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The Flash

By | June 19th, 2023
Posted in Movies, Reviews | % Comments

Note: When discussing the character of Barry Allen, I will use he/him pronouns. When considering the performance of Ezra Miller, I will use they/them.

Just to get this out of the way at the top, this isn’t really the space for me to critique the promotional and commercial system that justifies the sale of Ezra Miller’s image in relation to this movie, given all they stand accused of. Nor is it my place to judge Miller for the numerous legal issues swirling around them. While I don’t believe in separating art from the artist, film is a collaborative medium that hundreds of other people worked on to bring a movie to light. Miller’s off-screen episodes are the least of this film’s problems unless you want to get into a discussion about the film’s marketing. If you don’t want to see this movie because of Miller’s involvement in it, go right ahead. The Flash is, ultimately at best, a middling film that offers nothing new and perpetuates the reflexive hollow nostalgia that has propped up Hollywood blockbusters since Batman (1989). If this is one of the best superhero films DC Studios co-head James Gunn has ever seen, either he hasn’t seen very many of them or has a low opinion of the genre. Now if you want to find out why I think of the film in this way, read on.

Honestly, the fact that this film isn’t a Suicide Squad (2016)-style garbage fire – because of the sheer amount of developmental hell, corporate changes in direction, and everything in between – is commendable. It isn’t technically broken in the way that film was butchered, most likely because reshooting major chunks of the film would’ve been cost-prohibitive. This movie had three endings shot! So much has changed about this film that I am certainly forgetting something. The swirl of intrigue around the meta-narrative of this film is more interesting because the film itself is honestly kind of boring. To screenwriter Christina Hodson, director Andy Muschietti, and his producing partner Barbara Muschietti’s credit, this isn’t a bad movie. It just never offers viewers anything new.

Timing is everything, something the lead character Barry Allen (Ezra Miller), abundantly lacks. He’s always late to work at the CCPD crime lab, which makes it fitting that The Flash is ultimately so late to the comic book movie party, any novelty over the promise of the multiverse in storytelling or the nostalgic extended cameos of heroes from previous eras feels like old hat. Now some of this lateness isn’t entirely the film’s fault, the COVID pandemic did set off a chain of events that pushed the film from July 1, 2022 to June 2023. But that is after the films original release date of March 23, 2018, where it would’ve beaten Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse to the punch and introduced the multiverse to cinemas. (Which still would’ve been well after the The Flash TV show as part of the Arrowverse had already done that years prior.) Instead of being one of the first films, The Flash is one of the last with Spider-Man: No Way Home, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, and Across the Spider-verse all coming out and laying the groundwork for how audiences understand these multiverse movies. To say nothing of Everything Everywhere All At Once coming out last year and really showing everyone how it is done.

The “Flashpoint” story-event from 2011 inspires the core of this film, wherein Barry goes back in time to stop the murder of his mother and the imprisonment of his father, something the show also already did, better in their own way. In the process, he creates a nightmarish alternate earth where there is no Justice League, or in the case of the film, Superman, to stop General Zod during the events of Man of Steel. To try and fix this Barry must go on a search with an alternate version of himself, also played by Miller and Ed Wade, and find Batman. Only this Batman isn’t Ben Affleck; it’s Michael Keaton reprising the role, and the Superman is Supergirl, Kara Zor-el played by Sasha Calle.

The film’s core themes of accepting the bad things in our past and learning to move forward are essentially what Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness wanted to be about. This film is perhaps more structurally competent than Multiverse of Madness but lacks any sequence on par with the Rami-esque energy of Wanda’s horrifying destruction of the Illuminati. There is nothing about this film that is emotionally or thematically new or interesting. The fact that this movie comes out a couple of weeks after Across the Spider-verse is perhaps the worst timing imaginable. The animated Spider-man sequel is a plainly better movie on every level. Go see that or watch Everything Everywhere All at Once.

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That lack of novelty isn’t an inherently bad thing. Plenty of movies are built on revising and remixing some core idea ad infinitum (see Batman). Hodson’s script speaks those themes with engaging dialogue ably delivered by the films Batmen, Ben Affleck and Michael Keaton. Andy Muschietti’s sentimentality from his two-part IT adaptation shines. Yet as a viewer, there was never a place for me to invest in the film. It told me everything I needed to know; it never led me down the path and showed it to me.

I’m sure for some people, this movie will work fine. It’s a breezy watch with a variety of easter egg jokes about Back to the Future and some decent physical comedy and sight gags. But all those moments do is highlight the bagel-like hole at the center of the film where my emotional investment should be. Without that emotional center, The Flash becomes a hollow film that gestures towards profound sounding statements that end up signifying nothing. That hollowness, however, opens up what I find to be the more interesting aspect of the film: the nature of film style and the apparatus around it.

To return to the meta-narrative of The Flash, a lot has been made about the film’s VFX. Director Andy Muschietti has declared it a stylistic choice, noting that moments when we see the Flash enter the speedforce “The idea, of course, is…we are in the perspective of the Flash. Everything is distorted in terms of lights and textures. We enter this ‘waterworld’ which is basically being in Barry’s POV. It was part of the design so if it looks a little weird to you that was intended.” The Flash is a step away from the dominant mode of VFX work in Western film, inaugurated by Jurassic Park, where it is used to render hyper-realism and make itself invisible. That clearly isn’t the case here. It’s closer to a film like 1997’s Spawn with that ludicrous cape and hellscape rendered in more of a surreal mode.

While watching the opening set piece and the climactic battle in the desert, Lev Manovich’s “What is Digital Cinema” kept coming to mind. In this piece, Manovich argues that the rise of digital cinema has freed film from Bazanian realism and the indexicality of the image. The easily manipulatable digital file renders film more like animation or painting than photography, which opens a range of new aesthetic and theoretical possibilities. Under the direction of Muschietti, VFX supervisor Bryan Hirota, and the 7 houses that are credited on this film, they do push the film into a more animated direction. In the process, it becomes an example of how Hollywood studios and filmmakers think they can use VFX as the only element of the film necessary to create a legible style.

The sentimentality of this film is rooted in the overall expressionist mode Muschietti works in – see IT. By bringing back Keaton and the Burton Batman films, Muschietti tries to evoke the expressionist style that makes those films function but makes something incongruous instead. The world of The Flash, as in the film overall and both the two worlds Barry travels to, lacks the strong production design that makes the evocation of expressionism work. These are environments that are rendered in realist terms which leads to this harsh juxtaposition that threatens tonal collapse when you layer on this stylish VFX.

During the opening action sequence, Barry helps Batman clean up a robbery gone wrong at Gotham General. Due to structural damage, the east wing of the hospital begins to collapse, and the newborns at the top of the building come falling out with all the debris. A literal baby shower. It’s an absurd moment of black comedy that features Barry putting a baby in a microwave (for a good reason!) There are some cutaways that setup the threat of the babies, but nothing about it evokes the sort of dark glee necessary for the pleasure of the sequence. This is why instead of thinking about how it worked, I’ll be haunted by the nightmares of some of the scariest fake baby faces I’ve ever seen.

The reason for this expressionist lack and how it’s tied to production design becomes apparent when the two Barry visit Wayne Manor. The same Wayne Manor from Batman and Returns. Because it is pulled from the Burton side of things, it has all those stylistic touches and creepy cobwebs that express the inner psyche of Keaton’s character. Keaton isn’t given much to do but shows why Burton cast him in the first place – his eyes – and he manages to sell the metaphoric exposition to explain the multiverse. If you’re nostalgic to see Keaton in the cowl again, that will be cool. I’ve never had that connection to the actor, so the film’s fanboyish-ness over his iconography just killed the film dead in its tracks for about 7 minutes.

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As revealed in the trailers, the film’s climatic set piece takes place essentially in that desert space from Man of Steel where Clark and Lois are taken up to Zod’s ship. Here the lack of production design disrupts the VFX work in the film. The arena is just spatially incoherent, and it was all clearly shot on a green screen. Like the majority of the film, it has this overall soft lighting, which robs the images of shadows to orient the viewer.

The image is just incredibly flat from the angle of the camera to the environment. It is also weirdly fuzzy. I kept thinking of PlayStation 4 cinematics and the Battlefield franchise for some reason. The visual pleasure of seeing Batman, Supergirl, and two speedsters race across the screen fighting Kryptonians never comes together. There’s a perfunctory quality to the plotting. It quotes shots Zack Snyder, Amir Mokri, Larry Fong, and Fabian Wagner have done in terms of choreography but lacks any of the meaning behind them. Black Adam was more interested in cinematographically evoking the Snyder-esque than this. It’s just hollow repetition. Michael Shannon was right. It’s “like somebody playing with action figures…It’s like, ‘Here’s this person. Here’s that person. And they’re fighting!'” At least in BvS, when it did its titular action figure fight, that was a comment on the juvenile masculinity of Bruce Wayne.

The final bit of VFX talk necessary for the film is the montage of dead heroes and those who never were. These are the cameos the studio leaked well ahead of time in an attempt to generate buzz. It is the film’s most animated sequence because there are no actual humans involved. The whole thing looks like someone put it into an AI art generator but instead of getting hallucinatory nightmares, they got something pointless. At least the Justice League montage in BvS showed Bruce he wasn’t alone. Laborious as that sequence was, it is only 4 minutes. This one is much longer and serves no point except to once again give the film a chance to represent old iconography to try and pop the audience because “they said the thing,” not because it means or does anything for the story.

The Flash offers audiences nothing they haven’t seen before or the full measure of previous films in this vein to make it emotionally appealing.

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Michael Mazzacane

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