The Flash (2023) / Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse (2023)

Released within two weeks of one another, two big summer movies take the concept of a multiverse, now becoming the norm in comic book cinema, and explore the imaginative possibilities and wish-fulfillment that it proposes, but only one of them does it well. Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse is the sequel to the Oscar-winning 2018 revolutionary animated film, and it’s a glorious and thrilling and visually sumptuous experience, whereas DC’s much-hyped and much-troubled movie The Flash feels like a deflated project running in place and coming apart. Let this be a lesson to any studio executive, that multiverses are harder than they look.

Barry Allen (Ezra Miller) has the ability to travel at fantastic speeds as his superhero alter ego, The Flash. He’s tired of being the Justice League’s errand boy and still fighting to prove his father is innocent of the crime of killing Barry’s mother. Then Barry discovers he can run fast enough to actually travel back in time, so he returns with the intention of trying to save his mother. Except now he’s an extra Flash and has to train his alternate self (also Miller) how to control his powers. In this different timeline, there is no Justice League to combat General Zod (Michael Shannon, so thoroughly bored) from destroying the planet for Kryptonians.

This is the first big screen solo outing for The Flash, and after none other than Tom Cruise, Stephen King, and James Gunn calling it one of the best superhero movies of all time, it’s hard to square how trifling and mediocre so much plays out as an example of a creative enterprise being pulled in too many directions. Miller was cast as the speedster almost ten years ago, and this tale has gone through so much tortured development, leaping through numerous filmmakers and writers, that its purpose has now gone from being a pillar of the expanding DC cinematic universe began with Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel in 2013 to becoming the Snyderverse’s death knell. The premise of traveling back in time is meant for Barry to learn important lessons about grief and responsibility and the limits of his powers, but it’s also intended as the reboot option for the future of these cross-connected comic franchises. It allows Gunn, now the co-head of the new way forward for DC movies and TV, to keep what they want (presumably Margot Robbie and Jason Momoa) and ditch the rest (Henry Cavill, Ben Affleck, Black Adam, Shazam, and Zack Snyder’s overall creative influence). So reviewing The Flash as only a movie is inadequate; it’s also a larger ploy by its corporate overlords to reset their comic book universe. In that regard, the quality level of the movie is secondary to its mission of wiping the creative slate clean.

Where the movie works best is with its personal stakes and the strange but appealing chemistry between the two Millers. It’s an easy starting point to understand why Barry does what he does, to save his mother. This provides a sturdy foundation to build a character arc, with Barry coming to terms with accepting his grief rather than trying to eradicate it. That stuff works, and the final talk he has to wrap up this storyline has an emotional pull that none of the other DCU movies have exhibited. Who wouldn’t want one last conversation with a departed loved one, one last opportunity to say how you feel or to even tell them goodbye? This search for closure is a relatable and an effective vehicle for Barry to learn, and it’s through his tutelage of the other Barry that he gets to see beyond himself. The movie is at its best not with all its assorted cameos and goofy action (more on both later) but when it’s a buddy comedy between the two Barrys. The older Barry becomes a mentor to himself and has to teach this inexperienced version how to hone and control his powers as well as their limits. It puts the hyper-charged character into a teaching position where he has to deal with a student just like him (or just him). It serves as a soft re-education for the audience alongside the other Barry without being a full origin story. The impetuous young Barry wanting to have everything, and the elation he feels about his powers, can be fun, but it’s even more fun with the older Barry having to corral his pupil. It also allows the character an interactive checkpoint for his own maturity and mental growth. Miller’s exuberant performances are quite entertaining and never fail to hit the comedy beats.

The problem is that the movie puts so much emphasis on too many things outside of its titular hero. Much was made of bringing back Keaton to reprise his Batman after 30 years. I just wish he came back for a better reason and had legitimate things to add. His role is that of the retired gunslinger being called back into action, and there’s an innate understanding with Barry wanting to go back in time and save his family, but too much of this character’s inclusion feels like a stab at stoking audience nostalgia (the callback lines all made me groan). I highly enjoyed Keaton as Batman and appreciated how weird he could make the billionaire-turned-vigilante, but he’s no more formed here than a hologram. The same thing happens with the inclusion of Super Girl a.k.a. Kara Zor-El (Sasha Callie). In this universe, there is no Superman, so she’s our requisite super-powered alien that Zod is hunting to complete his plans for terraforming Earth. She’s an intriguing character as a tortured refugee who has lingering doubts about whether humanity is worth the sacrifice, but much of her usage is meant only to make us think about Superman. She’s not given material to make her own impression, so she simply becomes the imitation of the familiar, the shadow to the archetype already being left behind. But these character additions aren’t even the worst of the nostalgia nods, as the final climactic sequence involves a collision of worlds that harkens to just about every iteration of the famous DC heroes, resurrecting several with dodgy CGI and uncomfortable implications (spoilers… the inclusion of George Reeves, when he felt so typecast as TV’s Superman that he supposedly killed himself because he thought his acting career was over, can be galling).

The action of The Flash is mostly fine but with one exceptional example that boggles my mind. In the opening sequence, no less, Barry is trying to help clean up a crumbling hospital when it collapses and literally sends a reign of babies falling through the air. I was beside myself when this happened, horrified and then stupefied that this absurd action sequence was actually happening. Barry goes into super speed to save the day, which more or less reverts the world into super slow-mo, though he needs to power up first, so we get a quick edit of him stuffing food into his face to load up on calories. We go from Barry breaking into a falling vending machine, stuffing himself in the face with snacks, getting the green light from his suit which I guess measures his caloric intake, and then grab a baby and literally put it in a microwave to shield it from danger. Just describing this event makes me feel insane. I figure the filmmakers were going for an over-the-top approach that also provides light-hearted goofiness to separate the movie from the oppressively dark grist of Snyder’s movies. However, this goes so far into the direction of absurdity that it destroys its credibility. It’s hard for me to fathom many watching this misguided and horrifying CGI baby-juggling sequence and say, “Yes, more please,” rather than scoff and shake their head. It’s not like the rest of the movie keeps to this tone either, which makes the sequence all the more baffling. There are Flash rules that are inconsistently applied to the action; Barry’s caloric intake is never a worry again, and the effects of moving a person during super speed don’t ever seem to be a problem except for one spewing gross-out gag.

While not being an unmitigated disaster, it’s hard for me to see the movie that got so many figures in the entertainment industry raving. The Flash has some notable emotional stakes, some amusing buddy comedy, and some goofy special effects sequences that run the gamut from amusing to confounding, but it’s also quite a mess of a movie, and too many of its nods to the fandom feel like empty gestures of nostalgia compensating for imagination. For all it gets right, or at least keeps interesting, it seems like another cog in a multi-billion-dollar machine, a stopping point also intended to be a reset and starting point. It feels like the character wasn’t trusted enough by the studio to lead his own solo movie even after years of buildup with Miller, nine seasons of the popular TV series, and 80-plus years of prominent placement in DC comics.

Conversely, Across the Spider-Verse is a sequel that expands an already stuffed story but knows what stories and themes to elevate so they don’t get lost amidst the fast-paced lunacy. Taking place a year later, Miles Morales (voiced by Shameik Moore) has grown into his role as the new Spider-Man for his world. He strains to meet the expectations of his parents, and keep up his grades, while fulfilling the duties of a superhero jumping into danger. When Gwen Stacey (voiced by Hailee Steinfeld) reappears to discuss joining the multiverse police, Miles jumps at the chance, having genuinely missed his other Spider friends, especially Gwen. There are countless Spider people in countless worlds, even including a Spider-T. Rex and a Spider-Car (Peter Parked Car, I believe the name was). Miguel O’Hara (voiced by Oscar Isaac) is the Spider-Man tasked with keeping order across the many interconnected multiverses, and he insists that sacrifice is essential to maintain balance, one that hits too close to home for Miles to abide.

The 2018 original is a hard act to follow, and while Across the Spider-Verse doesn’t quite overrule its predecessor it is a more than worthy sequel that has everything fans loved about the first trip. The visual inventiveness has been taken even higher, with the mixture of even more different animation and art styles. I loved seeing each Spider person and how they fit into their unique art style of their world, like the living water colors of Gwen’s world and the punky paper collage style of Spider-Punk (voiced by Daniel Kaluuya). There’s a villain that comes from a paper universe, so he resembles a three-dimensional paper construction with hand-scribbled notes appearing around him like Da Vinci’s commentary. There is something to dazzle your senses in every second of this movie. The visuals are colorful, creative, and groundbreaking with the level of detail and development. There’s probably even too much to fully take in with just one viewing. I want to see the movie again not just because it’s outstanding but so I can catch the split-second vernacular asterisk boxes that pop up throughout the movie. Going further into living comic book aesthetics, new characters will be introduced with boxes citing their comics issue reference point, and certain names and vocab will get their own citations as well. These are split-second additions, nothing meant to distract from the larger narrative. Simply put, this is one of the most gorgeous looking movies of all time, animated or live action. It’s bursting, thrumming, nearly vibrating with life and love stuffed into every nook and cranny, and it’s exhilarating to just experience a vivid, thriving world with animators operating at peak talent.

However, the movie has an engrossing story to better position all those eye-popping visuals. The worry with any modern multiverse story is that the unlimited possibilities of variations and opportunities for characters to do just about anything will overwhelm a narrative, or like The Flash, become a checklist of overburdened and empty fan service. The screenplay by Phil Lord, Christopher Miller, and Dave Callaham is all about relationships. If Miles’ relationship with his stern police lieutenant father (voiced by Brian Tyree Henry) wasn’t such an important focal point, then the emotional stakes of the movie would be meaningless. We see a relatable struggle from both sides, the parents trying to connect with their growing child and give him enough space to find himself, and the child who clearly loves his parents but doesn’t fully appreciate or understand their concerns. They worry about Miles leaving them and whether others will love and support him like his parents. Miles has to experience a wider world of possibility, but these experiences make him appreciate what he has at home, and what could be permanently lost. I don’t mind saying there were more than a few moments that caused me to tear up. I found Gwen’s storyline equally compelling, and her turmoil over keeping her secret identity and then coming out to her father was rather moving. The family bond resurfacing will get me every time, and the simple action of a hug can be as heartwarming and fulfilling as any romantic ode. Across the Spider-Verse makes sure we care about the characters and their personal journeys.

At a towering 140 minutes, this is the longest (American) animated movie ever, and it’s still only one half of a larger story. I knew ahead of time this was only the first part so as soon as we entered Act Three I kept gearing up for the cliffhanger ending. Every five or so minutes I thought, “Okay, this is going to be the end,” and then it kept going, and I was relieved. Not just because I got to spend more time in this unique universe but each new moment added even more to raise the stakes, twist the intrigue, and make me excited for what could happen next. I was shaking in my seat at different points, from the excitement of different sequences to the emotional catharsis of other moments. I cannot wait to experience this same feeling when the story picks back up reportedly in March 2024, though I fear it will get delayed to late 2024.

Even with the unlimited possibility of jokes and silly mayhem, the filmmakers keenly understand that it doesn’t matter unless we care about the characters and their fates. I am shocked that a goofy character I thought was going to be a one-scene joke, The Spot (voiced by Jason Schwartzman), could end up becoming the ultimate destroyer of worlds. I think this reflection nicely summarizes the impeccable artistry of Across the Spider-Verse, where even the moments or characters misjudged as fleeting or inconsequential can be of great power. It’s a movie that is full of surprises and thrills and laughs, all in equal measure, and a blessed experience for a movie fan. In the crush of comic book multiverse madness, Across the Spider-Verse is a refreshing and rejuvenating creative enterprise, one that builds off the formidable talent of its predecessor and carries it even further into artistic excellence that reminds us how transporting movies can be. If you see one superhero multiverse movie this summer, the choice should be as obvious as an inter-dimensional spider bite.

Nate’s Grades:

The Flash: C

Across the Spider-Verse: A

This review originally ran on Nate’s own review site Nathanzoebl. Check it out for hundreds of excellent reviews!

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