The Flash is part of My Summer of Summer Movies, in which I am attempting to see and review every movie that opens (in Chicago) between Memorial Day and Labor Day, 2023. Read all about this ill-advised plan here.
In Andy Muschietti's The Flash, Barry Allen (Ezra Miller), the eponymous superhero, discovers he can run fast enough to go back in time, and so he decides to change the past for self-serving reasons. Then—almost as though Barry has never seen a time-travel movie before—he is surprised to discover that this one small change has created unforeseen damage to the fabric of reality. He first becomes aware of these unintended consequences when he learns that, in this new reality he has created, Michael J. Fox never replaced Eric Stoltz as the lead in Back to the Future. In fact, in this new world, Fox went on to star in Footloose instead of Kevin Bacon, and Bacon ended up making Top Gun instead of Tom Cruise. Something, Barry realizes, is terribly, terribly wrong: The Flash has damaged Hollywood.
And on this, at least, we agree: The Flash is bad for Hollywood, and something is very wrong indeed. Because, watching that scene unfold—a scene intended to be lightly comic—all I could think was that maybe there is another reality in which I might have actually enjoyed The Flash, because someone other than Ezra Miller starred in it.
To be honest, I went back and forth on whether I was going to see The Flash at all. Twice I reserved advance tickets, and twice I cancelled them, unable to think of a compelling reason why I would see The Flash—other than the fact that I'd recently committed to reviewing every movie released this summer—and all too aware there were a lot of compelling reasons to avoid it.
Apart from everything else, I didn't particularly want to see it. With the exception of the first Wonder Woman movie, I have enjoyed exactly none of the DC Extended Universe—the so-called "Snyderverse"—of which The Flash is reportedly, and blessedly, the last entry. (James Gunn, the new co-head of a rebranded "DC Studios," has indicated he is initiating a complete overhaul of the franchise.) So, even under ideal conditions, I wouldn't have been excited to watch The Flash.
And these were far from ideal conditions. A year before filming on The Flash even began, video surfaced of star Ezra Miller—who had already played the character in Zack Snyder's Justice League (2017)—appearing to choke a woman outside a bar in Reykjavik. This was just the first in a series of reported incidents that seemed to escalate over the next couple of years from erratic to dangerous to flagrantly criminal. There were charges of breaking-and-entering, harassment, and assault. There were serious accusations from a Sioux couple that Miller had sexually groomed and manipulated their daughter from the age of 12. There were restraining orders and disorderly conduct charges filed against Miller, bizarre interviews they gave, and disturbing allegations of cult-like conditions they created to prey on vulnerable people. At best, the troubling litany of incidents suggested Miller was undergoing a long mental health crisis of some kind; at worst, it suggested Miller might be an abusive monster.
And though there was speculation Warner Bros. might cut ties with their problematic star—especially when the scheduled release of The Flash kept getting pushed further down the calendar—the studio ultimately chose to stand by Miller and their $200 million investment in The Flash. In August 2022, Warner Bros. CEO David Zaslav reassured nervous investors The Flash would meet its 2023 release date, and—a few days later—an apparently contrite Miller released a statement saying they were working to address their “complex mental health issues.”
In her extraordinary (and extraordinarily damning) new book Burn It Down: Power, Complicity, and a Call for Change in Hollywood, critic Maureen Ryan examines the toxic power structures of the entertainment industry, and the prevalent attitudes that contribute to widespread, systemic enabling of abuse. I just finished reading Burn It Down this week—I could not recommend it more highly, by the way—and I found myself thinking of many of its lines and observations and recurring themes as I tried to figure out how to think about The Flash.
Certainly, in all the laudatory defenses of Miller, there is a subtext of what Ryan calls "the conflation of art with abuse:" the notion that truly artistic people must be excused their antics and scandals and monstrous behavior, because it is all somehow a side-effect—or even a necessary element—of their remarkable creativity. This myth has been used to justify countless monsters in Hollywood, particularly—as Ryan points out repeatedly—if there's a dollar value involved. ("If those with power think it saves money to ignore monstrous behavior—if it saves money to not care about who gets damaged, broken, or otherwise abused during the creative process—well, that's what happens," she writes.)
I thought about Ryan's book when I heard all the assurances from executives involved in The Flash about how they had spoken with Miller, and were supporting them in their (conveniently timed) decision to seek mental health treatment. “Ezra is completely committed to their recovery, and we are fully supportive of that journey that they’re on right now,” announced Peter Safran, the new co-head of DC Studios, this past January. (As Ryan says, "There's something particularly dispiriting when enabling mindsets are couched in the language of comfort, sympathy, and support.")
Ryan quotes Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg, who has written extensively during the #MeToo era about what genuinely making amends for bad behavior should look like, and how the industry response more often falls woefully short of the mark. "We privilege bringing the perpetrator back into the eco-system because he's either got money or talent that we perceive to be more valuable than whatever the victim has going on," Ruttenberg says. I thought of that this week when Flash director Andy Muschietti said on The Discourse podcast that there were no plans to recast Barry Allen in the event of a sequel. "I don’t think there’s anyone that can play that character as well as they did," Muschietti said of Miller. But that mindset, according to Ryan, is not just wrong, it's ridiculous. "There are so many qualified people who could do most jobs, hundreds of qualified candidates for just about every gig. Why not pick the ones who don't have a track record of harming others?"
And this is something we don't discuss enough in all these debates about second-chances and forgiveness: for every serial abuser who is given opportunity after opportunity to redeem themselves, there are dozens or hundreds of people who lose opportunities to further their careers. What talented, deserving actor, without Miller's history of transgression and abuse, missed out on their chance to star in a major, tent-pole, $200 million franchise? How much worthy art do we lose because the industry is so concerned with protecting the creativity of terrible people?
(One of the reasons I decided to watch The Flash was to see if there was some essential artistic merit in Miller's performance that would be impossible to imagine sacrificing on the altar of ethics. Miller is fine in the part, but the role is not demanding enough—nor is the performance remarkable enough—that one cannot imagine a hundred other actors doing it as well, or better. For that matter, there is absolutely nothing in The Flash that would be tragically lost to posterity if Warner Bros. had decided to scrap the film completely. The story it tells is one the CW's TV version of The Flash already told, and better. And Marvel beat DC to the big-screen with an almost identical multiverse-breaking, cameo-rich, nostalgia-pandering story, the 2021 fanwank-feature Spider-Man: No Way Home. We did not—by any measure—need another one.)
Mostly, watching The Flash, I thought of something that is a recurring theme throughout Burn It Down: Hollywood is very selective about who it is willing to protect, and who it is willing to cut loose. Warner Bros. went all-in on The Flash and its $200 million budget, but ruthlessly folded on Batgirl, scrapping the finished film completely in favor of a $90 million tax write-off. And the studio doubled-down on their Flash, Ezra Miller—despite their record of abusive behavior—while breaking ties contentiously with their Cyborg, Ray Fisher, who was cut from The Flash after complaining about abuse he and others suffered on the set of Justice League.
That Miller is White, while Fisher is Black, and Batgirl star Leslie Grace is Dominican, is another conspicuous factor is an increasingly ugly pattern. It remains to be seen whether rival studio Marvel will stick with its star Jonathon Majors—who also faces allegations of abuse—but I don't think anyone expects Majors, who is Black, to get the same blanket support or forgiveness or multiple chances that Miller was granted. Nor, if the allegations are supported, should he. But that still leaves the troubling question: why was Miller—like so many other White abusers before them—deemed worth rallying around?
"I’m gonna be real, the stuff that’s happening with Ezra Miller is, to me, a microcosm of Hollywood," said Issa Rae, in an interview with Elle quoted in Burn It Down. “There’s this person who’s a repeat offender, who’s been behaving atrociously, and as opposed to shutting them down and shutting the production down, there’s an effort to save the movie and them. That is a clear example of the lengths that Hollywood will go to to save itself and to protect offenders.”
I am aware, as I come near the end of this long and depressing post, that some of my readers might say I have not written a "review." And, on one hand, they would obviously be correct: I have no real desire—and feel no real obligation—to review The Flash.
On the other hand, this is my review. A review is an encapsulation of a critic's experience with a movie, and this was my experience with The Flash. This is what I was thinking, and feeling, while watching it. This is the inescapable lens through which I watched it, and I was left with precisely this taste in my mouth when it was over.
On still another hand, however—for surely the multiverse allows for more than two hands?—it occurs to me that all of this might serve as a decent review of the film, after all. For The Flash is about an emotionally troubled person who also has extraordinary abilities. This person abuses their power for selfish reasons, and makes bad decisions, and leaves unconscionable damage in their wake. Their own terrible choices ripple throughout the world, altering fates and careers in ways they don't even realize, and even lead them into ugly confrontation with themselves. Along the way, there are rich, powerful people who knew it was a bad idea, and might, at any point, have stopped them—but instead these people end up enabling them and contributing to the damage they cause. The whole thing resolves itself in a big, costly, incoherent mess, and ultimately none of it means much of anything to anyone.
"This idea—that breaking the world matters less than making a buck from that destruction—is far from uncommon in the highest tiers of the entertainment megacorportions," Ryan writes, in Burn It Down.
And that, as it happens, is exactly what The Flash is about.