The space-time continuum is not to be trifled with; “THE FLASH” | Movie review

I freely admit the main reason I went to “The Flash” was with eager anticipation for the return of Michael Keaton as Batman. So be it, but as “The Flash” and its time- and universe-bending plot undertook its twists and turns, I found so much more to enjoy than Keaton being back in the bat-saddle as the Caped Crusader. For his performance, I (and, it must be said, the entire preview audience) was enraptured and cheering—but this is a Flash movie, after all, with Keaton a supporting player in this nearly two-and-a-half-hour superhero tale. Alas, then, we must turn back to the beginning.

Without opening credits, “The Flash” opens with Barry Allen (Ezra Miller) ordering coffee from a rather lugubrious barista. The contrast between speed and slooooow is double underlined as Barry’s spidey sense goes off that danger is afoot, and quicker than you can say “holy quick change, Batman!” Barry has donned his Flash costume and is zooming across town to stop a hospital’s baby ward from collapsing. Mind you, this is but the opening act, but quickly learn we must that Barry/the Flash can run faster than time itself, and thus is able to save a falling shower of babies, a nurse and even a German shepherd from the collapsing building. Ah, but so much effort makes a young man hungry, and thus we are reminded for the first of many times that Barry must constantly consume calories to keep that hyper-busy metabolism going.

The hospital rescue scene is amusing, if not particularly thrilling (superheroics, after all, have been done to death in recent cinematic history), but from a narrative perspective, it’s needed to demonstrate Barry’s powers so that—in one of those key conceits of a “gimmick” movie—the rules of his abilities are established and thus, later on, can be broken and bent as the plot requires. Oh, and this opening gambit will also feature the return of Batman (Ben Affleck) as well as Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) as reminders that, as with MCU, “The Flash” is but one piece of a much larger puzzle.

And much seriousness is afoot. For Barry’s father Henry (Ron Livingston) is facing almost certain conviction for murdering his wife Nora (a thoroughly charming Maribel Verdú), though both he and Barry know Henry was elsewhere when the murder was committed. However, the DC Universe is not the place for meditations on gross miscarriage of justice; we’re here for stuff blowing up real good. And a good story, which “The Flash,” almost despite itself, delivers.

Barry discovers that his hypersonic running abilities allow him to in fact reverse timeflow, and thus, against the better advice of Affleck’s Batman/Bruce Wayne, Barry/the Flash seeks to undo his mother’s murder. At first he is joyful at being reunited with his parents in a happy home, but, uh oh, this universe already has its own Barry (also played by Miller), thus supplanting Barry 1.0’s plans at domestic bliss. This leads to some of the film’s most humorous moments, in which Barry Prime realizes his 2.0 doppelganger is an unfocused doofus, not yet imbued with superpowers, and certainly not ready to take up the Flash mantle. The screenwriters (Christina Hodson, working from a story by herself and Joby Harold) pump the warped alt-timeline for genuine laughs, such as that here “Back to the Future” made Eric Stoltz, the film’s original star in our own universe, a star, not Michael J. Fox. (Stoltz was infamously fired weeks into production.)

Not only has Barry inadvertently created a world where the Flash doesn’t exist, there are no superheroes here at all—a rather large problem as General Zod (Michael Shannon, having a field day once again chewing up the scenery as the Kryptonian villain) is back to rid Earth of all human life to lay the groundwork for New Krypton. Superman is nowhere to be found. Time for Barry to pick up this world’s Batphone, STAT!

Thus to the home of Bruce Wayne/Batman, with Wayne Manor played by a suitably creepy mansion in the English countryside. Ah, and since the rules of time travel don’t play nicely in “The Flash,” this universe’s Batman is, unlike Affleck, now in the autumn of the year.
And enter Keaton, to much applause—and, at 71, still absolutely brimming with charisma returning to the role that made him a superstar. Grizzled and bearded, Keaton’s Bats informs the Barrys that Batman is no longer needed as for years Gotham City has been incredibly safe, a rather nice narrative twist. But what about Zod?, Barry 1.0 implores. “Pass,” is Bruce’s initial rejoinder, fully aware that he is but a human in a costume, not Superman.

But what if they could get a “good” Kryptonian to join their cause? Seems the Russians have a super-secret research thingie in the Arctic Circle, where Barry 1.0 is convinced Supes is being held. Off to Russia they go, with Bruce freshly shaved and back in the suit. As director Andy Muschietti zooms in on Keaton, his gravelly “I’m Batman!” provides the moment we have all waited for.

Here I shall cease describing the plot, for that’s all you need know. It’s a helluva setup, and it took nearly two hours for Keaton and the Flashes to join forces—with a surprise guest ally thrown in for good measure. But the pieces are now in play, and the inevitable showdown with Zod and his goons is set to commence, with explosions and special effects galore (the film reportedly cost upwards of $200 million).

However, it turns out that Muschietti and his screenwriters still have an ingenious plot trick up their sleeve, which I wouldn’t dream of revealing other than to say that “The Flash” proves in its third act precisely how smart are both its conception and execution. We have become so attuned, or even inured, to watching computer-generated heroes and villains run at each other on a giant battlefield—which this film certainly provides—that when we are treated to the “real” resolution of this implausible storyline, it happens without our ever having noticed how sneaky yet inevitable it was. The plot’s ultimate turn is not only a reminder that, like the Highlander series, there can be only one, but also that, as in life, some things cannot be fixed, even with a handy time machine. Thus, treasure each day, and the loved ones with whom you share the journey.

If that sounds saccharine, well, it is, but “The Flash” earns its tearjerker of an ending. The space-time continuum is not to be trifled with—and, as Barry learns the hard way, learning to let go is perhaps the greatest superpower there is.

Oh, and for you, my dear viewer, enjoy the cameos galore, including one that is guaranteed to bring Kevin Smith to ecstasy. After so much emotional wrangling, the epilogue of “The Flash” teases with a rather ludicrously hilarious bonus scene that must have cost the producers a small fortune to finance. Does it set up a potential sequel for Barry to again try to set the timeline correct? Tune in for the inevitable sequel.

Opens June 16th.