.In ‘The Flash,’ Michael Keaton’s Batman Returns to the DCEU

Barry Allen is the man who can outrun time itself. Bathed in electrified chemicals, he became The Flash, the fastest man alive.

Seeing the previews for The Flash, one expected sobbing nostalgia. Here’s not just Ben Affleck’s recent Justice League Bat, but the main event: Michael Keaton’s class of ’89 Batman mentoring a goofy pair of parallel-world Barry Allens (played by Ezra Miller).

Keaton’s Batman is now a hairy recluse. The two speedy boys recruit him for a mission to find Superman after their earlier quest to save Barry’s mom from murder is upset by the arrival of an armada of Kryptonian fascists led by General Zod (Michael Shannon).

Tim Burton’s feat in his long-ago blockbuster Batman (1989) was to disinter film noir itself. His hit opposed the cheerleading, flag-flapping fare of the day; instead of celebrating the wealth of the suburbs, Burton addressed the anguish of the cities. It was a story about how grief could change you into something you wouldn’t recognize, into something you wouldn’t want to meet in a dark alley.

Decades of dead friends and bulldozed movie theaters later, it’s a pleasure to see that old Bat, spry and ready for a fight, and to see a guano-spattered tarp peeled back to reveal the block-long Batmobile. There’s more modern manic action when he and the Flashes engineer a prison break in a Siberian facility—the Commies are still afoot in this parallel world.

secure document shredding

The rescued prisoner solves a Goldilocks problem the fanboys have about Superman–whether he’s too mild or too badass. This time those supreme powers are in the imprisoned Kara (the winning Sasha Calle), a figure known elsewhere as Supergirl. The single best idea in Christina Hodson’s script is putting all of that power into a fiery-eyed yet compassionate figure.

Still, the film is about The Flash, who can access all time and space, laid out before him as if it were a slowly turning celestial zoetrope. Director Andrés Muschietti (of the It remake) treats this hero with a lot of scorn, stripping him for laughs and smearing food on his face. In the film’s worst scene, he’s pelted with marshmallows by some potheads.

Ezra Miller’s personal troubles are immaterial. As Charlotte Rampling said of Sean Connery, one prefers the man on screen to the man in real life. I liked him from first sight in 2016, where his Barry described himself as “a good-looking Jewish kid”; there’s a bit of Dustin Hoffman in the self-satisfaction, add a bit of Jerry Lewis in the klutziness and impulsiveness. He’s striking in his crimson armor ready for a run, posing like Mercury on the FTD flower box. And there’s a very pretty scene of a group of children, shrieking with delight at their encounter with The Flash.

He is on a noble quest, racing back through the years for one last chance to see his mom, appealingly played by Maribel Verdú.  Still, the script is so clumsy that it doesn’t offer a clue to who murdered her—that’s all on the TV show elsewhere.

Are multiverses just an excuse for not picking a tone or choosing a story? Our cinema’s flavor of the last few years may just be the child of channel-surfing. Battles royal carried out to guitar shredding can’t overcome the saddening counterpoint: The Flash makes you feel simultaneously overserved and underserved.

In theaters June 16.

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