[NOTE: THIS REVIEW PERTAINS TO AN ADVANCED SCREENED WORK-IN-PROGRESS VERSION, AND NOT THE FINAL CUT. AN ADDENDUM MAY OR MAY NOT BE ADDED AFTER THE OFFICIAL CUT RELEASE] [MINOR SPOILERS ABOUND]
"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going to direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way...."
- Charles Dickens; "A Tale of Two Cities".
"Two roads diverged in a wood, and I - I took the one less traveled by - And that has made all the difference."
- Robert Frost; "The Road Not Taken".
Comparing a super hero film to the literary likes of Dickens and Frost seems pretentious, but The Flash, directed by Andy Muschietti, is a weighty film disguised as a popcorn flashy fun film that plays to the conceits and themes of the quoted from works above: duality, alternate paths, and the consequences of decisions, measured or rash, are replete in the story of one man's inability to accept his grief and, in doing so, try to change the immutable. The quotes above succinctly encapsulate the story's premise and stakes.
It's no secret that this film as had a troubled production from its announcement five years ago: Production delays, actor availability, the COVID pandemic, the diminishing quality and box office returns from each DC film released in between, and the public relations nightmare that is its lead. It's a film with a delicate balancing act of measuring tragedy against fun and, surprisingly enough, The Flash equally manages to do both.
A few years after the events of Justice League (2017), Barry Allen (Ezra Miller) is a forensic scientist with the Central City Police Department; a position which allows him to continue his search for elusive evidence that would exonerate his father Henry Allen (Ron Livingston, taking over for Billy Cidrup) of the murder of his mother, Nora (Maribel Verdu). When the latest attempt fails, a frustrated Barry returns to the past to alter the events leading to her death, causing a chain reaction that can result in the destruction of the multiverse.
It's appropriate that this film tackles this subject. In the comics, it was the Barry Allen version of The Flash who ushered in not only the Silver Age of comics, but the concept of multiverse and alternate timelines in the DC universe. Further, the plot (fleshed out by screenwriters Christina Hodson and Joby Harold) is loosely based on the DC Comics story line "Flashpoint" by writer Geoff Johns and Andy Kubert. While this isn't the only adaptation of the story (having been covered in animation in the DC Animated Universe "The Flashpoint Paradox" and in the second season of the CW series The Flash starring Grant Gustin), it is the one that's most ambitious in its scope. It's a tight story that doesn't slow down and doesn't chintz on the drama. The ramifications of Barry's actions are disastrously epic, and Muschietti's horror background is in full evidence here as a dystopian feeling of foreboding hangs in the air. Barry finds himself in a new timeline wherein not only is mother alive, but he finds a happier-go-lucky version of himself and a world without heroes...save one.
As aforesaid, the problematic nature of the film's lead ran the risk of tarnishing the production as a whole. No matter how fast the plot goes, it cannot outrun the shadow of Miller's real-life malfeasance. However, if one can divorce the art from the artist, it can be said that Ezra Miller pulls impressive double duty as two different iterations of Barry both visually and in characterization. The Barry we first see in this film is not the ADHD sprite we met in Justice League. Though still somewhat spastic and unsure, this is a Barry who's matured and embittered by a system he's sworn to uphold. The contrast between "our" Barry and the Barry who is unmarred by tragedy and unencumbered of responsibility is immense, allowing for the opportunity for character development that Miller sinks their teeth into. For purists, Miller's interpretation of Allen has struck a sour note. Yet one cannot deny the fact that when playing their version of each version, they bring their A-game. Miller engenders sympathy for Barry as the character comes face-to-face with the consequences of his actions, even as he believes that they can be circumvented. [Personal note: Perhaps I'm a bit more receptive to the performance than most. I myself have recently suffered a personal tragedy, which makes Barry's quest much more tragically relatable to me. But for me to feel that resonance shows how effective their performance is]. There's only perhaps one moment of unintentional humor from an overdramatized scene, but one cannot argue that the performance is a solid one. Ben Affleck returns as Batman one last time to provide Barry sage wisdom, and it's the most relaxed performance he's given as the character; offering a glimpse at what could have been.
It's no secret that the tale involves a world without a Superman. Instead, it has Supergirl, originally teased by an open pod in Man of Steel (2013) and finally paid off in the form of newcomer Sasha Calle. Sasha is...fierce; imbuing Kara Zor-El with loads of Latinx fire. Her fish-out-of-water character exudes confidence to the extent that one can't help but accept her almost immediately as Kal-El's cousin. Michael Shannon and Antje Traue reprise their roles of "General Zod" and "Faora-Ul" from the aforementioned film, imbued with a villainous precision brought to fruition; even more deadly than in 2013, if that can be believed.
Honestly, the real hook of this film is neither its star nor its premise. It's a return 31 years in the making: Michael Keaton, donning the batsuit as his version of Batman. Just as there's a notable contrast between the two Barrys, it's also a contrast between two Bruce Waynes. While Affleck's bat is still a broken, weary warrior whose mission hangs upon his shoulders like a shroud, Keaton's version is age-tempered and centered, if no less eccentric. His Batman is more efficient and effective than he was in Batman and Batman Returns. It's a performance that's imbued with history and filled with poignancy. Keaton is having a blast in the role, and it shows.
The screening I went to was unfinished, therefore no observation concerning the CGI can be fully assessed until the actual film release other than the those concerning the two Barrys, which was where the majority of the focus was for this version but, given what was shown, the visuals will be nothing short of spectacular. Benjamin Wallfisch score is more than serviceable, even if the only themes that are recognizable are not of his orchestration. Nevertheless, it hits the emotional beats where it needs to.
The ending was cut short and no end credit scenes were shown, but even in this version there were surprises galore (and if you've seen any of the behind-the-scenes production footage, you can guess at least what one aspect of the "surprise ending" will entail). It closes the book on one chapter of DC cinematic history while it celebrates all that came before, implying that every interpretation is valid, and every representation is respected. It's a surprising love letter to DC live-action output.
Though this version was still a work-in-progress and despite its controversial lead, The Flash promises to be a satisfying conclusion to the Snyder-verse of DC films (the trouble-plagued forthcoming Aquaman and The Lost Kingdom notwithstanding); one that is epic in scope and intimate in emotion.
Run, reader, run...to see The Flash.