The first DOA blockbuster of summer 2023 can lay some claim to being a victim of circumstance. Restructuring at host studio Warner Bros - and the announcement that James Gunn would be jumping aboard to oversee a complete overhaul of DC Comics' sputtering cinematic universe - meant The Flash arrived on screens already feeling like yesterday's news. The new regime hardly helped the movie's cause by sending it out at the same time as Marvel's squeaky-clean, carefully polished, glowingly reviewed Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse. And anecdotal evidence suggests audiences have been uncertain how the film connects (if it connects at all) with the recent streaming series of the same name. (These universes and multiverses have now expelled so much content it was perhaps inevitable they should start tripping over themselves.) In the meantime, star Ezra Miller has been using DC's paycheque to go on an all-but-kill-crazy tear across America, like some sociopathic Chris McCandless. (Enter any number of We Need to Talk About Ezra headlines here.) Given the forces levelled against it, one might nurse some measure of sympathy for Andy Muschietti's film - I took up my notebook and pen half-expecting to write one of those rounding reviews, taking the edge off the harsher, less temperate online responses - were it not for two things. One: The Flash is still likely to surpass the $100m mark in the US (if not go much further, one yardstick of failure when your budget is $200m-plus). And two: The Flash is expensive garbage, riven with bad choices in everything from storytelling and visualisation to the manner in which the actors have been coached to express themselves on a scene-by-scene basis. At its worst, which is way too often for a 144-minute feature, The Flash succeeds in being aggressively terrible, in ways even the flatter, more mediocre Marvel spin-offs have never quite been.
Block out all this noisome extratextual interference, and Muschietti's film might still betray signs of creative insecurity - foremost among them the decision to drag a Batman on every fifteen minutes to reassure us we're still within touching distance of the comic-book heavy hitters. To their credit, DC haven't yet greenlit a film about a talking raccoon - this may be where Gunn comes in - but Muschietti has been handed the fool's errand of fashioning a major event movie about a figure who largely presents as a sidekick or stand-in, someone who forever appears less superheroic than so much small fry. Some of this, granted, was factored into the original character. Among DC's second-string IP roster, The Flash is the nerdy, speedy one (where, say, Deadpool was the snarky one); in the early non-action scenes, Miller's yammering research scientist Barry Allen bears an unexpected resemblance to Bruce McCulloch's precocious Gavin character from Kids in the Hall. His superpower is the ability to stop time dead - or, rather, coat time in carriage-clock amber so as to prevent, allay or redirect developing chaos, an effect that on screen can't help but recall the "bullet time" of The Matrix, or that one X-Man who could run up and around the walls of a room in the time it took his contemporaries to blink. (So much for the novelty these movies used to trade in.)
This power is first illustrated in the course of a setpiece that sees our guy juggling two dozen swaddled tots loosed into mid-air as a result of a collapsing maternity ward. (That's a fun, semi-subversive image, one you suspect the play-it-safe MCU would never have arrived at; "Baby... shower?," a quizzical Allen wonders, a characteristically tentative flicker of wit.) Yet these supernatural gifts apparently arrived too late for the younger Allen to save his mother (Maribel Verdú, oddly), murdered in a curious, unresolved domestic episode seen in flashback. Psychologically, it makes sense that The Flash gravitates towards Batman. Victims of familial trauma, they're both stuck in a moment, superpowers notwithstanding. (What is the Batcave if not a well-stocked surrogate womb - somewhere to retreat whenever maternal care crumbles?) The set-up is familiar but intriguing - not least because it centralises and threatens to work through the arrested development to which the movie mainstream has itself fallen subject in recent years. Yet this being a mega-budget multiverse movie, it's soon overwritten by Any Other Business; mom's murder is relegated to sidebar status. Muschietti comprehensively muffs the multiverse stuff, whipping up a dull fug of asterisks and footnotes, and rendering the onscreen string theory as ugly computer code. (The multiverse equivalent of Spaghetti Junction looks as if AI has been asked to imagine a Brueghel redesign of the Sgt. Pepper cover.) Back in play: Superman's nemesis General Zod (Michael Shannon, fighting a losing battle with financially beneficial boredom). New to the scene: Superman's daughter (Sasha Calle). Any one of these turns might have sustained a pithy two-hour diversion, but we've reached the point where these movies would rather flap at three plots than do one story well.
The result is a gabble, the kind of tangled, logic-deficient yarn a hyperventilating six-year-old might try to spin around you at the breakfast table, and that trying-to-tiresome childishness begins to permeate almost every other aspect of the film. Watching the recent reissue of 1978's Superman - the original DC movie - I was struck anew by the 26-year-old Christopher Reeve and 30-year-old Margot Kidder, utterly convincing as grown adults given gainful employment in a Gotham City newsroom. By contrast, I didn't believe for a moment that anyone would trust the twitchy Miller with a position in a research lab; and as the reporter on the trail of Barry Allen's double life, Kiersey Clemons can only be working for a sixth-form magazine. This is weird on several levels, especially as The Flash clearly wants to appeal to viewers nostalgic for earlier DC properties. Even the grown-ups Muschietti nudges on screen seem to be playing at being grown-ups. Listening to the gravelly drawl Ben Affleck affects as Bruce Wayne, you wonder: is this how actors wearied by a decade-and-a-half of relentless dress-up convince themselves they're still doing serious work? The big lure for nostalgics, of course, is an earlier Batman still, unveiled with a mid-film flourish and a Danny Elfman-inflected ta-da, like a dusty item retrieved from the furthest reaches of the memorabilia display cabinet. Michael Keaton is the one actor in The Flash permitted to play lived-in and interesting, and it helps the film's cause that he continues to look better in his Batsuit than Affleck has ever done in his. (Certain mummified corpses would look better in that Batsuit; Affleck is the first Batman to have made me thankful for the renewed visibility of defibrillators in public spaces.)
Yet it's a measure of the vast imaginative failure The Flash represents that Old Batman is finally turned to as not all that much more than this universe's Doc Brown: a straggly-haired near-loon allowed to air a few desultory regrets of his own while nudging a pipsqueak hero onwards. Back to the Future references abound here: this script, credited to Birds of Prey's Christina Hodson but almost certainly the result of multiple hands, flogs a running multiverse gag premised on the many actors linked with the Marty McFly role - but, really, how different is that from the abiding confusion over whether Miller, Grant Gustin or Gunn's pick is the definitive Flash? More than by any of the rushed, slipshod effects, you come away struck by the colossal waste involved in producing such trivial fluff: the waste of time (theirs and ours), of money and human resources, of characters who once stood for something before they became the playthings of competing venture capitalists. I spent much of the closing hour - and almost all of the nonsensical final runaround, a teachable example of anti-climax - daydreaming about using The Flash's powers to go back to 2008, steal off with the budget for the first Iron Man movie, and redistribute this wealth among the twenty previous winners of the Sundance Grand Jury prize. Barry Allen is told, with wearying repetition given the idea's prevalence in contemporary pop culture, that no good can follow from meddling with the past. But the evidence currently on display at a multiplex near you would suggest my fleeting thought experiment could in no way leave American filmmaking in a worse state than it is right now.
The Flash is now playing in cinemas nationwide.