‘The Flash’ chimes in as a fresh, top-tier superhero adventure combining VFX-driven time-travel mayhem with a surprisingly emotional story core

Time warper: Ezra Miller in ‘The Flash’, with Supergirl (Sasha Calle).

THE FLASH ***1/2 (144 minutes) M
Hard to believe, but it’s been a whole two weeks since the release of the last superhero movie – Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse, for those who have forgotten – and we should congratulate ourselves for somehow managing to survive.

So now we have The Flash, the latest superhero extravaganza from the DC stable and, very glad to report, it is not a steaming load of glossy mediocrity like so many superhero films, whether they hark from DC or mega-rival Marvel.

Directed with great flair and a fizzy sense of humour by Andy Muschietti (Mama; It), The Flash definitely clocks in as a top-tier superhero adventure, it’s overriding quality being how, unlike so many other $200 million superhero epics, you can actually remember it five minutes after hitting the exit.

Surprisingly inventive and engaging, the film admittedly takes a host of rote story elements – time travel; self references to the DC canon – and reworks them into a pleasing, finely honed cinematic package that keeps focus on the emotional core of the narrative while delivering the requisite quota of screen-filling action and – praise God – lots of well-judged comedy bits that, while clever and full of faddish pop referencing, carefully avoid the tripwire of parody. (This is what the Deadpool films have done, with rapidly diminishing returns.)

Without wasting any time – praise God again – we meet the socially awkward Barry Allen (Ezra Miller), a forensic scientist who serves humankind as The Flash, being a member of The Justice League that includes Superman, Batman, Aquaman, Wonder Woman and a host of lesser-known super people.

Flash’s super-claim to fame is that he can run so fast he can make time go backwards. Now, though this is something Superman can presumably do also (as we saw in the 1978 movie with Christopher Reeve), the issue is not dealt with here. Not to nit-pick, of course.

Barry is dealing with the tough situation of his father being in prison, falsely accused of having murdered his mother when he was a teen.

So he schemes to fix things by running back in time to prevent the tragedy from occurring by changing a critical detail.

Naturally, this messing about with the space-time continuum goes off-road because, as we all know from the Back to the Future films – playfully referenced throughout – doing so creates alternate universes containing different versions of your personal timeline and no shortage of confusion or migraines trying to figure out what’s going on.

With poor Barry he finds himself having to deal with the arrogant younger version of himself, meaning that – Yes! – you get two terrific performances from Ezra Miller for the price of one, and often sharing the same frame (great work from the visual effects artists there.)

He also engages with a superannuated Batman – played by Michael Keaton, back in the batsuit he donned in Tim Burton’s 1989 franchise kicker Batman and 1992’s Batman Returns – a sassy Supergirl (Sasha Calle) and the return of evil super-villain General Zod (Michael Shannon), who wants to destroy all humankind, essentially replaying what he did in 2013’s Man of Steel, opposite Henry Cavill’s Superman.

The visual effects work is exceptionally strong, with special note on the time-slowing sequences and the manner in which they’ve visualized time travel and the multiverses it produces as a multi-dimensional arena, clearly taking its lead from Interstellar. (And no shame there. To invoke a modified version of the showbiz saying favoured by old-school stage comedians, if you’re gonna “borrow”, borrow from the best!)

Yet amidst all the action, laughs and general mayhem, the film’s attentive direction maintains focus on the emotional heart of the story about Barry and his parents, in particular his love for his mother.

That ranks as a notable achievement, especially in a film this busy and especially given the endless spools of mediocre superhero mulch we’ve had to sit through over the past 15 years in this movie era where flash and dazzle reigns over story.

And don’t be spooked by the film’s length. Thanks to very brisk pacing, with the climactic third act battle against Zod kicking in at around the 95-minute mark, the piece zaps along nicely.

As for Ezra Miller, he should be counting himself as one of the most fortunate young actors today, still getting major work despite his litany of appalling behaviour. (Check out his eventful Wikipedia page here.)

In the real world anybody with such a terrible public record would stand little to no chance of landing a decent job, let alone the lead of a $200 million tentpole franchise movie, with more to come.

Having gone public about his mental health issues Miller should be thanking his lucky stars on a daily basis that Hollywood’s highly selective capacity to forgive has been directed his way, keeping his fortunes afloat while the careers of others have gone down for transgressions – and alleged transgressions – of a much lower magnitude.

Footnote of incredible importance: The Justice League is not to be confused with The Justice Society, introduced to us in the forgettable Black Adam. In comic book history, the Society was created before the League and included Flash, but waned in popularity and was closed off in 1951. When the Justice League was formed in 1960, Flash was included.

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