Back to the Future is one of the great sci-fi/comedy/drama films of all-time thanks to a thoughtful clockwork like screenplay, tone perfect direction from Robert Zemeckis, and impeccable casting/character work. Imagine (if you will...) an alternate reality where the script for Back to the Future was shelved and only rediscovered by a money hungry studio desperate for any old shelved time-traveling scripts to shove their dumb CGI filled superhero franchises into. The result would be pretty much what we received with 2023's The Flash – a big, loud, dumb DC superhero film indirectly drawing from and directly referencing Back to the Future - thus inviting unflattering comparisons.
In place of Back to the Future's clockwork like script with clear time-traveling rules and cinematic stakes, The Flash’s world feels ad hoc and artificial. Coming in the wake of several recent time-traveling and multi-versal stories in superhero films, the plot here feels like IP mashed together in a writer’s room that's been given several bullet points ("Think Back to the Future time paradoxes, throw in a lot of jokes like The Avengers movies, bring back different versions of the character like in Spider-Man: No Way Home, etc.) There’s an important moment of exposition when Bruce Wayne attempts to explain to the Flash the possible consequences of Barry's actions in this film and says time (“the multiverse”) could become a mushy pile of spaghetti. Unfortunately, that's exactly what the film experience is like.
In place of Zemeckis’ masterful balance of comedy and drama, The Flash bounces wildly between cartoonish CGI filled action sequences, forced comedy, and artificial family trauma. Like the plot, the tone of the film feels like it was frankensteined together to serve a lot of masters at the studio. The film begins with an incredibly over the top ten minute action sequence about some robbers stealing a virus from a Gotham hospital high-rise that is meant to introduce the audience to Barry Allen, his role in the Justice League, and some of his quirks. The large-scale sequence uses so much CGI (to depict the city, free the camera to be dynamic, and work around Ben Affleck and others who filmed very little actual footage) that the entire thing feels better suited to animation. Barry Allen’s Flash gets a several minute “slow-motion” CGI sequence of saving babies falling out of a high rise hospital window that just might be the most ludicrous and insulting superhero action sequence I’ve ever seen. I get it, they went for broke here and wanted to one up anything Quicksilver did in his standout "slow motion" sequences in the X-Men films - but they just went too far. Flash becomes a character who could practically stop time and manipulate gravity at will. Later we learn he can go back in time at will as well. So many of his powers (as presented to us) feel made up as they go and completely overpowered that it often ruins any sense of dramatic stakes. I’m sure some of you liked the swing for the fences cartoonish attempt here, but it crossed a line for me. Add to the cartoony action a desire to give the audience as many notable DC characters/cameos/easter eggs as possible, a constant attempt at comedic banter, and it turns all the dramatic sequences about Barry's mother and father into something that feels out of place and entirely artificial.
Finally, in place of impeccable casting/character work, The Flash gives us Ezra Miller in a character that’s so annoying, unlikeable (both versions he plays), and unable to justify why we should care about him and his thoughtless role in potentially wrecking the entire world. Ezra Miller is no Michael J. Fox, whose unique charisma was able to immediately put the audience on his side.
Look, it’s not all bad. Sure, it’s an over-budget, cynical franchise IP money grab attempt with an atrocious amount of CGI, a paint by numbers trendy plot, and action lacking any drama/gravity, but there’s some nice moments to be mined here if you look hard enough. I liked that one joke with Eric Stoltz on Greg’s leg. It was nice to see Keaton back in the suit, though it stinks knowing that his action doesn’t feel like Burton Batman), and I liked the parallel between the fates of Flash’s mom and superwoman. That’s about it for me. Superhero films have already largely worn out their welcome and this desperate trend at stuffing them with every bell and whistle through time/multiverse storylines feels a lot like Fonzi jumping the shark. Sadly, I feel like there's likely to be a lot more desperate attempts to come.
OVERALL GRADE: D+