Although you could blink and miss it, “Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice” features the big-screen debut of Ezra Miller’s Barry Allen, better known as The Flash. We’ll have to wait until 2017’s “The Justice League Part One” to get a better look at Miller’s version of the Scarlet Speedster, but the brief glimpse we get of his man-bunned civilian self in “BVS” suggests he’s a far cry from the clean-cut Barry played by Grant Gustin on TV’s “The Flash.” Gustin’s version of the character wasn’t “a good fit,” “BVS”/”Justice League” director Zack Snyder told the New York Daily News. “I’m very strict with this universe and… that [tone is] not our world.” (Brackets in the original.)
Snyder has a point. Warner Bros may not really have a “No jokes” policy for its DC Comics movies, but there’s a reason the rumor stuck: Ever since the campy debacle of “Batman & Robin,” the studio has been leery of anything creeping into its movies that might undercut the mythic resonance of their intellectual property— or, less charitably, to disturb the overwhelming atmosphere of morbid self-seriousness. Let Marvel have its in-jokes and metahumor; Warner Bros and DC have put their money on black.
On TV, where the DC universe now encompasses three series on the CW and one on CBS, it’s a very different story. “Arrow” may have started out as a grimdark Dark Knight knockoff, but the addition of Barry Allen to the DC TV-verse added new colors to the palette; The Flash’s red suit introduced a shade that had previously been reserved only for blood. Where Oliver Queen’s Arrow was a classic lone-wolf vigilante, The Flash was always part of a team: During the “Arrow” guest shots that laid the groundwork for “The Flash’s” first season, we saw more of his future running buddies Cisco and Caitlin than we did of Barry himself. Where the Arrow was driven by vengeance, the Flash’s goal was vindication: Finding the mysterious figure who murdered his mother meant freeing his father, who spent decades wrongfully imprisoned for the crime. “The Flash” brought literal and figurative lightness to the genre: Team Arrow’s headquarters is a Stygian underground bunker; Barry and his pals rendezvous at the white-on-white offices of STAR Labs. While it’s not without its moments of heightened drama, the underlying premise of “The Flash” is that being a super-powered hero is a dream come true. And not just for Barry, either: Fanboy surrogate Cisco takes special joy in coming up with codenames for each new hero and villain that crosses their path.
In “Man of Steel’s” Smallville scenes, Snyder tapped into the genre’s underlying poetry; it was corn, but corn you could believe in. But Snyder’s flirtation with lyricism was short-lived: the new Superman was a badass, not a Boy Scout. There was a hint of Alan Moore’s Miracleman in the way he battled his quasi-ominpotent foes without apparent regard for the human cost of their fight: He was saving the world, and if that meant destroying a small chunk of it in the process, so be it. “Batman V Superman” surveys the fallout of “Man of Steel’s” cataclysmic finale, with slabs of black rock commemorating the names of Metropolis’ fallen, but at least officially, Superman, whose bronzed form occupies the center of the Metropolis monument, is still the hero of that day. It takes baddie Lex Luthor, paraphrasing Epicurus, to point out that either the Man of Steel’s virtue or his strength must be finite: “If God is all-powerful, then he cannot be all good. If he is all good, he cannot be all-powerful.” Holly Hunter’s Senator parries, “Good is a conversation.”
“Batman V Superman” makes a big hullabaloo about engaging that conversation, but it’s not much of a spoiler to reveal that in the end the good guys turn out to be good, and the bad guys are bad. If you want a real conversation about morality, try turning to “The Flash,” where the murderous speedster Zoom has just been revealed as the alter ego of Jay Garrick, who was himself The Flash on a parallel earth and whose apparent square-shouldered heroism put even Barry’s to shame. Or “Arrow,” whose take-no-prisoners hero renounced killing after the show’s first season, and is engaged in an ongoing inner struggle over whether and when it’s acceptable to take a life. As Angelica Jade Bastien pointed out, “The Flash” is engaged in a similarly complex conversation about masculinity, a far cry from Snyder’s monotonous fealty to a stoic, comically over-muscled archetype.
“Batman V Superman” attempts to wrestle with weighty issues; its stentorian tone and the relentless blare of Hans Zimmer and Junkie XL’s score informs us as much. (One of the reasons it’s such a relief when Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman shows up is that it heralds the introduction of a new musical theme, one that sounds less like a foghorn being played at the bottom of an oil drum.) But Snyder is a drawer, not a thinker, more consumed with massaging every last shot until even the human beings look like they were generated by a computer than he is in coherent ideas, or even a sensible plot. (See if you can answer in a single sentence why Lex Luthor manipulates Superman and Batman into fighting each other. Now do it without using any variant of the word “crazy.”) For all its IMAX, maxed-out orange-and-teal bluster, “Batman V Superman” feels a lot like an overstuffed TV pilot — say, a megabudget version of the CW’s “Legends of Tomorrow.” There’s always the possibility that future movies in DC’s cinematic universe will breathe a little more — especially “Wonder Woman” and “The Flash,” which Snyder isn’t directing himself. But at least until then, the better versions of DC’s storied heroes will be the ones you can view from your couch.