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Michael Keaton returns as Batman in new DC movie, ‘The Flash’

Michael Keaton returns as Batman in new DC movie, ‘The Flash’

Long-time comic fans, and people familiar with the on-screen history of DC superheroes, are likely to be thrilled by Ezra Miller as the title superhero, and Michael Keaton back as Batman.

The Flash potentially marks the end of an era. 

While Blue Beetle and Aquaman sequel The Lost Kingdom have yet to be released, the latter two blockbusters appear to be mostly self-contained stories set in their own little segment of the on-screen DC Universe. The Flash, by contrast – whether we’re talking about the film or the character – is very much entrenched in the broader world that the various DC Comics characters inhabit. 

As in Justice League (Joss Whedon or Zack Snyder’s version), The Flash, AKA Barry Allen (Ezra Miller), collaborates with fellow top-tier superheroes like Batman (Ben Affleck) and Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot). With filmmaker James Gunn readying to flick the switch on his new rebooted DCU, The Flash is likely to be the last time audiences see these characters portrayed by these specific performers. 

“Potentially” and “likely” are good words to include here because there are no definites in comics. Nothing is permanent, not even death. And it’s highly likely that should The Flash prove a box office hit, its multiverse focus will be leveraged as a reason to keep Miller’s version of The Flash around. However, that’s the future, and only the scarlet speedster can glimpse what’s to come, so it’s better to view The Flash as a swansong. In that case, the question is whether it’s a fitting conclusion to the last decade of DC superhero adventures in live-action movie format?

The short answer is yes: while The Flash can be all over the place, like its time-defying hero, it provides an always entertaining and engrossing experience. The film benefits from an extra dose of emotional charge, and bonus nods to an almost century of DC heroes on the screen and page. You never feel the movie’s 144-minute runtime. 

Set after Justice League, in The Flash, Barry Allen is more settled in his superhero life, sporting a spiffy new costume and collaborating with League members to meet their life-saving responsibilities. However, Barry is still anguished by the childhood loss of his parents – his mother (Maribel Verdú) was murdered and his father (Ron Livingston) wrongfully sent to prison for the crime. Barry resolves to change the past by using his emergent power to outrun time. 

While he’s careful to minimise his interactions, the result is still a butterfly effect across existence. Barry finds himself in a timeline where his mother lived, but there’s a bratty 18-year-old version of himself, and no Superman or other heroes to stop the arrival of Kryptonian despot General Zod (Michael Shannon). That is, apart from a very different Bruce Wayne/Batman (Michael Keaton) to the one Barry knows, and another member of Krypton’s House of El, a young woman named Kara (Sasha Calle).

Andy Muschietti is the director steering The Flash, and the Argentinian filmmaker delivers a mostly coherent and tight adventure that runs the full gamut of emotions. Sometimes the tonal transitions are jarring, and more interesting emotional explorations are sacrificed for box-ticking action, but Muschietti isn’t afraid to embrace comic-book ridiculousness and milk it for good-natured laughs. The film’s comedic timing is excellent, and it’s worth noting that The Flash contains a sublimely over-the-top sequence involving a maternity ward, which plays out as the DC answer to Quicksilver’s prison break in X-Men: Days of Future Past.

At the same time, the baby rescue, which appears early in the film, highlights one of The Flash’s weakest aspects: its special effects. Granted this review is based on a pre-release cut of the movie, but it seems unlikely that this filmic component will have substantially improved in time for theatrical debut. In The Flash, CGI is used heavily to replicate human bodies and faces, and this creative choice often lands the movie in off-putting uncanny valley territory. Digital doubles can be rationalised in scenes set in the off-kilter Speed Force realm, which is how Barry traverses time. However, when these rubbery, dead-eyed creations pop up in the film’s reality, they come across like bad video game models that pull viewers out of The Flash with their overt artificiality.

Fortunately, there are strong performances to pull you back in. As controversial as Miller is, there is no questioning their immense acting talent, and they convince in conveying the distinction between the two Barrys – one who has been scarred by loss and frustrating impotence, and the other little more than an overgrown, annoying child. As a side note, one of The Flash’s bigger narrative failings is that the audience is deprived of more tender and emotionally complex scenes between Barry and his parents. Our hero makes so much effort to get them back, only to share a single scene.

While The Flash is the title character of this new DC movie, it’s fair to say he’s not the primary drawcard. That honour goes to Michael Keaton, who is returning as Batman for the first time in more than 30 years. If you are watching The Flash for Keaton, know that he is perfection – striding back into the role with confidence and charm. 

Keaton’s portrayal of Batman has always stood out for the manner in which he acknowledges that anyone who dresses up as a Bat to fight crime might be a little quirky, a little nuts, but also more in tune with the emotions of others. He’s a warm, human, loveable weirdo. Keaton brings all of that to The Flash, along with a Batman fighting style that remains uniquely his, featuring an equal mix of gadgetry and on-the-fly improvisation instead of relying mostly on brute force.

Sadly, despite all the fuss about her appearance in the film, Sasha Calle’s Kara Zor-El (AKA Supergirl) doesn’t fare as well. It’s no fault of the actress, but it feels like the character’s more interesting scenes may have been cut. Here is a Kryptonian who, instead of being raised in a loving, nurturing home, is subjected to years of degrading imprisonment, torture and experimentation by humans. It’s a fascinating contrast to the Superman origin story, rich in potential, and yet The Flash prods at it maybe once. Even worse, Supergirl doesn’t get a heroic moment to shine in the climactic battle – unlike Batman. She’s discarded and forgotten.

As unsatisfying as Supergirl’s treatment is, The Flash still delivers in other areas. Long-time comic fans, and people familiar with the on-screen history of DC superheroes, are likely to be thrilled by the many inclusions. Without giving away any of the cameo appearances (made possible by the film’s multiverse dabbling), there’s a moment in The Flash’s finale that looks straight out of a George Perez page for seminal comic miniseries Crisis on Infinite Earths. That alone is worth the price of admission for DC comic nerds.

Ultimately, like the two Barrys, The Flash exists in a kind of yin-yang state. It sprints in parts, stumbles in others, but does enough to reach the finish line in good time. And in a genuinely memorable way. DM

This review is based on an early, pre-theatrical release cut of The Flash.
This story was first published on Pfangirl.com; The Flash is available in South Africa in cinemas from 16 June.

There are a number of alleged controversies around the actor Ezra Miller and this review focuses only on the films.

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