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Meaningful Superhero Movies Like ‘The Flash’ Shine Amid Hollywood’s Formulaic Film Overkill

The Flash
Image CreditDC/YouTube

‘The Flash’ balances frivolity with a thoughtful narrative that asks more of the hero than simply figuring out how to defeat the bad guy.


“The Flash” is unlike any other live-action superhero film that has come before. It’s intensely funny, heartbreaking, and a genuine love letter to DC fans. This is one of the best comic book films of the last 10 years and DC’s best since “Wonder Woman.” And with the DC Extended Universe coming to a close (soon to be replaced by the greatly hyped DC Universe), “The Flash” very well may represent the turn of the tide against Marvel, despite a less-than-stellar performance at the box office.

Despite being a heated rivalry, the Marvel-DC film wars have been no close contest. DC dominated the comic book film industry as pretty much the only game in town from the late-’70s to mid-’90s, with wildly varying levels of success. Then after the catastrophic failure of “Batman and Robin,” Marvel’s titles became briefly ascendant with a trio of trilogies: “Blade,” “X-Men,” and “Spider-Man.” The first two of each trilogy were great, while the final installments of each all failed to live up to expectations, essentially killing each franchise. Christopher Nolan’s “Dark Knight” trilogy reestablished DC’s box-office dominance, but once the Marvel Cinematic Universe really got going, the studio launched one of the most financially successful film franchises of all time.

But it hasn’t just been Marvel’s insane success that made the rivalry lopsided. Warner Brothers failed to make consistently crowd-pleasing entertainment, continuing the now decades-long trend of DC films’ schizophrenic swings in quality. Their biggest successes of the last 10 years have been with properties they had previously not yet adapted to the big screen. This has always been their strong suit. The first Superman and Batman films were critical and commercial successes, and the same could be said for the Hollywood premiers for Wonder Woman, Aquaman, and Shazam. With the sequels, Warner Brothers often screws things up, the big exception to that rule being Nolan’s aforementioned trilogy.

But the MCU has come to a serious crossroads. James Gunn, the creative mind behind “Guardians of the Galaxy,” is now heading up the DC Universe, and Marvel’s content continues to fade in quality.

Thankfully this is the Flash’s first solo live-action outing, and it continues the tradition of DC excellence and faithfulness to character depiction in first cinematic adaptations. Ezra Miller is perfect as the Flash. His controversial personal history off-screen is long and bizarre. It’s difficult to interpret all of his crimes and delusions as anything other than the products of a deeply disturbed mind.

Like many Hollywood actors, Miller is either very complicated or trying to cultivate a personal brand shrouded in mystique; whatever the truth may be, his performance as the film’s titular character is mesmerizing. The entire weight of this film hangs upon his shoulders, and he carries it effortlessly.

What was most exciting for a lot of fans was the chance to see Michael Keaton reprise his role as Batman, and that was a ton of fun. There are numerous other Easter eggs sprinkled throughout the film for dedicated DC fans, as well. But what really makes this film special is its unique and morally compelling character arc; compared to most Marvel films, “The Flash” actually offers depth and substance. Outside of Sam Raimi’s “Spider-Man” trilogy, there isn’t much philosophical complexity in Marvel’s movies. That’s why they have been able to produce so many enjoyable sequels at such a rapid pace — formulaic filmmaking. 

But there’s a real point to this story, and it’s revealed early on. Without spoiling much, Barry Allen, the Flash, learns he can travel through time. He’s discussing this with Ben Affleck’s Batman, and the idea of saving both Barry’s mom, who was murdered when he was young, and Bruce’s parents comes up. But Bruce cautions him against meddling with time and maybe, more importantly, trying to unnecessarily fix himself.

He is encouraged to avoid viewing himself as a god and to go about living his life, helping people however he can. But, of course, if Barry listens to this sage council, the movie ends there, just 20 minutes in. The hero must go on a journey.

So much of the IP movie mill these days is a mindless distraction, so when a superhero movie actually manages to say something, it really sticks out. This is partly what made James Mangold’s “Logan” so strong — it was actually about something. The climax of “The Flash” isn’t just another CGI salad set piece — it’s the conclusion of a genuine character arc. 

Superheroes are inherently silly, and “The Flash” embraces this in a way few others have as of late. But it also balances that frivolity with a thoughtful narrative that asks more of the hero than simply figuring out how to defeat the bad guy. It also helps us understand ourselves better; that’s why these characters and stories have been around so long and why they endure.

Despite the silliness and the costumes, superhero movies can help people better understand important truths about human nature.

So then why is this film performing so badly at the box office? It’s already being declared a box office bomb. Most media outlets are attributing its commercial problems to Superhero fatigue, which is probably part of it, but there are some other problems in the cultural zeitgeist that present significant problems for the film’s success.

First and foremost, Grant Gustin as the CW’s Flash is definitive for this generation. While this is technically the first time DC has done the Flash on the big screen, the network recently wrapped up a popular, long-running TV series adapting the very same source material. Over the last 10 years, the CW’s adaptation of “The Flash” had ample time to grow with its audience, whereas Miller’s portrayal barely got exposure by comparison. The CW’s version showed the Flash, more or less, from start to finish, holistically experiencing the character’s arc, which is why it is, at least for this generation, definitive.

Michael Keaton is virtually unknown to this generation of superhero fans, so the significance of his cameo was likely lost. A big part of this film’s appeal, especially in the marketing, was Keaton returning to play Batman. The last time he wore the cape and cowl was 1992, over 30 years ago. Keaton is a big part of the Millennial and Gen-X vision for Batman, but the current generation is barely cognizant of him. Five actors have played Batman on the big screen since his time, along with myriad voice actors in DC’s various animated films. This appeal to nostalgia was never going to bring in hoards of Zoomers to the box office.

Despite these problems and the lackluster commercial response, I’m confident that time will be kind to “The Flash.” It will eventually be seen as one of this era’s best and most rewatchable superhero movies. It is a victim of the moment, but like all great movies, its virtues will eventually prevail.

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