We are now ten years on from Man of Steel, the film that was supposed to launch the DC alternative to the then fast growing Marvel Cinematic Universe, helmed by Zack Snyder, who was to shepherd the property in a way similar to Kevin Feige for the Disney-owned brand.
Several disjointed films of variable quality later, and the DC universe is about to relaunch under the stewardship of James Gunn, Superman is about to be rebooted, and a whole new slate of films will follow, suggesting that Warner Brothers feel the same way as a lot of the viewing public: that the DC Extended Universe has been – on balance – a failure, certainly artistically – with the films releasing to poor-to-mediocre reviews – but, arguably, financially also, with many of the films failing to get anywhere near projections, even if they did not tend to lose money.
Back when the Snyderverse was in full swing, plans were in place for films starring The Flash (Barry Allen, portrayed by Ezra Miller). As the continuity started to fray and fail, plans were hatched for this film to be a grand reset, based upon The Flashpoint story arc that launched the New 52 back in the early 2010s. Although a divisive story arc – as much for what followed than for its own intrinsic qualities – it was certainly full of ambition and scope. Whether that level of reach was ever planned for this film version is unclear, as Ezra Miller’s reported personal and legal problems, the associated delays, changes of writer and director, and reshoots ordered many times as the forward plans for DC on film have shifted have left it less that obvious what has changed from the original concept of this storyline. The end result is – fittingly – a return to the events of the DCEU’s first entry: the aforementioned Man of Steel.
After an opening action sequence in which Barry is contacted by Alfred (Jeremy Irons) to assist Batman (Ben Affleck) in Gotham with saving people from a collapsing hospital while Bruce Wayne takes care of the perpetrators of the incident, Barry is preparing for the legal appeal of his father, Henry (Ron Livingston cast in place of Billy Crudup), who is in prison for the murder of Barry’s mother, Nora (Maribel Verdú) when he was a child. In his frustration and grief at the situation, where he is unable to prove definitely that his father was not at home at the time, Barry runs so fast that he breaks the light barrier and goes back in time to before the hospital incident. Realising he can time travel, he knows he can go back to prevent the murder.
Despite warnings from Bruce of the butterfly effect – that he could mess up the whole of the space-time continuum with this action – he does proceed to prevent the events of her death. While returning to the present, he is knocked out of the speedforce (his road through time, effectively) into 2013, where there is an 18-year-old version of him, with a mother still alive, a little more pampered as a result, and yet to receive his powers. Having to ensure younger Barry is present for the accident that causes the changes to his body (as that version no longer has the job at which that happened to him), both then have to find Superman, as they realise the General Zod (Michael Shannon) is about to invade, in an attempt to terraform the planet into a new Krypton. Seeking Bruce, they find that they have broken the timeline and he is now a much older, retired Batman, portrayed by Michael Keaton, and living in the Wayne Manor of the Tim Burton films.
Using Bruce’s technology and access to the CIA files, they are able to track a Kryptonian life sign to the Arctic Circle, where, instead of Henry Cavill’s Kal-El, they find Kara Zor-El – Supergirl, Superman’s cousin, portrayed by Sasha Calle. Finding no other active or existing member of the Justice League, it’s up to them to prevent Zod destroying the world.
There is much more to the story that we will not spoil here, but it is clear that the meat of it is set around changes more limited than in the comic book version. This is not, in itself, an issue, as Ezra Miller – despite all their issues, and being somewhat annoying in the Joss Whedon cut of Justice League – leads the story with extraordinary heart. When director Andy Mushietti said recently that he could not see a sequel without them, this performance will show you why.
We have the meta-knowledge that this continuity is about to be – at least predominantly – discarded, yet there is a verisimilitude to Barry’s grief over his mother, an earnestness to his awkwardness around people, a sense that extends beyond just ‘bad with women’ and as far as they struggle with everyone as in childhood, they lost access to both parents within days. Barry is a lonely man, and his powers are just niche enough that he does not always know his role in any given situation. Miller portrays the two versions very distinctly. Younger Barry kept his parents, and grew up more pampered, less self-reliant, and more flippant about the dangers of the world. Older Barry carries a nervousness that is almost Woody Allen-esque.
Keaton is magnificent, Calle is engaging, and the opening sequence features Affleck and Gal Godot in a way that really leaves us wishing that Warner had got a proper handle on this earlier. They had the bones of a proper universe but unfolded it all the wrong way around, and put it in the hands of a man, in Snyder, who was style over substance and the wrong sensibility entirely for the Superhero genre – except where it is a deconstruction, like Watchmen, and even then one could argue he missed the point of that story in several places. Along with his parents, they feel like a family (even after the fairly seamless recast of his dad), and so it feels less like a contrived plot point than it could have. This is all supported by a decent, if call-back heavy score from Benjamin Wallfisch, and a terrific visual style that puts Barry at the centre of an arena of time that spins like a dial.
That said, there are huge flaws with The Flash. The fractured conception and production of this film really does show. Calle is relatively wasted as we feel her role downgraded – possibly ready for DC to bring back Superman. Keaton’s ultimate story-arc seems to be veering in different directions, before landing on its ultimate destination, but not in a way that feels designed to surprise, but more like it has been written and rewritten excessively. The final cameo in this film (before the end credits, that is) is almost breaking the immersion, as it is such a gimmick, seeming to overwrite a cameo from someone else possibly no longer a part of DC’s plans.
Chief amongst the film’s flaws though, is some truly disgusting CG work. Marvel and Lucasfilm have expanded their offerings on TV, and productions have gone increasingly the route of shooting everything on greenscreen and looking to fix it in post-production, in order to buy themselves time during filming and reshoots. As such, anecdotes of overstretched and underpaid effects houses, given ever less time to complete work and ever more demands placed upon them to ‘do it again’ have become commonplace.
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The Flash is bad enough in places that this now must be a watershed moment for the industry, as this cannot go on. The opening sequence has babies being saved from the hospital collapse. The quality of the models of the infants makes the animatronic baby from Trainspotting look like real footage of an actual baby walking along the ceiling. It is that bad here. When we see Barry seeing characters from other times or other timelines they all look like the CG of The Rock in The Mummy Returns. CG should not be looking like that well into the third decade of the 21st Century.
So, whilst we have dealt with a lot of CG issues in Hollywood in recent years, for once – here – it has severely damaged the way we look at a film. When reshoots, changes in directions and cameos are allied to effects that feel like they were half-heartedly redone, this feels like a dying IP lazily throwing out its last few entries before it can finally start again and forget the Snyder years. That is a huge disservice to the work of the director, to that of Miller, and to the promise that tackling Flashpoint held for DC on the big screen. Worst of all, the great parts of this film are so good that to have shoddy work damage it is the final insult for a shared universe poorly conceived from the very start.
The Flash is out now in cinemas.