I had a miserable time watching The Flash. Pretty much from beginning to end. Let me explain.
The ratio of humor to drama
At the core of The Flash is a very emotional story of grief and closure and what it means to move forward after living through tragedy. The three main characters we spend time with are Barry, other Barry, and Bruce Wayne. Both Ben Affleck Batman and Michael Keaton Batman serve as mentors for Barry’s grieving process, telling him things like “These scars are what make us who we are” and “Don’t live your past, live your life.” Of course, other Barry, lacking the tragic experiences, is mostly insufferable (though he matures along the way).
For every thoughtful beat that Flash has, there are 50 comedic ones. The movie goes out of its way to fish for a laugh. One of my least favorite moments happened at the would-be title screen. Barry prepares to race off to a hospital disaster, as the title card begins to resolve on screen. Then a group of teenagers yell out in recognition of this superhero right in front of them. The title card vanishes and Barry engages. Then notices one has a candy bar. He asks them to throw it to him.
This is a continuation of the opening scene where Barry orders a sandwich but the awful person working at the shop won’t hurry and takes so long that Barry has to leave before eating. Okay, so we’ve established he’s hungry. The girl’s thrown the candy bar. So what happens? Does he catch it and eat it? No. He gets distracted, the candy bar hits him in the head, then he re-orients, re-strikes his take-off pose, the title card re-appears, resolves, then he takes off. The candy bar still on the ground.
Barry is the fastest man on Earth. He’s starving. This girl throws him candy. There’s zero reason for him not to eat it. Just a few minutes later, we get a whole sequence where he smashes into a vending machine that’s falling through the air then gobbles a bunch of snacks before saving the half-dozen babies also falling through the air. So he had the time to eat while its raining babies, but not enough time to eat before running over to the hospital?
I know this seems petty/pedantic/unimportant. Of all the things to complain about, I’m complaining about a candy bar left on the ground. I’m not saying it’s the biggest problem in the movie. Just that it’s emblematic of the quality of writing. The issue isn’t one humongous plot hole or anything like that. It’s the death by a thousand cuts of stupid, illogical behavior for the sake of humor. Another example is forcing Michael Keaton to repeat the “Now, you wanna get nuts? Come on! Let’s get nuts!” dialogue from the 1989 movie. Is it fun? Sure. Is it completely illogical and stupid and meta in a way that takes me out of the movie? Absolutely.
And, yes, I hear you, people thinking that I’m only complaining about DC movies using humor and not Marvel movies. Quantumania has many of the same issues as The Flash. Big concepts. A core dramatic arc that’s pretty solid. Some nice performances. Horrible writing because attempts at comedy overshadow everything else.
I would contend that the “best” superhero movies are the ones that tell mostly grounded stories and wait for comedic opportunities rather than chasing after as many laughs as possible. It’s the major tonal difference between Wonder Woman and Wonder Woman 1984. The first entry starts off by establishing Diana’s present then taking us back through her childhood, young adulthood, and the day that changed everything for her. While 1984 begins with a mall robbery that’s goofy, cartoonish, and “fun”.
With that said, tastes will differ. There are people who think 1984 is better than The Dark Knight. There are people who think The Suicide Squad is better than any movie from the MCU. There are people who loathe The Batman because it’s too serious. They prefer the camp and bravado of Batman Forever. That’s fine! Like what you like! Love what you love. “Good” and “Bad” and “Best” and “Worst” are, absolutely, subjective. But, broadly speaking, yeah, The Flash is bad.
Why do I think that? For me, it’s hard to really ever buy-in on what Barry’s feeling or the seriousness of a situation when every moment has a laugh thrown in. Flash works so hard to keep us laughing that when it switches gears near the end—I’m still waiting for the punchline. “Oh, Zod’s impaled Kara/Supergirl. I’m ready for the slapstick comment and reaction! Still waiting. Oh, now they’re draining her of her DNA. And…yeah. She’s gone. No joke? No zinger? No quip? Should I feel sad now? Ah, too late, we’re on to the next thing.” Same thing with Batman. “Oh, he really just had no way out of that and flew the Batwing into a shielded alien ship? And he’s gone? Are we sure he’s gone? We’re sure. Huh. Oh, but, Barry will just go back in time and stop it.”
Barry’s lack of character building
We really don’t know much about Barry’s life. He has an apartment. Works as a forensic scientist. His dad may get out of jail but it’s a longshot. And Barry had a crush on Iris West when he was a kid. We get these details in the first 20-ish minutes. Then for nearly 2-hours we’re in the alternative timeline where Barry’s mom is still alive and his family is intact. The story becomes about Barry finding a way home. First, he gets 2013-Barry on the same page. Then they go see Bruce. Then they rescue Kara. Then it’s the Zod fight. Finally, Barry returns to his present day. He manages to get his dad exonerated and somehow convinces Iris to date him. That’s it.
Emotionally, Barry has come to terms with the loss of his mom. The whole thing with 2013-Barry and trying to save Kara and defeat Zod becomes a metaphor for grief and loss. That other world represents his mom and that life he could have had. While Zod is death incarnate, literally destroying the world. So there is character growth.
It’s just we really don’t see what that growth means for Barry. His whole encounter with 2013-Barry gave him a tremendous amount of self-awareness, right? Like when he understood how annoying it was that 2013-Barry wouldn’t stop talking and how other people must have felt interacting with him over the years. But what does he do with this self-awareness? How does gaining some degree of closure benefit him? Was he incapable of dating Iris before this but now has the confidence to ask her out? Not really. She pursues him. Both initially and at the end.
You could argue that by letting go of his mom, it put him in a position to realize he could move the tomatoes to the top shelf and thus change the video footage so it will exonerate his father. If Barry hadn’t reached that point of catharsis, he wouldn’t have been able to do that.
But what’s it mean for Barry to have his dad out of jail? Aside from the generic emotions associated with such a thing? What’s it mean to this character in particular? We don’t know because The Flash never develops Barry as a character. We got more about Kara and what fighting and defeating Zod would mean to her and for her than we ever do about Barry. As a character, he’s very defined. But as a person, nope. All we’ve been given is superficial story beats that he gets to react emotionally too. That’s very different from actual development.
For development, it can be as simple as we got in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3. We’re told that Peter Quill has a grandfather back on Earth that he’s been scared to visit. We see the ways in which he feels lost. Then he’s told that he needs the closure of reconnecting with the family he’s avoided for decades now. And that’s exactly what we get at the end. Him going back home, taking that step. We even have a bit in an after credits scene where we Peter interacts with his grandpa and what life is kind of like for him now.
In Flash? There’s nothing like that. What’s it mean for Barry to get some degree of closure for his grief? Who knows. His dad being out of jail? Changes nothing? Everything? Some things? In fact, Barry’s still not even back in his “world” as George Clooney is Bruce Wayne. Is Barry okay with that? Will that drive him crazy? Is he okay with whatever other changes he’s wrought since it means saving his dad? Or will he also have to abandon this attempt at saving a parent, just like before, and have to undo everything again?
It’s possible for a movie to have this many questions at the end of it and still be good and satisfying. Not everything needs to be explicit and wrapped up neatly with a bow on it. So the issue isn’t ambiguity. The issue is the lack of meaningful contrast that ends up making the story we just spent 2 hours and 24 minutes watching feel almost completely empty of consequence and impact in regard to the circumstances of the main character.
The lack of stakes
A lack of stakes is part of why we have the lack of meaningful contrast. Most of The Flash takes place in an alternative 2013. And a lot of the plot goes to developing characters in that world then threatening the world itself via Zod. At the end of it all, Barry goes back in time and stops that alternative 2013 from ever existing. Meaning those characters and stakes we’ve spent 2 hours building up? None of it matters. Kara? She’s gone. Keaton Batman? Gone.
There is something to that in regard to the main theme of grief and closure. Barry’s whole journey is learning that not every problem has a solution and that some things are what they are. You can’t run from them, change them, stop them. You can’t save Kara. You can’t save Keatman. You can’t defeat Zod. You can’t bring your mom back.
That is a powerful theme that will resonate with a lot of people. Yet, regardless, it still means that we spent 2 hours developing a world that immediately ceased to exist and will never return. The positives and the negatives of this aren’t mutually exclusive. It can be part of a meaningful thematic point while also robbing the story of stakes. There’s a version of this movie that has the same strong thematic thesis but finds a way to develop it through a story where what happens does actually matter.
We saw that pretty much done in Endgame. The sequences where characters travel back in time all serve major plot purposes that make what happened in the past/other universes relevant and meaningful to a number of story threads and how those threads play out. The Flash could have done something similar by actually exploring Barry’s life post-closure and post-his-dad’s release. I’m not saying we needed 30 more minutes. 5-10 would have done it.
Other dumb stuff
-It bothers me that when Flash runs he does those weird horizontal half-circles with his arms. No one runs like that. Maybe there’s some electricity/static charge/core-to-his-powers explanation for the gesture, just like “closing the circuit” for the energy blasts? Even if there is, it still looks so outrageous to me that instead of being excited about Flash getting to do cool Flash stuff—I’m just annoyed.
-I thought the Chrono-Bowl was one of the stupidest looking things I’ve seen in any comic book movie. And the fact that Barry has to run backwards in place? It’s just silly. Like something out of 1995’s Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers: The Movie.
-The moment between Barry and his mom at the end was nice. But I didn’t quite believe that she would just hug a random stranger like that. I get that she was a sweet person. It just played out a bit forced to me. And had a weird energy because it seemed like there was recognition on her part but then it also went out the window. I feel like I’ll be in the minority on this one and most people would rather not nitpick such a cathartic moment.
-I HATED THE OTHER SUPERMAN WORLDS. Okay, seeing Nic Cage as Superman, finally, was cool. But what the hell? Flash is in a purple orb. And there are other random orbs of other colors? And each of those orbs contained…only Supermen/Superwomen? We’re told those are other worlds/universes but we only see the Superpeople. Except within the purple one it’s the Flashes? And it’s not really a world/universe. It’s just things that Barry experienced. It’s, one again, a very forced moment. There’s a way to include the history of the Superman cinematic character without it being such nonsense.
-The biggest gripe I have with comic book movies is when I feel there’s a sense of “It’s okay for this to not really make any sense—it’s a comic book movie, afterall! Our audience won’t care.” It’s a disservice to the story, the characters, the filmmakers, and the audience. And that’s how all of The Flash felt to me. Just that sense of “People want to laugh at Ezra. If we give them that, they’ll let us get away with whatever we want.”
-Everything with Kara was just so much cooler than anything involving Barry. The movie had a completely different edge and energy whenever she was on screen. It’s similar to how boring The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey was but then they brought in Legolas for The Desolation of Smaug and there was a night and day difference in the action and potential of every scene.
When 2013-Barry sacrifices himself to save Barry, that should be emotional. Instead, I’m still overwhelmed by how dumb the future version of 2013-Barry looked with his suit of debris. That’s the best they could come up with? I guess that outfit wasn’t meant to be funny. But I was certainly laughing in disbelief.
-The CGI was pretty awful. It looked like CGI from the mid-00s rather than 2023.
Did Barry really not want to find out who killed his mom? Even if he didn’t stop it, shouldn’t he at least, you know, go look? Or at least have a line of dialogue about not being able to look because then he’d try and stop it? Just feels like one of those obvious thoughts/considerations that’s never addressed. I know that it’s a big plot point for a future villain and that’s why they didn’t include it. But, to me, it’s unrealistic for him not to seriously consider getting an answer to the biggest mystery of his entire life.
-They kept talking about Eric Stoltz playing Marty McFly in this bizarro Back to the Future. But they never show it. That’s such a tease.
-I’m never a fan of the “lose your power and have to wait to get it back” story. It feels like low hanging fruit to me.
What I liked!
-I enjoyed how they did everything possible to hide Michael Keaton’s face when he first appears and fights the Barrys in the kitchen. Except Keaton was in every single trailer and advertising material. That makes the choice to “hide” him seem silly. Then you realize there’s an even sillier reason for it—Keaton can’t fight. So in order to show off the hand to hand combat abilities of 1989 Bruce Wayne…they completely cover Keaton’s face. This should probably go under the “dumb stuff” section but it amused me more than it upset me.
-I would watch an entire movie about Kara.
-I love Pan’s Labyrinth, so seeing Maribel Verdú was a wonderful surprise.
-I said it near the beginning, but the actual core story of Barry dealing with grief and the journey to closure is cool and something that will actually be meaningful for a lot of people. I think it’s been done much much better in plenty of other movies. But I appreciate The Flash at least including a deeper, personal journey like that.
-Batfleck had the best action sequence in the whole movie. And it was in the first 15 minutes. That’s a shame. But it was cool.