The Flash Races to the Big Screen, Mixing Looney Tunes, Looper, and Nostalgia

Movies Reviews DCEU
The Flash Races to the Big Screen, Mixing Looney Tunes, Looper, and Nostalgia

The Flash is a time-travel story even before it literally becomes a time-travel story; aren’t most superhero movies, at this point? If they aren’t literally revisiting specific bygone moments, scenes and characters, as in Avengers: Endgame or, at this point, multiple unrelated (until they’re not) Spider-Man movies, superpowered cinema has reached a phase of its extended life cycle where much of it actively yearns to transport audiences back to the spontaneous joy they may have felt watching the genre’s classics for the first time. Whether that involves nostalgia for 1989, 2002, 2008 or even 2019 (hey, who doesn’t look back wistfully at the days before COVID?) may vary. The breathless terms, however – The best DC movie since Wonder Woman! The best Marvel movie since Endgame! The best Batman movie since The Batman! – continue to fold back on themselves.

Maybe that’s why late-period DCEU entry The Flash blithely situates itself as a follow-up to 2017’s much-maligned, eventually-expanded, mostly-ignored Justice League; eventually the nostalgia comes for everyone and everything, right? Or maybe the filmmakers felt they didn’t have much of a choice: After all, that’s the only previous movie featuring an appearance by this universe’s version of Barry Allen (Ezra Miller), not counting a movie-stopping teaser stuck into Batman v. Superman. Picking up sometime after Justice League also allows the movie to barrel forward before its about-face into the past: The Flash opens with a put-upon Barry trying to get through his morning commute and interrupted by Justice League duties, establishing him as a Spider-Man figure beset with cartoonish obstacles in the way of his fraught personal life.

The cartooniness cuts both ways throughout the picture: Barry’s super-speed powers make for some funny Looney Tunes slapstick action, reminiscent of the Quicksilver scenes from the later X-Men movies, rendered in sometimes off-putting CG, reminiscent of, well, most big-budget movies from the past few years. Occasionally, the visual effects are used more expressively, as when Barry kicks into super-high gear and the background world around him blurs and bends like Google Maps fed through a visual distortion filter.

It’s during one of these particularly intense speed-runs that Barry discovers he can actually move fast enough to travel through time. This gets him thinking: What if he could go back and prevent the murder of his mom (Maribel Verdú), for which his innocent and currently imprisoned father (Ron Livingston) was blamed? Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck), possibly Barry’s only real friend, warns against this kind of magical tampering, demurring Barry’s offer to do the same for Bruce’s own ill-fated parents. Convinced that he’s figured out a way to non-invasively tweak the past, Barry goes back anyway. His plan seems to work, until he accidentally arrives at a different point on the newly adjusted timeline, and winds up stuck there dealing with the ramifications of his changes – including running into a now-carefree version of his younger self.

To say more could spoil some of the movie’s time-twisty fun, about halfway between the simplicity of Back to the Future and the dizzying wackiness of Back to the Future Part II. However, the ads for the film have not been shy in revealing that Barry encounters a different-yet-familiar Bruce Wayne/Batman figure: Michael Keaton, kinda-sorta reprising his role from the Tim Burton films of 1989 and 1992. Is Keaton performing a shamelessly fan-baiting encore of his most famous character, one that he satirized in Birdman before Justice League even flopped? Yes, confirmed! Is it fun to watch Keaton revive his oddball mannerisms and revive a quieter, more eccentric Bruce Wayne, perhaps meta-reflecting Keaton’s simultaneous gameness and inability to get too worked up over his old Batsuit? Also yes; Keaton’s wiliness may not fully transcend nostalgia-bait, but he nimbly sidesteps it several times. Besides, I’m not sure if this really is the exact same Batman from the more gothic (and less overtly fantastical) Burton films, or simply one of many infinite timelines where Keaton, Affleck, Robert Pattinson, Kevin Conroy, Val Kilmer, Adam West and all the rest of them appear in endless variations.

That multiversal loophole could explain why this Batman moves with suspicious dexterity for such an old man; the movie maintains his lumbering, gadget-heavy fighting style, but also uses a CG stunt double to speed it all up. Affleck’s Batman gets similar treatment in the film’s opening and, for that matter, Miller looks pretty weird in a digital-abs skintight super-suit that often seems to elongate him, like he’s somehow slipped into a wearable fish-eye lens. Keaton, with his compact frame and imposing, sometimes cumbersome rubber suit, made superheroes safe for actors without Stallone-style physiques. Decades later, The Flash seems downright terrified that audiences will revolt at prolonged exposure to actual human bodies – that an actual punch won’t land like a slow-mo CG cartoon fist-blast. The movie also pulls in a righteously pissed-off version of Superman’s cousin Supergirl, and Sasha Calle’s obvious presence and charisma begs for a fuller-bodied character than her hints of alienation and mostly-animated ass-kickings.

These are endemic superhero problems that, with any luck, no one will be nostalgic for in 2033 (though, given that you can find fans online clamoring for a 2005 Fantastic Four reunion tour, anything is possible). Yet while The Flash director Andy Muschietti lets bad FX, in-joke cameos and muddled time-travel mechanics sprawl out on the couch and stay awhile longer, within its template the movie does have a peculiar, likable energy. Particularly surprising combustion, comic and otherwise, occurs in the testy chemistry between Miller and, well, themselves, as Barry fumes over his younger counterpart’s wisecracking dudery, allowing Miller some gravitas while still indulging their talent for mugging like a jackass. The dual performance has a potent strain of self-hatred, with one Barry heartbroken, jealous and irritated over the other’s heretofore trauma-free life, compounded by a clever twist on the origin story: For much of the movie, one Flash has to re-teach the other how all this hero stuff works. (For a not-quite-star study, consider Miller attempting to right themselves after their recent public screw-ups.) Time travel has a way of bringing up heady issues whether the movie is ready for them or not. Those are the types of questions that give The Flash a little weight amidst all the weightless combat: Can we genuinely fix ourselves, or only learn from who we were? One could even argue that the film’s action climax is more genuinely deconstructive of action climaxes than anything by one-time DC shepherd Zack Snyder. (Then again, settle down: It’s really just a different form of comic-book stuff.)

Merging Looper and Looney Tunes makes for some jarring transitions between time-travel melodrama and power-mishap shenanigans. That’s never more clear than in the movie’s tail end, wherein Muschietti, who seems like a slick Spielberg-acolyte crowdpleaser in the J.J. Abrams mode, struggles with whether The Flash is an emotional cautionary tale, a universe-resetting franchise play, or just a zany sci-fi farce, subject to channel-flipping multiverse gags. You can feel The Flash wishing it could steal a glimpse into the audience and revise itself on the fly accordingly; no wonder early screenings apparently hedged on an ending until the last possible minute. Fandom has created a culture where a fun, zippy movie can’t stop looking back over its shoulder.

Director: Andy Muschietti
Writer: Christina Hodson, John Francis Daley, Jonathan Goldstein, Joby Harold
Starring: Ezra Miller, Michael Keaton, Sasha Calle, Ron Livingston, Maribel Verdú, Michael Shannon, Ben Affleck
Release Date: June 16, 2023

Jesse Hassenger is associate movies editor at Paste. He also writes about movies and other pop-culture stuff for a bunch of outlets including Polygon, Inside Hook, Vulture, and SportsAlcohol.com, where he also has a podcast. Following @rockmarooned on Twitter is a great way to find out about what he’s watching or listening to, and which terrifying flavor of Mountain Dew he has most recently consumed.

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