Movies don’t exist in a vacuum any more than the people who make them do. That’s never been more true of a film than The Flash, a movie many will justifiably refuse to see because of the abhorrent off-screen actions of its leading star. We all have our own personal line of when we can’t—or simply won’t—separate the art from the artist, and Ezra Miller easily crossed that for some long ago. Despite all the awfulness surrounding DC’s latest feature film, though, it’s still a movie with huge ramifications for a billion dollar franchise. Moreover, it’s one that thousands of others who’ve done nothing wrong worked hard on. And it features characters that mean a great deal personally to generations of fans. The Flash doesn’t merely belong to the Flash. All of which is why it ultimately needs to be evaluated on its own merits.
By that standard it’s unlikely to make anyone happy. Because if you were rooting for The Flash to be a huge disaster, it’s not. It’s never really bad. If instead, you were hoping for the greatest superhero movie ever, it’s not even close to that. The Flash looks unfinished and is thoroughly mediocre until it realizes it’s an emotional drama and not a comedy. Once it understands what it should have been all along it really excels with a moving and powerful story. But that might be the most frustrating part of what this movie delivers on screen. It wasted an opportunity to make something special.
The first two-thirds of The Flash plays more like a whimsical comedy than the intense emotional drama its trailers promised. That approach, which has been done far better by far superior superhero movies, is completely at odds with the very nature of the story being told. Barry Allen is a sad, awkward, lonely superhero who realizes he can go back in time. That means he can stop his mother’s murder when he was a kid, which would also save his wrongly convicted father from prison in the present.
That approach might have still worked if the movie’s dialogue and gags weren’t woefully mediocre. Some jokes occasionally land, usually the ones that come entirely from characterization. But far too many feel easy if not downright lazy. Others are more clever than actually humorous. And making it all worse is that there are just far too many of them. This movie only takes off when it takes itself seriously. Some of the funniest moments actually happen when it does, because they’re organic and character-driven in the moment.
One huge issue that is true even when the film is at its best is that its CGI often looks awful. There are sequences in The Flash that look far cheaper, unfinished, and downright terrible compared to anything Marvel Studios has put out during its current VFX problem era. (Yes, I saw Quantumania.) There are moments when both versions of Barry Allen are on screen that look so clumsy it almost feels intentional. Apparently someone destroyed the technology that believably put two Lindsey Lohans on screen at the same time in Parent Trap 25 years ago.
However, what’s really bizarre about the film’s special effects is that not all of them look awful. Some actually look great, like when Barry travels faster than the speed of light. Clearly DC had the ability to pull off good VFX. (As it has in the past and surely will again.) Apparently nine years of development just wasn’t enough time for this specific entry.
So how can a movie that doesn’t look good and is stunningly mediocre for 66% of its runtime not be outright bad? The Flash has a high floor even at its relative worst because of its characters and cast. And the other third of the movie—the portion that knows why we love these heroes and understands the nature of the story it’s telling—is genuinely excellent. I was bored to tears for long stretches, yet still very emotional at others.
Ben Affleck is really good in what is likely his final, short Batfleck performance. His Bruce Wayne, first introduced as bitter and angry, has arrived at a place that resemble the best version of the character. Meanwhile, Michael Keaton and Sasha Calle are both standouts who lift every scene they’re in. Keaton’s return as an older Bruce Wayne feels true to the character we once knew. He fully commits to the role. There’s also just enough of him that he’s a major part of the film without it being his movie. And Calle is so good as Supergirl it would be a shame if this is her only time playing her. She does so much as Kara Zor-El without a lot of dialogue. Her mere presence outshines the size of her role.
It also does an incredible job of making them feel like an actual team. During their big battle they have defined roles that complement one another. These aren’t four heroes (there are two Barrys) working next to one another during a big fight. They’re working together, in a way that makes sense and makes the sum greater than the parts. This element is strengthened by the movie’s opening sequence, when we see the regular timeline’s Justice League mostly working as a group of individuals with a common cause. The Flash understands what a team is in a way most superhero movies don’t, not even some of the best.
But the best part of The Flash comes when it embraces the heart of its story, which is a tragedy and not a comedy. Inevitably Barry Allen must face the consequences of saving his mother. That forces him to make an impossible choice. The way that happens is among the script’s smartest, most well-written moments. And it leads to the film’s most emotional scene. It’s when we finally get the movie we should have been watching from the start, the one that lives up to its entire premise about facing our past, who we wish we got to be, and who we are. Sometimes the most heroic thing we can do is recognize “not every problem has a solution.”
Which brings us to The Flash‘s biggest problem, the one that does not exist in a vacuum. This is Ezra Miller’s movie in every way. And if you can’t separate the art from the artist, nothing else matters. If you can’t root for the two Barrys because of who plays them, don’t bother watching this film. It’s not nearly good enough to even try and overcome your misgivings if you’re on the fence.
All the fun surprise cameos in (the multiple versions of) the world can’t overcome The Flash‘s problems. Neither can its performances and the powerful, smart, emotional scenes that show how good this movie could have been in a different timeline. Average writing, below average effects, and a refusal to embrace its emotional core make for a mediocre viewing experience far longer than The Flash provides anything great. And that would be true even if everything outside the vacuum of this movie wasn’t so awful.
Mikey Walsh is a staff writer at Nerdist. You can follow him on Twitter at @burgermike. And also anywhere someone is ranking the Targaryen kings.