He’s the fastest man alive, able to sprint at superhuman speeds, vibrate his body through solid matter, generate electrical currents, and even disrupt the ebb and flow of time. On his own, this legendary superhero has consistently defeated boomerang-throwing bad guys, temperature-dropping supervillains, his own negative-image doppelgänger, and the toughest alpha simian in Gorilla City. As a key member of the Justice League, the man in the red ear-winged mask has helped saved the world several times over — not to mention propped up the CW network and added some much-needed levity to the Snyderverse. Even death couldn’t slow him down.

And now, Barry Allen, a.k.a. The Flash, will attempt to do what he’s never been called on to do before. We are about to witness this decades-old DC Comics’ icon face the greatest challenge that any man, or super-man, could ever encounter. He must outrun negative press and an actor’s toxicity.

Look, we’re not going to pretend that the baggage The Flash carries doesn’t exist. We’ve dealt with these situations a lot in the past decade, and they can range from terminally distracting to Unclean! Unclean! Maybe, in an alternate timeline, none of these disturbing things happen and Ezra Miller gets the help they need in time, and they bask in the glow of being anointed an A-list star, and while we’re at it, this whole DC Extended Universe experiment hasn’t been one huge perfect storm of suckitude.

But we exist in the here and now, one in which people have suffered and executives must deal with a lead who has put them in a tough situation. We also occupy a present in which The Flash is, by far, the best movie to come out of this modern, post-Nolan Warners/DC collaboration, and builds on the promise that Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman first put forth. That is: You can make a superhero film with these particular superheroes that’s dark but not needlessly abyss-black; you can make something that matches the epic scope of worlds-collide comic crossovers while still making sure that your characters matter; you can balance serial storytelling and the burdens of confusing canons with something that stands on its own two fleet feet; and you can channel the thrill of both comics and blockbusters without giving either short shrift.

These are all things that this universe’s direct competition has already learned, though after 15 years of IP gouging, even their results have unsurprisingly varied. To say we’re grading on a curve here is self-evident. Yet this solo joint for DC’s resident speedster understands how these types of movies are supposed to work, and whether you love this genre or hate it, The Flash serves as a prime example of why it’s capable of achieving something more than just selling toys and T-shirts from Tacoma to Taiwan. None of which excuses what’s happened offscreen in the slightest. It only make things that much more complicated in terms of a reaction. Rarely has “Oh my god!” and “Oh, dear god” coexisted together in the same gasp.

No film exists in a vacuum, but this is a movie review — so let’s pivot to focusing on the movie for a second. Allen is still “the janitor of the Justice League,” which is busy taking care of threats far and wide. He also needs to maintain a certain calorie count to operate at peak Flash-ness, thus making a last-minute call to action — there’s a burning hospital, a collapsing foundation, and a maternity ward full of cute newborns — before he’s had breakfast even more of a race against time. From the jump, director Andy Muschietti (It) and screenwriter Christina Hodson (Birds of Prey; there’s also “Story by” credits for Joby Harold, John Francis Daley, and Jonathan Goldstein) set the pace, which is primed for both nimbly quickening the action and slowing down enough to wink, nudge, and crack jokes. Those previous Flash guest appearances hinted that he’d be the comic relief, pun intended, of the self-serious DCEU. The extended preamble leans heavily into that idea, before suggesting Allen might be the franchise’s emotional center as well.

It begins with his parents, naturally. His mother (Y Tu Mama También‘s Maribel Verdú) was murdered when Barry was a child. His father (Ron Livingston) was convicted for the homicide, though his son knows that’s he’s innocent; the whole reason he’s devoted his life to criminal forensics was to get his dad out of jail. Even his longtime crush, muckraking crime reporter Iris West (Kiersey Clemons), is sympathetic to his plight. Thanks to Bruce Wayne, some new evidence comes close to exonerating the elder Allen. Close, but not quite.

What Barry has just discovered, however, is that he can run fast enough to create a “chronobowl” that propels him backward or forward through time. He can stop the murder from happening. “You can’t live in the past,” Wayne tells him — physician, heal thyself! — and messing with it creates an unavoidable butterfly effect. Barry thinks he can tweak one crucial element without harming anything. He’s wrong.

The resulting time-traveling excursion pairs Barry with his 18-year-old self, also played by Miller, and puts them both in the presence of a different Batman. Different, but very, very familiar. Reports of Michael Keaton’s return to the bat-fold a few years back inspired both squeals of delight and eye-rolling — either way, it felt like a nostalgiabait ploy. Yet Keaton not only reprises his role wonderfully, he knows how to slot himself into this complicated narrative so that, oddly enough, he’s in line with what The Flash as a whole is trying to do. The past is impossible to recreate and even more impossible not to pine for, especially when your memories are so tied to a specific moment, or an era, or a singular instance of unfathomable loss. Yet it’s something that must be reconciled with one way or the other. Here, Keaton seems to have embraced the cowl again in a way that suggests he’s made peace with a legacy that includes, but doesn’t stop at, the Caped Crusader. It’s neither a cash-in nor an appearance crushed under the weight of caveats. He’s simply [low voice] Batman, again. The veteran even makes the inevitable fan-service callbacks feel fun.

Miller, Miller, and Sasha Calle in ‘The Flash.’

Warner Bros. Pictures/DC Comics

There’s also a retrofitted origin story thrown in for good measure, done in the name of ensuring the young Barry gets the same powers the old Barry has, and which creates its own timeloop screw-up. Plus a new threat, or rather a new “old” threat in the form of General Zod (Michael Shannon) showing up in a universe with no Superman. Instead, the Flash(es) and retro Batman must rescue their world’s in-house Kryptonian, Supergirl (Sasha Calle). The fact that the character feels like an afterthought isn’t the actor’s fault. It’s just this defender of truth and justice becomes one more element introduced into a film already brimming with business. Yes, there are in-jokes and references to how this timeline differs from ours, along with Easter eggs, some cat’s-out-the-bag cameos courtesy of a Crisis on Infinite Earths, and a few secrets that are best kept as secrets. There are also action sequences that look more like video-game cut-scenes than blockbuster set pieces, and a post-credits bit that couldn’t be more useless or grating. Superhero movies gonna superhero-movie. Even the superior ones.

And then there’s Miller, doing double duty as two distinct versions of the same messed-up soul. With their rangy physique and razor-sharp cheekbones, Miller bares an uncanny resemblance to artist Carmine Infantino’s 1950s rendition of the Flash, the same one that turned the dormant hero into a fan favorite. (It helps immensely that Muschietti and cinematographer Henry Graham have a mutual knack for composing sequences that call to mind Infantino’s revolutionary style and kinetic panels as well.) They have already established Allen/Flash’s persona in previous outings: one part goofy, one part creepy, several parts stealth scene-stealer. Yet given what little they had to do amidst all the Snyder-driven sturm und drang, their turns always felt a little like several instruments stuck simultaneously playing the same one note.

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There were layers to this superhero, however, and given the spotlight, Miller peels back every single one of them here. The parallel performances they’ve crafted here don’t just suggest two separate people and timelines — they suggest a one-actor double act with impeccable timing, dual psychological profiles, and the complete range of the joy-to-sorrow, juvenile-to-sensible scales. Miller gives us a giddy man-child, suddenly given powers beyond their comprehension and wild to the possibilities of this newfound need for speed. And they gives us a reluctant, world-weary savior who understands that you can save someone, but you can never, ever save everyone. Sometimes those two are in the same scene. Sometimes they’re in the same frame. Sometimes they’re arguing with each other and respectively bringing a breeziness and a heaviness to this pop magnum opus in the exact same moment.

This is what a true talent does with a tailor-made role, and what the star of The Flash does here, twice. That’s not what we’ll walk away from the movie thinking about first and foremost, however. It is not what we’ll talk about when we talk about Ezra Miller. Which, in the same full-circle sense that this tale of superhumans and unfortunate fates operates on, brings us right back to where we began. This much-beleagured cinematic universe has finally hit upon a winning film, and one that will be forever tainted. It’s not the most tragic thing regarding the person whirling at the center of it all — not by a long shot. But it is a reminder that you can make a superhero movie that seeks to unite all worlds but can’t quite reckon with the one outside the theater. And it’s proof that you can always run as fast as your superhuman intellectual property can manage, but there are things that you simply aren’t able to hide.

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