‘The Flash’ Review: A Vague, Confusing Trip to the Multiverse

The film holds few surprises and lacks any type of punch in its script

Ezra Miller The Flash

It’s hard to imagine a film with less strength of conviction than “The Flash,” a time travel movie about why it’s bad to retcon the past, but which exists entirely to convince the audience that retconning the past, present and (potentially) the future of the DC superhero franchise is a super cool thing to do.

“Do as we say, not as we do,” I guess.

“The Flash” stars Ezra Miller as Barry Allen, a costumed hero who can move at impossible speeds. When he’s not rescuing people from collapsing hospitals, Barry works as a crime scene technician and searches for evidence to exonerate his father, Henry (Ron Livingston), who was wrongfully convicted of killing Barry’s mother decades ago.

Henry’s parole hearing is on the horizon, and despite the best efforts of Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) to clean up some old security footage that might have given Henry an alibi, it looks like there’s no hope for Barry’s dad. (As for why Bruce doesn’t just get a whole team of brilliant and expensive lawyers to help Barry out…that never comes up.)

Despondent, Barry starts running so fast he winds up outside of time and space and able to visit any point in his timeline. After being told point blank that it’s a terrible idea and might have horrible consequences, Barry decides to do the only logical thing. No, not simply look into the past, see who actually killed Nora Allen (Maribel Verdú, “Raymond & Ray”), and use that information to re-open Henry’s case without altering the past at all. No, no, no, that would be ridiculous.

Instead, Barry tries to save Nora, changes the timeline, and winds up not in the present, with everything hunky dory and Nora still alive, but instead trapped ten years ago in an alternate reality where Barry is an obnoxious and irresponsible teenager and General Zod (Michael Shannon) from the movie “Man of Steel” has just arrived on Earth to destroy humanity. Drastically outmatched, the two Barries enlist the only other superhero who exists in this universe: Batman, specifically the version played by Michael Keaton in Tim Burton’s “Batman” and “Batman Returns.”

One suspects that there’s probably quite a lot of “The Flash” the filmmakers would have liked to have kept secret, given how the information gets parceled out gradually through the screenplay, but that’s the fallacy of fan service filmmaking. You can’t preserve all of the surprises and still advertise the movie because “Michael Keaton is back as Batman” is obviously the film’s the biggest selling point. The appearance of Supergirl (Sasha Calle, “The Young and the Restless”) might also have been a fun reveal if her character hadn’t been front-and-center in the trailers for months now.

In any case, it’s certainly entertaining to see Keaton’s version of Bruce Wayne loaf around Wayne Manor in a jaunty ascot, dishing out sage advice to young heroes who have a lot to learn. It’s also Batman’s job to explain the rules of time travel, because somebody in a time travel movie has to do it. But how exactly a street-level vigilante who spent his only two movies beating up clowns became an expert in multiverse theory — strike that, not even “theory,” he’s rolling his eyes like it’s established, boring, grade school fact — well, that’s never explored.

A frustrating amount of “The Flash” goes this route, unfortunately, and the issue gets compounded as the film goes on, eventually collapsing in on itself in time travel and multiverse shenanigans. Where the film winds up is a little confusing, but mostly it’s just vague, which suggests that we’ll need even more movies to clarify what the hell happened in “The Flash” and how the heck it matters moving forward.

If you can ignore the macro-narrative of how “The Flash” affects the evolving, overarching “DC Universe” of movies, and if you can somehow set aside the context of Ezra Miller’s many personal and legal troubles — which is very hard to do since this whole movie is Miller’s character making selfish choices that hurt a lot of people and then trying to avoid taking full responsibility by being The Flash — the movie offers some superficial entertainment value. It’s reasonably enjoyable while you’re watching it, but very frustrating to think about five minutes after the lights go up and you realize most of it didn’t actually work.

Andy Muschietti (“It”) directs clean, bright, mostly satisfying action sequences, at least up until the film’s epic finale, which takes place entirely against a backdrop of a beige desert. One can’t help but look at this action sequence, which might as well be set in limbo half the time, and remember the immortal words of John Ford at the end of “The Fabelmans,” as yelled by David Lynch: “When the horizon’s in the middle, it’s boring as sh*t.”

Superhero movies have found a way to make nostalgia carnivals, especially through the concept of the multiverse, not just amusing but dramatically satisfying. (Although, admittedly there’s only three films that have truly pulled this off and they’ve all starred Spider-Man.) It’s poor timing that “The Flash” would come on the heels of an ecstatic experience like “Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse,” making this new film’s particular blend of conventional time travel clichés and member berries already look a little antiquated and unremarkable.

What it amounts to is a movie that spends all its time racing from one poorly-thought out story element to another, from one only modestly satisfying nostalgia shout-out to another, and with only questionable results. How fitting, yet how disappointing: “The Flash” has the runs.