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'The Flash' throws off intermittent sparks

Barry Allen/The Flash (Ezra Miller) is full of running gags.
Warner Bros.
Barry Allen/The Flash (Ezra Miller) is full of running gags.

In the comics, the character of Barry Allen, aka The Flash, aka The Fastest Man Alive, occupies a specific role.

Whenever there's any kind of confusing and overcomplicated shenanigans going on — the kind that involve parallel dimensions, alternate timelines, irreconcilable paradoxes, etc. — you can generally find ol' Flash at the center of it all. He's the key.

Makes sense: After all, he was the guy who first discovered that alternate Earths exist, replete with alternate versions of our Earth's familiar heroes and villains (The Flash #123, Sept. 1961). He was also there in the mix when, decades later, DC decided all those alternate realities had grown too confusing and combined all of their multiple Earths into one (Crisis on Infinite Earths #1-12, Apr. 1985-March 1986). In the years since, the publisher has continually relaunched their multiverse and collapsed it, again and again, as if its vast narrative canon were some sort of space-time squeezebox.

The Flash has been there for every expansion and contraction, every cosmic do-over, ever metaphysical mulligan. He signals a cleaning of the slate, a new beginning. He's what biologists call an indicator species, and the precise set of environmental conditions his presence indicates is: Things Are So Screwed Up We Need To Start Over.

So the fact that a live-action The Flash film only arrives in theaters now, even though Warner Bros. Pictures has been trying to make one since the late '80s? And that it comes weighted down with so much baggage, in the form of studio turnover, a ceaseless churn of rewrites and a star surrounded by allegations of abusive behavior and other legal troubles? And that the state of Warner's superheroic universe is currently so fraught and fractious that it's inspired sweeping regime change, a slate of cancelled projects and promises of a new direction?

Makes sense. The slate is dirty, it cries out for a dry-eraser.

So does The Flash (the movie) do what the The Flash (the comic book character) famously does?

Yes. Up to a point.

Fast off the starting block

Like most superhero films, The Flash starts off with a drive and focus that inevitably flags over the course of its running (heh) time. This reviewer will confess a weakness for a grounded, hero-rescues-everyday-schmoes-from-danger set piece. I realize that any given superhero film will eventually degenerate into multicolored brawls (or, in the case of mystic superheroes, into actors grimacing at each other across a distance while teams of professionals add Eldritch magicks or laser beams in post).

But show me a character using their powers to whisk a harried restaurant server out of a collapsing building or evacuating a busload of panicking kids off a crumbling bridge and I'm happy. Leave the more esoteric, lore-besotted threats to the very fabric of the multiverse or whatever for another day! Focus on what's in front of you! Save the schmoes!

What if, as is the case in The Flash, the schmoes in question are a passel of CGI babies and a therapy dog hurtling to their deaths? And our hero must figure out a way to pluck them out of the air at super-speed while replenishing his calories such that he's even able to maintain said super-speed? All the better. It's what superhero movies are made for.

On a micro level, screenwriter Christina Hodson's script delivers. Line-by-line, it crackles with nimble jokes, broad winks and clever sight gags. But on a macro level — the level of characterization and character development — things don't so much crackle as fizzle.

The fact that The Flash debuts in theaters so fast on the heels of Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse is doing the DC film no favors. Leave aside the fact that both movies traffic in multiversal michegoss — that's a surface similarity.

All of the elements that make the Spider-Verse films so memorable and effective — their humor, their heart, their stakes — grow directly out of how real and rounded their characters are depicted. That roundedness and complexity determine the choices they make, and thus drive the plot.

Here, however, it's plot that's paramount, and it kind of forces the characters along for the ride. As a result, there's a flatness to our hero and his allies that precludes us from investing in their fates.

A family plot

The story of The Flash is based on a 2011 comic called Flashpoint (written by Geoff Johns with art by Andy Kubert) in which Barry/The Flash goes back in time to save his mother from the home invasion that killed her. That simple act screws up the DC Universe.

The situation's much the same in The Flash. Barry (Ezra Miller) decides to go back in time to save his mother (Maribel Verdú) from a deadly home invasion. This act brings him into contact with a younger, stoner-bro version of himself (Miller again) as well as a Batman from a different Earth (Michael Keaton, reprising his take on the character from the Tim Burton films) and a super-powered cousin (Sasha Calle) of Superman.

They are forced to band together to save this alternate Earth from an attack by the Kryptonian despot General Zod (Michael Shannon, briefly reprising his dyspeptic take on the character from Zack Snyder's Man of Steel).

Miller's comic timing is solid, and serves the script's many gags well. But Miller's take on adult Barry is one-note, as is their decision to portray younger Barry as your most irritating college roommate. (That's two notes, I suppose — a simple interval). The movie attempts to frog-march both Barrys through a pair of purely perfunctory, emotional-growth-and-development narrative arcs, but Miller never manages to make either one register onscreen.

Neither does the film accord Calle's Supergirl enough space to become someone we can be bothered to care about; her screen time is given over to Keaton's Batman. It's hard to complain about what Keaton does with that stolen spotlight, but it does reflect the film's willingness to coast on the familiar in favor of putting in the work necessary to create something new.

CG Ay-yi-yi

The film's keystone digital effect, that of both Barrys sharing the screen and interacting with one another, works more seamlessly than it has in any film to date. Credit Miller, sure, but let's also note that the level of technical precision in those scenes — with respect to camera blocking and frame-matching and a slew of other cinematographic factors — are so effortlessly accomplished that you instantly forget you're watching one actor acting against themselves.

When it comes to the film's time-travel CGI, however:

Hoo, boy.

Here's where we are forced to address the (checks notes) "chrono-bowl."

The "chrono-bowl" is an invention of the film, a visual device to depict Barry's time-travel. Basically, he starts running and a series of images begin to rotate around him — scenes and characters from his past. These scenes look as if a Playstation 2 were struggling to render a Caravaggio painting; characters depicted therein regard the viewer from across an uncanny valley that quickly widens into a terrifying canyon. This disquieting effect extends to the glimpses we eventually get of alternate worlds and their alternate heroes.

Now: It's possible, I suppose, to believe this is purely intentional, a stylistic choice on the filmmakers' part. After all, these alternate timelines and universes are comparatively insubstantial, compared to Barry's actual reality, so perhaps it makes sense that The Flash would signal to viewers that they are peopled by men and women who look as if they've just stepped off the Polar Express and Xeroxed themselves 47 times.

That's a generous reading, to be sure. But it's precisely that kind of overgenerous benefit-of-the-doubt that this often funny but ultimately confounding film requires. Barry's constant need to consume calories is the film's go-to gag, and it's no wonder: Like its main hero, The Flash doesn't hide how hungry it is to be seen as worthy, even though it spends much of its time running on empty.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Glen Weldon is a host of NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast. He reviews books, movies, comics and more for the NPR Arts Desk.