Directed by Andy Muschietti
Written by Christina Hodson and Joby Harold
Starring Ezra Miller, Michael Keaton and Sasha Calle
Classification PG; 144 minutes
Opens in theatres June 16
Sometimes making a movie is like throwing spaghetti at the wall, an impatient attempt to see what sticks. Which means that sometimes watching a movie is like slurping soggy noodles that have sunk to the filthy floor below. Not to make you nauseous, but The Flash is just this kind of hot cinematic mess, a blockbuster meal as impetuously sloppy as it is almost pure slop.
Just in case you think that I’m belabouring a pasta metaphor here, The Flash uses a bowl of spaghetti to explain away its own plot holes and existential purposelessness. About midway through, the film’s title superhero, a comic-book speedster named Barry Allen (Ezra Miller) who has caused a rift in the space-time continuum, is sitting down for lunch with Batman. Not the Batman of his universe, who earlier in the film was embodied by Ben Affleck, the Dark Knight audiences know and kind of love from the past decade of Zack Snyder’s DC films (Batman v. Superman, Justice League). No, this Batman is actually the Bruce Wayne of the long-ago Tim Burton era, played by Michael “You Wanna Get Nuts? Let’s Get Nuts!” Keaton.
What is Keaton doing here? (Setting aside the dump-truck full of cash that was surely pulled up to the actor’s house.) Well, as his version of Batman explains to Barry, messing around with time travel is like boiling a strand of spaghetti – what was once a rigidly straight line becomes a bendable, flexible thing. And mess with time enough, as Barry does, and you end up with a pile of jumbled wet noodles only vaguely resembling what you started cooking with. Which means that in one DC movie timeline, Affleck dons the Bat-cowl. But change one little thing, and it’s Keaton.
Does that make sense? Not even a little bit. But nothing in The Flash is meant to make sense, to soothe your mind, or to engage your imagination – this is spaghetti-brained moviemaking, more interested in goosing empty-calorie nostalgia than telling an original or thrilling story. Might as well take Batman’s Bat-lunch and shove it down your Bat-gullet until you’re fit to throw up in his Bat-kitchen.
Before you feel the urge to bring out the Bat-barf bag, though, it’s important to note that The Flash opens on a relatively fresh and invigorating note that promises a more entertaining movie than the one it delivers.
We first meet Barry as he jostles between his day job as a crime-scene forensics analyst and his off-hours gig trying to solve the murder of his mom. But then the hero is called into service by his Justice League minders to help rescue a bevy of newborns trapped in a nearby hospital that’s on the verge of collapsing. With the on-screen action alternately accelerated and then super-slowed-down, Barry zips and dips around the explosive chaos with a fierce energy that plays to Miller’s strengths as a physical comedian. (So much so that you can almost – but not completely, because who are we kidding? – understand why producers have stood by Miller as the performer has been the subject of almost as many disturbing headlines as The Flash has visual-effects artists.)
The hospital-rescue scene might be hard to watch for expectant mothers – at various points, the infants are threatened by shattered glass, flame-throwers and jars of sulphuric acid – but its line between nerve-jangling thrills and sickly dark comedy is so thin that the whole stunt energizes and dazzles. The moment is in fact so strong, and executed with such confidence by director Andy Muschietti (best-known for the two It movies), that it feels like The Flash just might end up being that rare exception to the contemporary comic-book movie maxim: this won’t be the same old-same-old super-tedious super-heroics.
Very quickly, though – almost as quick as, well, you know – Muschietti’s film settles into a head-scratching, eyeroll-inducing mishmash of CGI nonsense that tries to convince you it’s far more clever than it is in fact corporately craven.
After realizing that he can save his mother in the past if he runs faster than the speed of light – just go with it, okay? – Barry gets himself unstuck in time. To get back home, the hero enlists the help of a younger version of himself (also played by Miller), plus Keaton’s Batman and a super-surly Supergirl (Sasha Calle). Can this quartet of unlikely heroes defeat the villainous General Zod (Michael Shannon, compelled to return after destroying Earth in Snyder’s patient zero of a franchise-starter, 2013′s Man of Steel), restore their timelines, and possibly live up the many Back to the Future references that Muschietti and his screenwriters pepper into the script? The answers will not surprise you, though they may send you into a bout of crippling depression.
The movie’s embarrassingly janky VFX and overreliance on faux-witty one-liners are to be expected by this point in the comic-book movie game. Same with the mushy multiverse logic, a high-concept trick that only Chris Miller and Phil Lord’s animated Spider-Man films have managed to execute with inventiveness and wit.
Far harder to accept is just how badly The Flash handles its inclusion of Keaton, and everything that his idiosyncratic, eyebrow-raising hero once meant to a generation of moviegoers. Aside from laying Danny Elfman’s original Batman score over certain scenes – whose immortal power only serves as an unintentional reminder of how limp The Flash composer Benjamin Wallfisch’s work is here – there is nothing in Muschietti’s film that demonstrates that the director understands what made the initial Keaton/Burton collaboration so powerfully weird, and in turn weirdly powerful.
Good on Keaton for getting that easy money, but his shoulder-shrugging participation in The Flash represents the end game of pop-junk nostalgia. It is meaningless and empty – pasta for dummies.