The basic premise of the multiverse, at least as expressed in various movie and television projects over the last decade, is that there are an essentially infinite number of branching realities, each defined by a different set of choices and coincidences. Every branch and tributary of reality captures one specific set of choices and possibilities, but the multiverse, as a whole, captures all possible choices and realities. The multiverse is an infinitude where every choice is made and every reality, no matter how absurd, exists.
Which means that somewhere in the vastness of the multiverse, there is a world in which everything is exactly like our own—except that there is no such thing as a cinematic multiverse.
The multiverse has been a fixture of the last several installments of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, almost always to its detriment, pushing the franchise in the direction of continuity games and timeline tweaks rather than clear stories with relatable stakes.
This weekend sees the release of The Flash, a soft wrap-up and reboot of the last decade or so of DC Comics–based superhero filmmaking.
It's a multiverse movie, of course, with more than a passing resemblance to Spider-Man: No Way Home. Like that movie, which brought together three different versions of big-screen Spider-Man, The Flash bridges multiple franchise iterations, reaching back decades to bring back, most notably, Michael Keaton's Batman, as well as a few other smaller surprises in the same vein.
Like No Way Home, The Flash is more of a self-regarding nostalgia trip than an actual movie, the cinematic equivalent of flipping through an old yearbook and murmuring, Hey, remember when…? But No Way Home, as cynical as it was, also offered some actual value along with its winks and nods and nostalgic remembrances, setting up a warm send-off for more than two decades of Spider-Men, all of whom brought something memorable to the character.
The Flash, in contrast, is built on a fundamentally unappealing lead performance from Ezra Miller, and its screenplay makes poor use of its few interesting ideas. At best, it merely coasts on cheap fan service; more often, it's grating, shallow, and artless—a crude demonstration of the many ways that multiverse storytelling has made franchise filmmaking worse.
The story, such that it is, is loosely based on the comic book storyline Flashpoint, which was already adapted into a far superior animated film. But the better way to think about The Flash is as a superheroic riff on Back to the Future, a movie that is repeatedly referenced in the script.
When we meet Barry Allen, the forensics specialist with the uncanny ability to run at super-speeds, he's a minor member of the Justice League, teaming up with Batman (Ben Affleck) and Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) to save the day when Superman has other business.
During one of these escapades, Allen discovers that his super speed allows him to turn back time, first a little bit, and then a lot. It turns out that Allen's mother was killed when he was a child; in turning back the clock, his goal is to find a way to keep her alive.
The problem, however, is that keeping his mother alive alters all sorts of other aspects of the world: Critically, there's no Superman to save the world when General Zod (Michael Shannon), the villain from the 2013 Superman movie Man of Steel, shows up to annihilate the planet. There is, however, a Batman—just not the one from his own Justice League: Instead of Ben Affleck, this Batman is played by Michael Keaton, who of course played the character in Tim Burton's takes on the character in 1989 and 1992. Keaton is a welcome presence, but even he seems tired here, delivering old lines with all the gusto of a 70-something-year-old actor taking a giant paycheck, because why not.
Finally, there's also another Barry Allen—a younger, even more irritating version, which means the movie often consists of two annoying characters, both played by Ezra Miller, interacting with each other in evermore-exasperating ways.
It's not exactly confusing, at least not if you've been dutifully watching superhero movies for the last three and a half decades, but it is incredibly convoluted. And the profusion of cameos and side stories means that a movie nominally devoted to its title character—the Flash—actually ends up as both a send-off to the recent-era Justice League and a retro Batman film. The Flash comes across more like a talking MacGuffin in someone else's movie, a plot device deployed in service of a corporate reboot rather than a protagonist with a distinctive story of his own. It's a multiversal muddle.
Multiverse movies make a fetish of choices and their infinite malleability, of the possibilities opened by exploring a vast array of alternate worlds. But ultimately, they undermine the very idea of choice in the context of storytelling by rendering every choice meaningless, since anything can be tweaked and twisted just by hopping to the right multiversal strand. In linear movies and in the real world, choices have power, partly because they give people options, but also because they have finality. They demonstrate character, will, and foresight; they are tests of who we are.
Franchise multiverses have undermined all that, serving as little more than opportunities to tour the last few decades of endlessly exploitable IP. The Flash is perhaps the worst of the bunch: It's a sizzle reel of better moments from better movies. There are no real stakes, no real ideas in play, just a series of cloyingly fond remember whens cobbled together in search of some unearned heart.
You know what I remember? When there was no such thing as a cinematic multiverse. When superhero movies told discrete stories about their title characters doing superhero stuff. When Michael Keaton declined to play Batman again in 1995 because he thought—correctly—that the resulting movie would be bad.
And what do we get for all this timeline mucking about? Nothing, except more movies to keep up with in glum hopes of making some sort of pseudo-sense of the next phase of the pseudo-story. Maybe the multiverse can't deliver a strand without superhero multiverses. But is it too much to ask for a universe in which there's no such movie as The Flash?