In the months leading up to the much-delayed theatrical release of The Flash—the 13th and penultimate film in the DC Extended Universe (DCEU)—new DC co-head James Gunn publicly said that he thought it was one of the best superhero movies he’d ever seen. That and a series of fun, action-packed trailers helped counter the negative press surrounding a series of controversies involving the film’s troubled star, Ezra Miller. Now the film is out, and our verdict is in. The Flash is—fine. It’s basically your run-of-the-mill entertaining superhero romp with plenty of action, humor, and a solid emotional core, and Miller delivers a strong dual performance,
But it’s not likely to crack many people’s top-ten list of superhero movies. The film is a bit overlong and the quality of the special effects is uneven, especially in the rather messy climactic battle. The biggest issue is its lack of originality in a popular culture that has become steeped in superhero movies—and all the associated tropes—to the point of saturation. Director Andy Muschetti has done a perfectly respectable job at the helm, but there’s just nothing here we haven’t seen many, many times before (and frankly done better to boot), and he never really puts his own stamp on those well-known tropes.
(Spoilers below, but no major reveals until the last section. We’ll give you a heads-up when we get there.)
The plot draws in part from the Flashpoint crossover storyline from the comic books, in which the Scarlet Speedster goes back in time to keep his mother from being murdered, thereby altering the entire timeline. In that alternate world, a young Bruce Wayne is killed rather than his parents. Thomas Wayne becomes Batman, Martha Wayne becomes The Joker, Wonder Woman and Aquaman are bitter enemies, and Superman is a prisoner. Muschetti kept several of those elements while fleshing out his own take on the premise. The result is a cross between Back to the Future and the multiverse antics of Spider-Man: No Way Home and Across the Spider-Verse.
We open with Barry Allen (Miller) getting called to help stop a robbery—or rather, clean up the mess Batman made while chasing after said robbers, a mess that involves a collapsing high-rise hospital and the fate of several babies, a maternity ward nurse, and one emotional support dog. It’s an amusing enough sequence, punctuated by a cameo appearance by Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman, but its sole purpose is to reveal Barry’s growing frustration with being the “janitor” of the Justice League.
His father’s latest parole hearing is also coming up, and Barry has been unable to come up with new evidence to prove him innocent of the murder of Barry’s mother. A visit to his childhood home builds up such strong emotions that Barry decides to run until they dissipate—running so fast that he discovers he can go back in time. Even though Bruce Wayne/Batman (Ben Affleck) warns that Barry going back in time to save his mother could destroy everything, Barry doesn’t listen. He travels to just before the murder and makes one tiny but significant change, thereby ensuring her survival. But on the way back to the present, a black Speedster within the Speed Force knocks him out and into an alternate 2013 timeline.
His mother is still alive in this timeline, and his younger teen self is a freshman in college with none of Barry’s emotional baggage from the loss of his mom. But it turns out that he landed on the day he was struck by lightning and got his powers as The Flash—the same day that General Zod (Michael Shannon, reprising his role from 2013’s Man of Steel) and his army invaded Earth to terraform it into a new Krypton. There’s no Justice League in this timeline either, although Barry makes sure Alt-Barry is in place to get his own accidental powers. They track down Bruce Wayne, except it’s not Affleck’s Wayne. It’s an older Wayne, played by Michael Keaton (with several classic callbacks to the original Tim Burton Batman films starring Keaton). There’s no Superman either; instead there is a Supergirl named Kara Zor-El (Sasha Calle). Naturally they team up to take on Zod.
There’s much to like about The Flash, most notably its sly nerd humor. Case in point: there’s a scene in the alternate timeline where Barry discovers that Eric Stoltz starred in Back to the Future, not Michael J. Fox. That’s a fun bit of Hollywood trivia, since Stoltz did indeed shoot several scenes for the film, but was ultimately deemed not right for the role and replaced with Fox. And it’s entertaining to watch Barry interact with his younger, more obnoxious alternative self and gain some perspective on just how long-suffering the Justice League members have been towards him as he grew into his powers.
Keaton clearly enjoyed reinventing Bruce Wayne as an aging, long-haired hippie who long ago hung up his cape—and then gets back to his superhero roots and breaks out all his old Bat-gear in the fight against Zod. And Sasha Calle is quite affecting as Kara/Supergirl, despite limited screen time. But it’s Miller’s performance that anchors the film, and they proved up to the task, especially in the more poignant moments that required them to bring more emotional depth to the scenes.
I have mixed feelings about the many cameos, many of which were announced or leaked well before the film’s release: Keaton, Gadot, Affleck, and Jeremy Irons briefly reprising his role as Alfred Pennyworth in Barry’s original timeline. On the one hand, fans are familiar with and love these characters, however polarizing the “Snyderverse” might be. There’s nothing wrong with a bit of fan-service; see Spider-Man: No Way Home for a master class in how it’s done. But it doesn’t always work. In fact, the exchange with Wonder Woman, when her lasso of truth briefly causes Barry and Affleck’s Batman to blurt out embarrassing personal secrets, was positively cringe-inducing.
WARNING: Major spoilers beyond this point! Stop reading now if you haven’t yet seen the film.
Speaking of shameless fan service, I also have mixed feelings (for much the same reasons) about the extended Speed Force sequence in the final act where different incarnations of Batman, Superman, and The Flash appear in their own universes—which are starting to collide with each other. We see Christopher Reeve’s Superman (my personal favorite) as wells George Reeves’ 1950s version, thanks to archive footage, as well as Helen Slater’s 1980s incarnation of Supergirl, Adam West’s 1960s Batman, and Nicolas Cage as the emo Superman that might have been. It ‘s more of a gimmick, rather than serving the story in any meaningful way.
As for Zod, he’s basically just there as a plot point. I won’t spoil the real Big Bad because it’s honestly one of the nicer twists in the film.
Look, The Flash isn’t a terrible film, just a forgettable one. I actually enjoyed it. But there have been so many amazing time travel movies about the consequences of changing the past; The Flash just can’t compare. Everything Everywhere All at Once is deservedly the new gold standard for madcap multiverse movies, with Across the Spider-Verse coming in a close second; The Flash doesn’t quite measure up there either. But it’s still one of the stronger entries in the DCEU (with 2017’s Wonder Woman arguably topping that list), and perfectly good escapist fare.
The Flash is now playing in theaters. Warner Bros. hasn’t ruled out a sequel (with or without Miller), depending on the box office reception. And the events of the film did reset the DCEU’s continuity, so I guess we’ll see what Gunn has in store for the rebooted DCU with 2025’s Superman: Legacy.