‘The Flash’ Multiverse Explained: What the Hell Is Going On With the DC Universe?

We try to untangle the movie’s biggest questions

The Flash
Warner Bros.

The Flash” is here, and if you’ve seen it, you probably have a lot of questions about what it all, especially that cacophonous ending, means for the DC Universe.

In the film, Barry Allen (Ezra Miller) travels back in time and to other dimensions in an effort to save his mom’s life (and that of his father, who was wrongly convicted of her murder). Along the way he interacts with at least two actors playing Batman — Ben Affleck from Zack Snyder’s films, and Michael Keaton, who last played the role in 1992’s “Batman Returns” — alongside a whole lot of other characters. And suffice to say by the end, Barry is in a very different place than he was when the film started.

So what does that mean for the cohort of DC characters established by Zack Snyder in 2013’s “Man of Steel” and 2016’s “Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice”? And is all of this related to total reboot of the franchise under new DC Studios bosses James Gunn and Peter Safran?

We’re going to attempt to get into all of that, including that wild ending. Ready to take a ride around the multiverse?

Major spoilers for “The Flash” follow.

What universe are we in at the beginning of the movie?

At the beginning of the movie we are still, firmly, in the present day of the universe created by Snyder, alternately called the “Snyderverse” or the “DC Extended Universe.” (By the way, “DCEU” is not an official term; it began as a joke by an EW writer, and neither Warner Bros. nor DC Studios have ever used it.).

The various members of the Justice League are mentioned early on and the first part of the film features appearances by Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman, Jeremy Irons as Alfred and Affleck as the embittered, middle-aged Batman inspired in part by by Frank Miller’s “The Dark Knight Returns” (And Jason Momoa as Aquaman also shows up in a post-credits bit.)

Okay what universe does the middle of “The Flash” take place?

When Barry travels back in time to try and prevent his mom’s murder, he is knocked out of the Snyderverse timeline by some evil force (more on him later) and ends up in an alternate 2013, where he encounters his younger self alongside his (still alive) mother and (not imprisoned) father. It turns out this is the universe of Tim Burton’s “Batman” (1989) and “Batman Returns” (1992), and Batman/Bruce Wayne — played of course by Michael Keaton — is older and even grumpier than Affleck’s Batman, though somehow funnier and sprightlier.

It turns out that Batman is this world’s only superhero. There’s no Superman because General Zod (Michael Shannon, last seen in “Man of Steel”) killed baby Kal-El as his pod was escaping the explosion that doomed planet Krypton. Instead it was Superman’s cousin, Kara Zor-El (Sasha Calle), who landed on Earth, only to be immediately imprisoned in a fortified Russian bunker, meaning she never had the chance to become Supergirl.

Zod arrives on this Earth just as he did in “Man of Steel,” but this time without Superman to stop him. Batman, Snyderverse Barry and alternate-2013 Barry team up to rescue Kara and together, they take on Zod.

So what universe does the big climax to “The Flash” take place?

Here’s where things get tricky. Batman and Supergirl are killed during the big battle with Zod, so Barry repeatedly travels back in time in an effort to stop that from happening. He does it so many times, in fact, that he turns into a weird, goblin-type guy known as Dark Flash. Finally, Snyderverse Barry and 2013 Barry battle Dark Flash, while other corners of the DC multiverse intrude and are almost destroyed.

We see the other universes depicted as differently hued globes, with images on the outside sort of like a Zoetrope. And as the battle of the Flashes goes on, we see Christopher Reeve as Superman, who portrayed the character in 1978 and Helen Slater as Supergirl from 1984’s “Supergirl,” in one globe; in another globe we see Adam West from the old “Batman” TV show; another globe shows George Reeves from “Adventures of Superman.” There’s another globe with Nicolas Cage as Superman from a project that was never actually realized – Tim Burton’s “Superman Lives.”

(Cage’s Superman is even fighting a giant spider, a nod to the studio’s demands for “Superman Lives,” immortalized by the aborted film’s writer, Kevin Smith, in his 2002 stand up special.)

There might be more cameos that we missed, but these were the ones that stood out to us. It’s a pretty cool moment but it is also, like much of “The Flash,” utterly mystifying. The main thing is that it appears to establish that each iteration of these characters is its own separate universe. At any moment, characters could be grabbed from one of these alternate realities and inserted into the main story.

Ultimately, the Dark Flash kills the younger Barry and they both disappear, which protects all the other corners of the multiverse, sending them back to their own corners of space and time. Still, the possibility has been introduced. Could other characters bleed over?

Which brings us to …

Where does “The Flash” wind up?

After the whole mishegoss with Dark Flash and younger Barry and whatever else in the time vortex, Barry decides not to save his mother, since attempting that proved to be a huge headache. He decides instead to save his father by exonerating him. (We won’t get into it but it involves a can of crushed tomatoes and a surveillance tape getting cleaned up by Bruce Wayne.)

As Barry leaves the court house, his father now freed and everything put exactly where it needs to be, Barry gets a call from Bruce Wayne. He’ll be there soon. We’re all expecting Affleck to pop back up. But, of course, it’s not. In fact, it’s the person you’d least expect to return to the franchise: George Clooney, last seen in Joel Schumacher’s objectively disastrous 1997 movie “Batman and Robin.”

The implication, of course, is that Clooney is now the Batman for the Snyder corner of the DC Universe. But if we’re being honest, this makes very little sense.


The Clooney cameo was filmed extremely late in the game; originally the scene was shot with Keaton (you can find old paparazzi photos of them filming the scene) and Keaton was to reprise the role in the “Aquaman” sequel and the canceled “Batgirl” movie, meaning that he replaced Affleck as Batman in the mainline universe. (Affleck, famously, hasn’t had the best experience as the character.)

But Affleck was spotted re-shooting Keaton’s scenes for “Aquaman 2” recently, with Jason Momoa tweeting a photo of the two actors together. It’s not like Clooney will step in for that too.

It’s maddening. Especially because very soon none of this will matter. The cameo at the end of the movie would have been a perfect opportunity to introduce the new DC Universe Batman, who will debut in a new movie called “The Brave and the Bold,” which centers around Batman and (in our opinion) the very best Robin – his psychopathic killer son Damian. But no. They made it even more complicated than it needed to be. Sigh.

So, we really have no idea how this all fits together, is that right?

Hence the sigh. It’s not even clear when, or how, the streamlined, all-encompassing DC continuity envisioned by James Gunn and Peter Safran will come about.

First, the Snyderverse will be brought to a close. Probably. The tangentially related “Batgirl” movie was canceled, as was a third “Wonder Woman” movie starring Gal Gadot, another “Superman” project with Henry Cavill and a second “Black Adam” film starring Dwayne Johnson. But the “Aquaman” sequel, “Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom” is out in theaters this Christmas. And there’s also the possibility of another “Flash” movie, although the box office projections for its opening weekend have already put that in jeopardy.

Meanwhile, there will still be more movies unconnected to whatever Gunn and Safran have planned. Like Matt Reeves’ “The Batman” sequel (currently dated for Halloween 2025) and the Joaquin Phoenix/Lady Gaga-led “Joker” sequel “Joker: Folie à Deux” (coming October 2024, both a part of what is being called DC Elseworlds – stories that take place outside of the mainline continuity.

Should “The Flash” be a success, or other characters from the era be resurrected, will this mean that the Snyderverse continues in some fashion as part of the Elseworlds corner of the universe?

Yeah, check back with us later.

“The Flash” is playing now, on this Earth and, possibly, across the multiverse.