarious The Suicide Squad, and tells its mind-bending story in a way that feels satisfying and complete – at least until an utterly ludicrous coda that had me belly-laughing in disbelief.
Nobody should herald The Flash as one of the best superhero movies ever made, though that hasn’t stopped some raving about it. It’s held together with duct tape and hope, and often the splinters and the cracks show through.
But in a world of hyper-slick blockbusters that feel more spreadsheet than movie, there’s something charming about a film that permanently lives only a whisker away from collapsing completely.
The Flash might not be good in the empirical sense, but it is a fascinating artifact of a studio making a $200m blockbuster by winging it. We might never see anything like it again.
To find out more about the 2023 movies keeping the DCU afloat, check out our Shazam 2 review and look ahead to the Aquaman 2 release date. We’ve also explained why Michael Keaton is the best Batman, and revealed that one Batman Returns star was attacked by a monkey.
Meanwhile, we’ve also looked ahead to the new movies in Gunn’s DCU with our guide to his Gods and Monsters plan. You can also find out more about the Superman Legacy release date and The Brave and the Bold release date.
The Flash review
It was supposed to be DC’s most ambitious superhero movie, but The Flash feels more like the weird step-child. It hopes it can run so fast that you don’t notice the cracks – and it mostly achieves it.