REVIEW: ‘The Flash’

Not only bad, but end-of-a-genre bad

Ezra Miller and Sasha Calle in The Flash (2023) / IMDb
June 19, 2023

Heroes used to be the coin of the cinematic realm. The cowboy was a hero. The sheriff was a hero. The cop was a hero. The detective was a hero. Even the wisecracking newspaperman of countless 1930s screwball comedies would be called upon to do something self-sacrificing and noble to prove his worth. People like heroes. They like watching characters they admire. Since the popular culture has decided that men are not really admirable as a rule, and white men for sure aren’t admirable as a rule (while women are admirable as a rule but for their emotional openness and not their use of fists), the motion-picture industry had to default to semi-magical or entirely magical beings to provide viewers with the depictions of heroism they crave.

This is the explanation for the wild success of the superhero movie in the two decades since the first Spider-Man was released in 2002. The superhero is the only pop-culture hero we have left, really. And while the superhero comes in many varieties, including the female variety, the one quality all superheroes share is that they put the interests of others—from the residents of the city they live in, to the people of their entire planet, then of the entire universe, and then of the entire multiverse of universes—above their own.

It is inexplicable, therefore, that the people who make these movies (and TV shows) have chosen to take a bizarre turn in their storytelling by taking the "hero" out of the superhero. The worst-ever Marvel movie, The Eternals, introduced seven new heroes, only to show us how dull, stupid, vain, and lousy they all were. The Disney Plus show called The Falcon and the Winter Soldier spent seven episodes trashing the legacy of Captain America, the noblest of all superheroes, because the serum that made him turned out to be… racist?

This explains the headshaking misfire that is The Flash, a $300 million epic featuring an unattractive, whiny, and off-putting central character who refuses to listen to reason and sets into motion the destruction of all existence everywhere by… running backward?

I wasn’t a comic-book reader so I can’t speak to the faithfulness of this movie’s depiction of Barry Allen in the person of Ezra Miller, an interesting and odd young actor. Miller is now far more famous for personal misbehavior—beating someone up in a bar in Hawaii, accused of grooming a 12-year-old girl, arrested for breaking into and entering a neighbor’s house in Vermont—than for performing. And it’s likely to stay that way.

For my sins, with my kids, I have watched quite a lot of the TV show based on the Barry Allen/Flash character. It just wrapped up a nine-year run, and by far the best thing about that program is the extremely charming and personable Grant Gustin, who also plays Barry Allen. So it can’t be that the Flash was designed by his comic-book creators all the way back in 1956 to be as unpleasant as Miller is here and has been in two previous DC Comics movies. Some of this is due to Christina Hodson’s peculiar screenplay, which starts off the picture with Barry Allen whining (on some kind of invisible communication device connecting him with Jeremy Irons, playing Batman’s butler Alfred) about being hungry and how he’s constantly being taken advantage of by other members of the Justice League.

He does not grow more personable, even after he saves an entire nursery full of babies in a wacky sequence in which the newborns aren’t only launched into the air when the hospital housing them collapses but are threatened as they fall through the air by knives and acid and other deadly things. Miller is anti-personable, and that quality persists throughout, marking this as perhaps the single-most egregious piece of miscasting since Laurence Olivier played Neil Diamond’s Orthodox Jewish cantor father in the 1980 remake of The Jazz Singer. And Miller is not only miscast once. Miller plays two versions of Barry Allen in this gigantic film and not only appears in almost every second of the picture but often appears twice in the same frame. One Miller is bad enough; two Millers is all but unendurable.

To be fair to Miller, he’s not the only bad thing here. The depiction of Barry’s use of his superpowers, which is pretty similar to the TV show’s, basically features him moving in slow motion while fake-looking lightning effects fill the screen. And then there’s the running. Barry is clad in a red leather jump suit with a masked-wrestler head covering, and you know he’s become The Fastest Man on Earth when he chicken-flaps his arms and assumes a gait that combines ice-dancing with a Rockette kick. I know our job as viewers is to suspend disbelief, but you can’t suspend your sense of the ridiculous, and Ezra Miller looks absolutely ridiculous.

Like Jack Woltz in The Godfather, a superhero can’t afford to be made to look ridiculous. It’s the central job of all superhero performers, in fact—to make it seem as though the suit and the cape and the mask are the perfect manifestations of the heroism they must display. But maybe Miller’s silly conduct fits the overall catastrophe of this picture, since it removes the heroism from Barry Allen (even after he saves all those babies) and turns him into a universe-destroyer.

It suddenly occurs to him that he can somehow save his mother and father from unjust fates by turning back time and making a small change on the day his mom was murdered and his dad was charged with her death. So he does it—and guess what? He rends the fabric of time and he changes Batman from Ben Affleck into Michael Keaton and he brings back Superman’s enemy General Zod and then he has to make things right after making them wrong.

We already saw a superhero make this mistake (though not a DC superhero) in Spider-Man: No Way Home three years ago. But Marvel and Sony made sure that when Spider-Man sought desperately to screw things up in the multiverse, he didn’t do it by himself; rather, the sorcerer Dr. Strange did it for him (for reasons the movie never explains). Also, when he does it, it summons the two previous screen Spider-Men (Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield) and their presence is delightful—as opposed to the second Barry Allen, who is even more dislikable than the first Barry Allen.

Still, the decision to have Peter Parker mess up the universe had a very short-sighted quality to it. He is the cinema’s favorite superhero for a reason—he always, always means well and often goes unrewarded for it except by us, who know his secrets. Now his creators have called his heroism into question by elevating his teenage foolishness—the very structure of existence is threatened because he asked Dr. Strange to be a magical Rick Singer and cast a varsity-blues spell to get his friends into MIT through a side door.

We can’t have real-world heroes any longer, and now, it seems, we can’t even have comic-book heroes any longer. These Hollywood morons are killing the one golden goose they had left, and it may be the last egg they got from it was Ezra Miller.

Published under: Movie Reviews