The multiverse craze may have just recently taken off, but DC's latest already feels like a death rattle for the blockbuster trend.
Film Yap is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support our work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
It feels like the novelty of the multiverse movie craze is wearing thin almost as soon as it blew up.
Marvel has gone all-in on the concept with its “Multiverse Saga,” but critic and audience reception of its big-picture herald, Quantumania, among other recent releases, was tepid at best—a fact that may be irrelevant anyway since the actor set to shoulder the next few years of the franchise is now toast.
2022’s “movie of the year,” Everything Everywhere All At Once, wowed us with its multiverse of motherhood, but did so by telling a more thematically complex story than we’ll likely ever see from a superhero tentpole.
The Internet is still reeling from the impressive self-one-upmanship of Across the Spider-Verse and the ways it has laid bare the shortcomings of other multidimensional blockbusters.
In just two years, we’ve gone from having our minds blown by appearances from familiar favorites in Spider-Man: No Way Home to dreading who might be resurrected via time travel and digital de-aging in the next entry of our favorite franchises. We’ve gotten a few gems from the trend, sure, but it’s also starting to feel like a cheap trick. Everyone wants a piece of the multiverse.
And why not? It’s a cheat code for resurrecting and prolonging recognizable IP. In a world where Fast & Furious characters have now been to space, it’s hardly unreasonable to ask, “Could Dom race himself?”
Multiverse mania has taken off in a flash, but if DC’s attempt to cash in is any indication, it may be gone in one too.
The Flash arrives just as the original DC cinematic universe is wheezing its last breaths, promising massive scope and grand ambitions, as hailed by newly-minted franchise head James Gunn and, supposedly, even Tom Cruise.
But haven’t we already mined the multiverse for all it’s worth? What could possibly be so special about DC’s new stab at the pie?
The former question is a mystery that can only be answered by movies yet to come. But it’s the latter that eludes me, particularly because I’ve seen The Flash, and I don’t have an answer.
The movie is a loose adaptation of the popular DC Comic storyline, Flashpoint, which revolves around titular speedster Barry Allen travelling through time to prevent his mother’s death and the consequences that ripple throughout the timeline as a result.
It’s the same basic premise here at the outset, but the events that take place due to Barry’s actions and where it all ultimately leads are entirely different. After learning in Justice League that he can travel through time to fix mistakes, Barry now faces the impulse to go back and fix his life. His father (Ron Livingston) was wrongly convicted of the murder of Barry’s mother (Maribel Verdú) and is now serving a life sentence. But Barry has the ability to change all that. So he does.
In doing so, Barry stumbles his way into meeting himself—specifically, a version of himself who never lost his parents, and thus never became The Flash. Realizing that his actions led to an Earth devoid of superhuman heroes, and that there’s no one to fend off the Kryptonian invasion we saw in Man of Steel, Barry and Barry set about trying to figure out how to undo the problem. (We’ll call Justice League Barry “Barry 1,” and the Barry who never became Flash “Barry 2.”)
Ezra Miller returns, now pulling double time as Barry 1 and Barry 2. I’ve never particularly liked their version of Barry, but your mileage on their dual performance may vary. I find them to be generally insufferable in the role—a worst-of-both blend of Ryan Reynold’s rapid-fire ad libs and Peter Parker’s neuroticism—and that’s only exacerbated by the fact that the script (written by Christina Hodson) gives you so few reasons to like or respect the character.
Barry 1 is selfish, impulsive, and generally disliked by others, but more mature (and less funny) than Barry 2, who is also all of those things but grew up happy and with both parents, so he’s a bit more amiable and therefore more pleasant to be around. He actually has a couple friends, even if they’re braindead stoners. Barry 1 is impatient with Barry 2’s antics, and Barry 2 is constantly frustrated with how serious Barry 1 is.
Even if Miller’s performance or the Barrys’ dueling demeanors don’t bother you, it’s hard not to be put off by the visual effects that make their sharing the screen possible. This film has some of the worst digital face-replacement I’ve ever seen.
Most movies employ a combination of composited footage and smart camera angles to manage this, but The Flash is not so timid. Almost every shot featuring both Barrys (Barries?) puts their faces on full-display—not with stitched-together footage, but by mapping a computer-generated reconstruction of Miller’s face onto the head of a body double.
This is not the first use of the technique, but it’s certainly the most extensive I can think of. And it’s genuinely shocking—given the movie’s budget and the length of its production—how terrible it looks. Even my fiancée, who normally doesn't notice this type of thing, was appalled.
Unfortunately, face-replacement is only the beginning of this movie’s VFX issues. Entire sequences, featuring slow-motion closeups of multiple human characters, are completely built from slimy, rubbery CGI. It’s inexplicable and inexcusable.
I don’t know if it was an issue of money, time, or ambition, but for some reason or another, what we end up with is two-and-a-half hours of “Flash and Flash vs. The Uncanny Valley.”
Eventually, Barry 1 figures out that, while Superman may not exist in this timeline, other heroes do. Turns out Bruce Wayne is still Batman (or was, anyway), and that this Bruce Wayne looks like Michael Keaton, for some reason.
For clarity, it is Michael Keaton, but it’s pretty clear this is not Tim Burton’s Michael Keaton’s Bruce Wayne. This Michael Keaton’s Bruce Wayne lives in Ben Affleck’s Bruce Wayne’s version of Wayne Manor, and he lacks almost all of the nutty enigma that Keaton brought to Burton’s films.
Keaton plays the part with as much conviction as you could ask from an actor playing a hollow resuscitation of a character they played more than 30 years ago. He is not the problem. The problem is that this movie is meaningless, and the writers never bothered to come up with a real reason to bring him back.
Barry and Barry convince a retired Bruce Wayne to don the cape and cowl once again to help them recruit a different Kryptonian, Supergirl (Sasha Calle). Once again, Calle does what she can with the role, but there’s simply nothing to do. Michael Shannon also returns as General Zod, leader of the Kryptonian invasion, and if it weren’t for his confirmation in interviews that he actually shot new material for the film, I would have believed he recorded his lines in a booth and they inserted him with digital trickery.
What’s weird is that I’ve described about 3/4 of the film’s plot, and yet none of it is really a spoiler? Everything I’ve described is pretty much shown or inferred in the film’s marketing. Just weird, considering how secretive most of these movies are. I guess, in The Flash’s case, most of the secrets are the multiversal cameos, which begin to set in shortly after our makeshift super team faces off against Zod.
To be honest, I didn’t hate this movie for the first hour, maybe even the first 90 minutes. I wasn’t enthralled, but it’s a passable, moderately charming time-travel romp. You’ve heard all the jokes before, but it clips by at a brisk pace and is kept afloat by some interesting camera movement and sight gags. Keaton and Calle keep the thing grounded while Miller indulges both Barrys’ most impish impulses.
But as the film rolls on, this snowball of CGI and empty callbacks grows heavier, burying you deeper within its kaleidoscopic walls until you’re dizzy from the spin of the Chronobowl. More and more familiar faces emerge from the digiscape—faces you know and love, but somehow different, hollow, and lifeless—reaching out to you like IP ghouls rising to drag you into their intertextual depths.
By the time credits roll, The Flash has inadvertently put forth a searing indictment of multiverse pop culture, a damning death rattle for movies built entirely on weaponized nostalgia. It’s an Infinite Mass Punch of all the most hateable elements of contemporary superhero movies, delivered right to your gut with a dead-eyed smile.
It’s probably good that this is (presumably) “it” for the Snyder-founded version of the DC Universe, aside from the Aquaman sequel due out later this year. Soon, the slate will be wiped clean to pave the way for James Gunn’s new iteration of the franchise. What Gunn saw in this movie that compelled him to call it “one of the greatest ever made” is utterly beyond me, and his doing so is certainly cause for a raised eyebrow as he takes over the franchise as co-CEO of DC Studios.
Granted, the DC movie roadmap Gunn recently revealed primarily consists of things I’d really like to see. But most of them are weird, thoughtful things. Things that clearly interest him, but maybe not everyone. Things that might not clear a market test or a boardroom meeting. It’s hard to see them all happening, especially when we’re talking about a movie studio that put so much time and effort into this shambling corpse of a film.