Unfortunately, “The Flash” also has a countervailing tendency that undermines its best self. Even as it cleverly translates Shelley’s worries into contemporary comic book terms, it serves up callback after fan-wanking callback to other versions of heroes and villains from film and TV, seemingly with no other purpose than to burnish Warner Bros’ properties and make the audience point to the screen and whisper the names of actors, characters, films, TV shows, and comic books that they recognize. Batman, Batman, Batman, Batman, Superman, Superman, Superman, Superman, Flash, Flash, Flash, etc., keep popping up scenes set in the “Chrono-Bowl,” a cosmic switching station with a design that alludes to clockwork gears, the concentric rings of chopped-down trees, theater-in-the-round, and a tribunal.
And rather than find an artful, modest way to repurpose library footage from earlier adaptations of DC comics—as, say, “In the Line of Fire” did with footage of a younger Clint Eastwood from “Dirty Harry”—the actors who originally played them, many of whom died long ago, have been scanned (or rebuilt) as vaguely three-dimensional but uncanny grotesques, like Madame Tussaud’s wax figures laid over audio-animatronic puppets. Remember the process that “reanimated” Peter Cushing in “Star Wars: Rogue One,” and later served up an even more unsettling “young Carrie Fisher” in the climax, paving the way for a nearly expressionless “young Mark Hamill” on “The Mandalorian,” and de-aged ’70s movie stars for various legacy sequels? It gets trotted out and multiplied ad nauseam here, even though the technology hasn’t improved much.
The film’s principal cast also gets the zombie CGI treatment in the Chrono-Bowl, to visualize alternate realities. Some of the versions of these real, living actors with SAG cards and regularly updated IMDb pages look faintly demonic. The torsos and hands aren’t anatomically credible. One has eyes that point in opposite directions like a gecko. Were the deadlines rushed and the digital effects artists exploited until quality control disappeared—a problem throughout the entertainment industry—or is the technology just not there yet? And even if it ever does “get there,” will it ever not seem one (digital) step removed from wrapping a mannequin in corpse-flesh? Doing this sort of thing in a purely animated format moots such concerns. Everything in an animated comics adaptation is a drawing inspired by other drawings, and therefore a representation of a thing that is not meant to seem “real.” Not so in live-action. “Hey, that’s Actor X!” gives way to, “He looks kinda creepy and unreal,” and the spell is broken.
What a mess. And what a shame, because what’s good about “The Flash” is very good. The movie puts a lot of thought into what it wants to say and not enough into how it says it. It avidly warns against a thing while at the same time doing a version of that same thing. Barry, driven by a desire to resurrect the dead, grapples with the ethics and advisability of actions that the film constantly performs, in small ways and large, without breaking a sweat.
Opens Friday, June 16th.