The movie featuring DC Comics superhero the Flash and directed by It's Andy Muschietti spent so long in development that by the time of its release this week it's already been lapped by several other multiverse-focused movies, including Sony's recent Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse. The continuity of DC's superhero movies, which are set to receive another reboot after this year, has been scattered and inconsistent, and a story about exploring those narrative intricacies feels like it's always on the verge of falling apart. While the Spider-Verse movies use a cavalcade of alternate versions of their main character to intelligently explore themes of identity and destiny, The Flash eventually devolves into a series of meaningless cameos that have no relevance to the life of its main character.
It also doesn't help that the main character is often the least interesting person on screen. There are actually two versions of Barry Allen (Ezra Miller) running around for most of the movie, after the original Barry incites chaos following a trip back in time. Miller's Barry has only had a substantial role in one past DC movie, 2017's Justice League, but The Flash treats him like a long-established presence, opening with his gripes about being regarded as a second-class member of the superheroic Justice League as he's ordered around by Batman (Ben Affleck, also reprising his Justice League role).
That opening action sequence, as Batman chases down a terrorist carrying deadly pathogens while the Flash rescues babies from a collapsing hospital, demonstrates the surprisingly shoddy special effects that will come to define the movie and somehow only get worse as it progresses. Later, when Barry uses his connection to the so-called Speed Force to enter a sort of time vortex that shows him alternate versions of the past and future, the distorted effects look so terrible that it's hard to imagine where the massive budget and resources for this movie actually went.
Barry messes with the time-space continuum so he can travel back and save his mother (Maribel Verdú) from being murdered and his father (Ron Livingston) from being falsely accused of the crime. Of course, changing one thing in the past has significant ripple effects, and Barry finds himself in an alternate timeline where he meets an immature, slightly younger version of himself who has yet to receive superpowers. In this timeline, Batman is now retired, living quietly as his billionaire alter ego Bruce Wayne and played by Michael Keaton, returning from Tim Burton's Batman and Batman Returns.
Keaton is the highlight of The Flash, bringing an appealing sense of both weariness and mischief to his version of Batman, and when he and the two Flashes team up, the movie briefly sparks to life. Unfortunately, they're then saddled with re-enacting the plot from 2013's Man of Steel, whose villain, the Kryptonian warlord Zod (Michael Shannon), has arrived to destroy Earth. Instead of Henry Cavill's Superman, Zod is now after Supergirl (Sasha Calle), whom Batman and the Flashes must free from a secret prison.
That's only a fraction of the convoluted yet mostly inert plot, in which the main villain barely shows up on screen and characters spend most of the time explaining various continuity points to each other. Calle makes a striking debut as a new Supergirl, and she and Keaton carry the movie while Miller banters back and forth in two variations on an irritating motormouth. The fan-service cameos that dominate the third act are mostly just ugly digital blips, and the action climax is repetitive and underwhelming. In spending so much time exploring and resetting minutiae from the past, director Muschietti neglects to tell an engaging story in the present. ♦THE FLASH