Sunday, June 18, 2023

Running To Stand Still

There's a measure of irony to the fact that the first feature film about DC Comics' Scarlet Speedster should prove to reflect the fable of the tortoise and the hare. As early as 2017, Warner Bros. was developing The Flash as an adaptation of the Flashpoint storyline from the comics. At the time, nothing like that in the comic book movie genre had made it to the big screen. Had WB hit the ground running early on, DC could have initially had the multiverse all to themselves but creative issues kept The Flash from bolting from the starting line. In the meantime, both Marvel Studios and Sony Pictures were making slow but steady progress on their own multiverse sagas. Now here in 2023, in a world where we've had Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018), Spider-Man: No Way Home (2021), Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (2022), and the currently playing Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse, The Flash can't help but feel like it's lagging behind. Despite having the chance to be first over the finish line, DC is coming in a distant second in the race for the multiverse.  

On the positive side, there's much in The Flash that is fleet and funny. Despite the personal issues that have plagued Ezra Miller, they're very good here in a dual role as the Barry Allen of two different worlds. While I'll concede that Miller's portrayal of Barry might be like nails on a chalkboard to some viewers, I say their performance is in tune with the comedic angle screenwriter Christina Hudson and director Andy Muschietti are going for. 

The Flash's emphasis on humor might rankle some fans, especially devotees of the grim Snyder verse, but I think it was the smart choice to make. The Flashpoint storyline, if played totally straight, can't help but make Barry look pretty lousy, like a deeply reckless and short sighted person who can't see past his own selfish needs. The CW Flash series took the serious approach when they did their own Flashpoint and it only made Barry come off as an unsympathetic jerk. How could it not? Barry takes the fact that he misses his mom as a reason to unravel reality for billions of innocent people. 

In making The Flash essentially a comedy of (cosmic) errors, and portraying Barry's action as those of an emotionally stunted but well intended fool, it makes his actions more palatable. He's able to come across less as a selfish asshole and more like a helpless goof who's prone to catastrophe. 

The Flash has an almost lampoonish quality to it as Barry races from one reality to the next, dismantling the DC universe as he goes, with the multiverse like a set of spinning plates that Barry is madly struggling (and failing) to keep in the air. 

Things do get darker as the film goes on and as the dramatic stakes rise but yet it all comes back around to funny business with the movie ending on a punchline, the point of which being that the DCU has been permanently broken. It's a good laugh (with a great cameo) but at the same time, this is a movie that needed to bring clarity to the DCU and the fact that it doesn't is a problem. 

When the new DC regime, led by James Gunn and David Zaslav, came in last year and announced that the much touted "change in the DC hierarchy of power," Black Adam, wasn't actually going to lead to anything and that the DCU that began with Man of Steel in 2013 would be ending (despite the return of Henry Cavill's Superman in Black Adam's post credit scene), it fell on The Flash to make the case why that was a good idea and to establish what the new direction of the DCU would be.

Instead The Flash comes across as a cinematic pie in the face of the DCU, frequently sillier than even the most broadly comic Marvel movie and I have to think that's not what DC fans are in the mood for, especially in the wake of the universe they'd become attached to over the last ten years being so unceremoniously scrapped.

Say what you will about Black Adam but I think The Rock had the right idea in regards to not throwing out the baby with the bathwater. Black Adam might not have been a monster hit but it made the right moves in teeing up the DCU for bigger things to come while going for a more palatable soft reboot of sorts. Even though movies like Man of Steel and WW84 might not have been the best vehicles for them, Cavill's Superman and Gal Gadot's Wonder Woman were still very well liked and I think there was an audience that simply wanted to see them (and others from the Snyder verse) get their shot in a refocused DCU. If you're going to kick these actors to the curb, you've got to do it gracefully in way that respects their contributions to the DCU while also making the strongest case possible for a new direction and The Flash does neither. 

Additionally, The Flash squanders both Micheal Keaton's return as Batman and Sasha Calle's introduction as Supergirl. Both of them have some outstanding scenes (I particularly enjoyed the re-introduction of Keaton, in a fight scene that's reminiscent of a Pink Panther movie with Kato lying in wait to ambush Clouseau) but their arcs come to unsatisfying ends that feel undeserving of the characters. Reports say that the final version wasn't what was originally planned, with changes made since in order to accommodate the changes in the DCU but what they went with was not the right choice. After setting up Bruce, the two Barrys and Kara as a mini Justice League and following their strategizing to take down Zod, this section of the film ends on a deflated note and as a result the inclusion of Bruce and Kara ends up feeling pointless and dispiriting rather than heroic. 

Spoilers here but it feels like a poor choice to prime the audience to anticipate how Flash, Kara and Bruce are going to take down Zod only to find out that, oh, they don't. The entire time spent in Bruce and Kara's reality ends up being a prolonged lesson in failure and while the experience teaches Barry that sometimes there isn't a way to fix things, there should have been a better way to get him to that point without having the bulk of the movie be about everyone fighting a losing battle. 

The most curious flaw of The Flash, though, is that even though the story hinges on Barry changing the fabric of the universe to save his mother, he never shows any interest in finding out who killed her or why. It's doubly maddening in that Barry's other big motivation is in clearing his dad of the crime. So why does it never occur to him to find out who did it and bring them to justice? At the very least, where's the curiosity about this crime on Barry's part? I mean, it's one thing to not want to interfere any more overtly than he's already doing but how about getting some answers for himself? You can time travel but you don't want to find out why your mother was murdered? Really?   

It's such a bizarre oversight to have this not even be a factor in the film. In the comics the murder is committed by one of Barry's arch foes from the future but even if the movie didn't want to take it in that super villain direction, they've still got to address why this crime was committed in the first place and it's just crazy that it goes ignored. 

In the comics, Flashpoint was a blunt means to an end. Having Barry undo his mother's murder wasn't about exploring Barry's trauma. While that might have been the surface storyline, underneath that Flashpoint was just a mechanism meant to restore the DC multiverse that had been undone back in 1985's Crisis on Infinite Earths and doing it within continuity. It was essentially a reboot in disguise. 

To apply what Flashpoint did in the comics to the movies, they needed to have a similarly clear and pragmatic plan in place of what they were looking to accomplish but unfortunately the goals The Flash started with changed drastically during the course of its production and post-production, going from teeing up the next round of adventures with the DCU characters we've come to know to becoming their awkward send-off and that last minute swerve badly kneecaps the final product. 


A production that ran into more problems than it could handle before it was able to cross the finish line, The Flash should have shown that the DC universe is still in the race but instead it makes it look like a franchise that's running on empty. 

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