In comic-book movies, when it comes to a hero’s superpowers — flying, lifting objects, repelling bullets, the indomitability of a shield or a hammer — the audience is almost always on the outside looking in. But in “The Flash,” when the title character throttles forward at the speed of the hot-singe lightning streaks at his back, or floats through the air in slowed-down motion so that a mere second appears to last forever, the movie makes us part of the experience. We know just what he’s going through, which is why the scene gives you a jolt.
Early on, Barry Allen (Ezra Miller), a forensic chemist in the Central City Police Department, receives a call from Alfred (Jeremy Irons) — yes, that Alfred — letting him know that there’s an attack underway, and that none of the other Justice League members, notably Batman, is around to help. So Barry, in his form-fitting red thermal crystal helmet and suit, zoom-runs all the way to Gotham City, where he confronts a high-rise hospital whose east wing is collapsing, leaving a nursery full of newborns falling through the air. The extended sequence in which he saves them, grabbing energy bites of candy and burrito in between, has the feel of an underwater comedy ballet. It’s life-or-death but cheeky as hell. Just like our cracked hero.
Miller’s the Flash is an old friend, of course, from “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice,” “Suicide Squad,” and both versions of “Justice League.” But Ezra Miller has never gone full Ezra Miller the way they do in “The Flash.” With sculpted dark eyebrows and insinuating lips, the actor is a mesmerizing camera subject, like the young Jimmy Fallon crossed with the young Bob Dylan. But it’s the voice that gets you. In “The Flash,” Miller is insouciant, irritated, irascible and irresistible, like Andy Cohen on a bender of high anxiety. Just watching Barry order an elaborate peanut butter sandwich in the opening scene, with his hungry jitters and nervous speed-demon élan, is mesmerizing. With the possible exception of Deadpool, no straight-as-an-arrow DC or Marvel superhero has exhibited this level of psycho flippancy, this antic dissociation from his own heroism.
The Flash’s speedster abilities are all about the relativity of time, so it feels right that “The Flash” starts off as a knowing riff on “Back to the Future.” Barry, mirroring Batman (played, in an older-and-wiser cameo, by Ben Affleck), is haunted by the specter of violently losing a parent — in Barry’s case, his adoring mother, Nora (Maribel Verdú), who was murdered after his father, Henry (Ron Livingston), went out to buy a can of crushed tomatoes. When his dad returned, he was arrested and charged with Nora’s murder; he’s now appealing his sentence from prison. Frustrated by the supermarket surveillance footage that should have provided an alibi (Henry never looked into the camera), Barry speeds into the cosmos, moving so quickly that he goes back in time. He decides that it’s up to him to rewrite what happened, the “Butterfly effect” be damned. (That’s the phenomenon where the tiniest change can alter the course of history.) So he saves his mother’s life, but oh, is that going to mess with reality.
Suddenly, there are two Barrys: the one who traveled back in time, and the one who’s an 18-year-old college freshman, with longer hair, an even bitchier attitude, and no superpowers; he has yet to have that fateful accident where a lightning bolt strikes a lab shelf of beakers, electrocuting Barry in a baptism of chemicals. And suddenly the world is a different place too, with criss-crossed pop-culture wires, so that the star of “Back to the Future” is now…Eric Stoltz. (Okay, that’s a serious disturbance in the universe.) Barry tries to make the accident occur and succeeds, sort of. Young Barry becomes the Flash; older Barry loses his powers completely. Did I mention that General Zod (Michael Shannon), the glowering heavy from Krypton, has just landed on Earth?
There’s a lot going on in “The Flash,” and for a while it’s an entertainingly heady comic-book caper of time-warp heroism and identity. Miller, putting a spin of effrontery on every line, is the perfect actor to play this corkscrew superhero. When the two Barrys, who are now a team (even though they’re the same person), break into Wayne Manor, only to find that Bruce Wayne, played in the multiverse strand they’re in now by Michael Keaton, is a hairy hermit in flip-flops, the film seems ripe with possibility. Keaton is a more suave Bruce now than he was in 1989, and when he suits up and says, “I’m Batman,” audiences will feel a ripe tingle of nostalgia.
The trouble with “The Flash” is that as the film moves forward, it exudes less of that “Back to the Future” playfulness and more of that mythological but arbitrary blockbuster self-importance. Directed by Andy Muschietti (the “It” films), from a script by Christina Hodson (“Bumblebee”), the film turns into a top-heavy noisy-busy picaresque, gathering up characters and themes along the way. Look, it’s Kara Zor-El (Sasha Calle), a.k.a. Supergirl! Look, it’s older Barry regaining his superpowers, and now Zod needs Supergirl’s DNA to reconstitute Krypton. And what about, you know, the space-time continuum? By the climax of the movie, that’s become a globule of grandiosity, with room for crowd-pleasing cameos by everyone from TV’s old Batman and Superman to a slightly more recent Batman. This is the “Spider-Man: No Way Home” strategy: gather a bunch of iconic actors onscreen and let the audience whoop with pleasure at the referentiality.
The thing is, none of it makes a lot of sense. In “The Flash,” the multiverse of possibilities that opens up by toying with the past becomes an excuse to throw everything but the Batcave sink at the audience. Despite the vividness of its star, the movie steamrolls Ezra Miller’s personality as it goes along. The climactic battle against General Zod, with its kamikaze Batplane death zooms, its plumes of black smoke rising from the ground, its overblown sound and fury, is working too hard to engulf us after a story that did a nifty job of beguiling us. For a while, Ezra Miller brings it. But in the end they deserved better, and so do we.