The Poppies of Terra #6 - No Foolish Heroics, If You Please
By Alvaro Zinos-Amaro
No matter which way you ride the lightning, The Flash is a weird beast of a franchise movie. It’s the penultimate entry in the D.C.E.U.–which feels like it's been floundering much longer than ten years–, a three-decade-belated continuation of the Michael Keaton-led Batman (1989) and Batman Returns (1992), a re-imagining of the central events from that inaugural Man of Steel (2013), and also a self-imploding, multiverse-chomping redux of every DC television and film adaptation ever made. Because we don’t have enough terms to describe sequels, I propose a new word worthy of The Flash: the chimerical sequel, or chimequel.
As if that weren’t sufficient, The Flash infuses zany time-travel hijinks with serious heart, presenting as an oddball morality play that nonchalantly kicks things off by throwing babies out of a window. This is a movie that dwells on the profundities of destiny while having younger Barry complain about how the Flash suit hurts his dick. If you ever wanted Batman to knock your socks off, you’ll love The Flash’s Bruce Wayne, who really likes sandals.
The movie’s bizarreness, which strikes me as only partly intended, may be its most intriguing feature. Its production budget is seemingly endless and creates a world that voices the longing of its protagonist through its set designs and settings. Once you’re past the first major action sequence, ask yourself a simple question as the movie plays on: where are all the people? Consider how many of its locations are vast, spacious, essentially empty. These cavernous, depopulated spaces might be a symptom of COVID shooting, but I prefer to believe that they externalize Barry’s inner desolation.
This emotional yearning within, trauma in the shape of a hole, is given a second voice through the protagonist’s superpower, the famous Speed Force. Moving faster than everyone else seems like a cool trick, but how isolating it would be. Chunks of your life would be spent literally out of sync with your friends and loved ones.
The Flash’s most distinctive ability is relativistic alienation.
A Frankenstein-warning plot, in which a character meddles with the natural order of things and must then confront the consequences of hubris, animates a blockbuster body of spectacle. But there shimmer and ripple in the screenplay hints of a far more captivating, grotesque, surreal meditation on the cruel dependencies of fate.
[Major Spoilers Ahead]
I wish this movie was even stranger than it is. A simple mind experiment: take The Flash and rotate it just a few degrees counterclockwise from the axis of tentpole money-machine. The seeds are already there in the current multiplex incarnation: Barry Allen is impetuous and irrepressible, almost too freewheeling for the very fabric of the multiverse. What if we dialed that up? Imagine a new filmthat had the courage of its convictions and was willing to follow the “if you gaze into the paradoxes of time travel, the paradoxes of time travel gaze also into you” notion to its ultimate conclusion, spending time on each step of the anti-hero’s journey, rather than glossing over it in the race to moral platitudes. For this what-if, think Timecrimes high on a $300-million dollar budget of intemperate psychedelia, a completely unfettered exploration of a character who starts out as a slightly neurotic, wide-eyed superhero and ultimately becomes a deranged reality-bending looney tune, warping not only spacetime but good taste in the process. Imagine what we could have if Darkman (1990) and The Butterfly Effect (2004) left behind an orphan child, then raised, backwards in time, by The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T. (1953) and Orson Welles’ The Trial (1962), with Tenet (2020) as the hip babysitter. Consider Everything Everywhere All at Once (2022) a meek prelude to what could have been. Think of the Joker directing a movie about the Flash, in which the Flash becomes addicted to trying to change the past, and the addiction causes him to hallucinate a Joker who becomes a director who helms a Flash-led epic, and so on… Imagine that rather than being narrative hand-waving, as it essentially is in Andy Muschietti’s film, “retro-causal” was a genuine starting point.
This might smack of excess, but it’s not as much of a stretch as it seems. The Flash already flirts with a kind of descent into lunacy. In the existing movie’s climactic finale, younger Barry Allen saves the life of older Barry Allen by using his body to shield the older him from the attack of a still-older Barry Allen who has become encrusted with equal parts regret and shards of Kryptonian weaponry. This act of noble sacrifice, which occurs within a magic arena that the movie’s associational literature soberly refers to as the Chrono Bowl–let’s be more poetic, and call it, say, amphitheater of alternatives? Colosseum of contingencies? Superbowl of second chances?–erases the dark Flash from existence altogether. In turn, this appears to restore the starting Barry Allen to his original timeline. A few minutes later, though, cue George Clooney as Batman. This Batman & Robin (1997) gag hits the right way, but logically undermines everything that’s come before. Barry still meddled with the past by changing the positioning of objects on the supermarket store shelf so that his dad would look up to the surveillance cameras, and as punishment for this deed he’s landed in the Schumacherverse. No wonder that super-glued front tooth falls right out!
On a surface level, we can read this scene as just a cavalier nod to cinematic history. More seriously, we might empathize with Barry falling to pieces through his repeated failures. He keeps looking for a loophole and getting tangled up in time-spaghetti. The Flash, it turns out, is too quick for his own good. Sitting still might do him a world of wonders. No foolish heroics, if you please.
The post-credits scene with Aquaman raises more questions. Has the Flash found the timeline from which he came, or is he just telling Arthur Curry about all of his failed attempts to get home because he still hasn't figured it out? Does Barry ever hit on a timeline where su filindeu is commonplace, and what would that do to the rules of the story?
The way Michael Keaton delivers the lines “You wanna get nuts? Let’s get nuts” this time around, it’s almost as though he’s pulling against the words. Sure, he’s older and so on, but his flat affect seems to ironically deconstruct the sentiment rather than channeling its authenticity.
Somewhere out there is a bizarro world in which The Flash is the totally unhinged fantasia of which this one offers only a few glimpses, and when Batman says “Let’s get nuts,” he really means it.