One of the best lines in the history of comic books appears in The Flash issue #1, published in 1939, written by Gardner Fox and drawn by Sheldon Moldoff and Sheldon Mayer. When slowpoke Jay Garrick is transformed into a super-fast hero and begins zipping around the room, his stunned girlfriend asks, “Jay…what happened to you!!” to which Garrick responds, “I guess I’m just a freak of science… anyhow… will you go to that dance with me?”
The Flash’s origin and the nature of his powers are almost afterthoughts, and the stories, like many comic book tales from that era, seem unremarkable, more like hastily-written summaries. In 1956, a similar pseudo-scientific accident happened to comic book nobody Barry Allen and the world found itself with a new, updated Flash. The stories found in comics were becoming more memorable. The characters, if they weren’t becoming more complex, at least had better dialogue. As The Flash, Barry Allen ran on water (which is scientifically possible), traveled through time (which probably isn’t), vibrated his atoms to pass through solid matter (I have no idea), and made his way to other worlds and dimensions, even encountering the other Flash, Jay Garrick, in an alternate reality. Thus, comic books took readers into the multiverse.
Lately, superhero movies have been taking viewers to the same place. And not only super-hero movies –thanks to the Academy Awards losing their minds over Everything Everywhere All at Once, it’s clear that we’re in for a long run of movies where characters jump from one reality to another. Andrés Muschietti‘s 2023 film The Flash confronts Barry Allen, played by Ezra Miller, with a terrible dilemma: Should he use his fantastic powers to go back in time and change reality, even if doing so to save some people would erase others from existence? Many elements from Muschietti’s film were taken from Flashpoint, a 2011 comic by Geoff Johns and Andy Kubert that continued the evolving complexity of the Flash and his expanding power levels.
Barry, we learn, lost his mother (Maribel Verdú) when he was a child, and his father (Ron Livingston) was wrongly incarcerated for her murder. His colleague Batman (Ben Affleck) warns him about trying to change history, and Barry knows, from watching Back to the Future, that interactions with people in the past can result in disaster. He voyages into the past anyway, determined to rescue his parents.
The warnings about time travel, he soon learns, are accurate: He somehow eliminates his Justice League teammates, Superman, Wonder Woman, and Aquaman, from the world and prevents Cyborg from ever becoming “the good Terminator”, as he puts it. Something else occurs too, and Barry finds himself face-to-face with another version of himself, one who never lost his mother. It doesn’t take long for the original Barry to resent this new Barry, upbraiding him for taking his mother for granted.
The two Barrys soon learn that one of the people they did not eliminate is Zod (Michael Shannon), a previous iteration of him that menaced Earth with a planet-destroying World Engine in Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel. Barry seeks out the Justice League, or at least their local equivalents, finding a version of Batman played by Michael Keaton.
As good as it is to see Keaton play Batman again, or at least… signify Batman again, his arrival is where The Flash begins to become problematic beyond the already fraught casting of Ezra Miller, whose mental health has raised concerns for the safety of those around him. As Wayne, Keaton gives a speech about the nature of multiverses that is very similar to the one that Oscar Isaac (as Miguel O’Hara, the Spider-Man of 2099) delivers in the animated film Across the Spider-Verse to alternative Spider-Man Miles Morales. Keaton even comes close to repeating Isaac’s “canon event” line, describing some occurrence that shapes every multiversal version of a superhero in each reality (Keaton uses the word “intersection.”).
What all this leads to in The Flash is costumed people punching each other, but it also forces Barry to consider if the alterations he made to reality to keep his mother alive are justified. Barry argues with himself, literally, about the morality of changing and re-changing history to bring it closer to the heart’s desire. In direct contrast to Spider-Man/Miles Morales, Barry decides that the diverging reality he created, the one where his mom lives, cannot be sustained, and he must undo his earlier efforts.
Barry’s arrival to this kind of wisdom isn’t perfect, yet it’s one of the more satisfying things at the end of a film that makes some truly bad choices. Toward the end of The Flash, we get kaleidoscopic scenes that reference DC heroes from other shows and films: George Reeves’ black and white Superman, a CGI Christopher Reeve, a perplexing Nicholas Cage version of Superman from a film that never got made, Adam West’s Batman, and others. None of these shout-outs to earlier (or attempted) versions of DC’s characters improve The Flash‘s story. But there’s always Keaton as Bat Man, who seems to find a comfortable place for himself in all of this. Even in the comics, DC seems exasperated with its created multiverse and vaporizes several iterations of its characters and planets, leaving one world that combines all the good stuff. Now we know how the people at DC Comics felt.
Here’s where the comics that launched these ideas of different iterations of superheroes encountering each other differ from the films they inspired. Universes and their collisions in comics are as disposable and off-the-cuff as Jay Garrick’s reaction to becoming as fast as a jet. Comics were for years printed with cheap inks on cheap paper, written and drawn by people as creative as they were woefully underpaid. They needed to produce intriguing ideas every 30 days, and the details of the stories didn’t matter so much.
By contrast, today’s superhero films – especially big-budget ones like The Flash – have a monumental quality to them. Some filmmakers use celluloid (or really, digitized data) like sketchbooks, but their works are more geared toward the art house than the multiplex. The Flash is supposed to entrance viewers with its expertly delineated characters and its profound crises. But the multiverse scenario is notional and impermanent, something that’s confirmed when Barry realizes that the reality he created, and the people in it, need to be unmade and returned to oblivion. The story that takes up most of The Flash’s running time is about something that never happened.
Sagas that are told in brief monthly installments, as they were in comic books, and that can go on for decades, readjusting and retrofitting story elements as they go, are more fitting places for dimensions and populations that appear one moment and disappear the next. The Jay Garrick character met his transformation into a freak of science with a shrug as he dove headfirst into his first caper. Had his origin been a contemporary superhero film, this nonchalance wouldn’t keep audiences in their seats. We need a Flash who suffers through a character arc, joins the audience in doubting the likelihood of such a story, and recoils in horror once he realizes the consequences of playing God.
The Flash provides some drama, lots of action, nostalgia, speculation about the universe, and much spectacle. Its story is supposed to mean something, leave a lasting impact, and generate powerful emotions. It does some of these things. But the climax of The Flash is like a piece of discarded paper marked with notes from a confused timeline story that’s been wadded up and chucked into the trash can. The film flies past complexities and settles for a light resolution. The Flash the film doesn’t fully satisfy, but a comic version could pull it off and create impact, emotions, and depth with some cheap paper and talented artists.