Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, The Flash makes history this week. It’s the first-ever major Hollywood movie with an openly gender-fluid lead actor. This should be cause for celebration — it is Pride Month, after all. Trouble is, that lead actor is Ezra Miller. Even before the pandemic, their reputation as an excellent young actor was being eclipsed by their notoriety as a person in need of a mental institution.
Seriously, have you read the stories about them? Miller’s dossier is full of single incidents that would be terrifying by themselves: allegations of death threats, stockpiling guns, kidnapping children, trespassing, harassment, numerous assaults. They also apparently told members of the Ku Klux Klan to kill themselves, which I’m actually OK with.
Miller has apologized and said that they are seeking professional help, which is more encouraging than not doing those things. I do understand that mental illness can be a bear to deal with. Thing is, starring in a big Hollywood movie can put a strain on even the healthiest psyches, and still Warner has stuck with Miller in this role, possibly because the studio cares about them as a person, but more likely because the studio has thrown away too much money to recast the part and delay a project that was announced back in 2014. That’s irresponsible and downright reckless, and Miller might well have been better served with some time alone to put themselves together.
So I’ve broken out precisely one party hat to celebrate The Flash, because that excellent young actor is still in evidence here and because I find it to be the best of the DC superhero movies. Only one hat, though, because it’s easily the weakest of the recent movies about multiple universes.
The script’s best material comes before Barry Allen (Miller) creates the multiverse. The film opens with a funny scene as Barry deals with a highly unprofessional barista who holds strong opinions about Barry’s usual breakfast order. Our hero is called away to save an entire maternity ward full of babies from falling to their deaths from a collapsing hospital, a sequence that’s done with wit and energy by Argentinian director Andy Muschietti. I like the fact that Barry is always depicted as eating something, because The Flash has a sky-high metabolism. Then both Barry and Batman (Ben Affleck) make embarrassing admissions under the influence of Wonder Woman’s truth lasso. When Barry does create the multiverse, it gives rise to some trippy visuals that we haven’t seen the DC films take. Miller has enough range to convey the character’s trauma and also perform some physical comedy after Barry loses his superpowers.
Alas, the film loses its groove when dealing with the murder of Barry’s mother (Maribel Verdú) when he was 10 and his father (Ron Livingston) being wrongfully imprisoned for the crime. Barry’s desire to run off his emotions results in him running faster than light speed and turning back time, which gives him the idea to undo the murder. Bruce Wayne warns him of the consequences, but Barry does it anyway and finds himself stranded in another universe where there’s another him (also Miller) and General Zod (Michael Shannon) is threatening to destroy the Earth unless they turn over an imprisoned Kryptonian. Turns out Zod isn’t referring to Superman, who is dead in this timeline, but rather Supergirl (Sasha Calle). Oh, and when the two Barrys enlist Batman’s help, they find a different Bruce Wayne (Michael Keaton), a long-haired recluse in flip-flops who’s given up on the world.
Newcomer Calle offers up an intriguing hard-bitten presence as Supergirl, but she’s not given the chance to follow that up. The story drowns in fanservice that includes even more versions of Superman and Batman. The CGI renditions of young Christopher Reeve and Helen Slater may warm some fans’ hearts, but they don’t have the same impact as the flesh-and-blood appearances of Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield in Spider-Man: No Way Home. Nor does the movie reach the absurdist glee or the visual fecundity of the Spider-Verse movies, and Barry’s view of the other universes pales in comparison to Miles Morales’ look at the canon. I mean, even Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness uses the trope more effectively than The Flash does. If that sounds harsh, well, your movie has to suffer the comparisons when it arrives late to the latest trend.
Starring Ezra Miller and Michael Keaton. Directed by Andy Muschietti. Written by Christina Hodson. Rated PG-13.