The wait is finally over. Warner Bros. Discovery’s big summer tentpole film, The Flash, is out now after decades of stalled development and a nightmare of a press tour involving the lead star’s run-ins with the law. Pretty much everyone has been blanketed with coverage of Michael Keaton’s nostalgic return as Batman, Sasha Calle’s debut as Supergirl, and the bold claim that The Flash is “the greatest superhero movie of all time.”
Well, is it? Where did this claim come from and why has it been so persuasive in the movie’s marketing? If it’s true, then there’s not much risk involved, but if it’s not, if the movie is only just average, then there might be a sense of disappointment or, worse, ridicule, from a fanbase that is loud and unforgiving. Below is a timeline of how The Flash became to be known as “the greatest superhero movie of all time” even before most people had seen it, how celebrities as random as Tom Cruise and Stephen King got involved in the campaign for the film, and its ultimate reception from critics and fans alike.
The first inkling that The Flash was truly special came late last year, when Word of Reel reported that a test screening audience gave the movie the “highest scores ever” for a DCEU movie. We’re not in “greatest superhero movie” territory just yet, and achieving the highest test scores for a franchise that includes 2016’s Suicide Squad and any version of Justice League is a very low bar to surpass.
I don’t doubt Word of Reel’s reporting, but a vague description of a test screening that, if it took place, was set up by the studio to maximize positive reactions from an audience that was undoubtedly excited to watch a big movie so far in advance isn’t too reliable.
Can we trust this opinion? No.
The beleaguered new owner of Warner Bros., and by extension, all of DC, first professed his enthusiasm for The Flash in a fourth-quarter earnings call in February 2023, when he confessed that “I saw it and loved it. It’s a wow.” Next month at CinemaCon, the executive-turned-armchair film critic said that he had now seen the movie three times and proclaimed that “it’s the best superhero movie I’ve ever seen.” Ah, there it is, that bold assertion that immediately makes one suspicious.
It’s easy to dispel Zaslav’s opinion here since his background doesn’t suggest he knows much about the superhero genre or movies in general. How can the man who came up with Shark Week know how good Sam Raimi‘s Darkman really is, or why Batman Returns is the kinkiest comic book movie ever made? More importantly, Zaslav needs The Flash to be the best superhero movie of all time so audiences can see it again and again, and WBD can make a profit off of a $200 million to $300 million movie that needs repeat viewings to get into the black.
Can we trust his opinion? Hell no.
This one’s an odd one as Tom Cruise seemingly doesn’t have anything to do The Flash, DC Studios, comic book movies (he’s one of the few stars never to have starred in one), or Warner Bros. (Paramount is Cruise’s current home studio). So when The Hollywood Reporter ran an exclusive story in March saying that the Top Gun: Maverick actor “loved it,” you’d think it was legit, right?
Yet, if you look closer, Cruise’s comments seem, at best, noncommittal, and worse, suspect. The Hollywood Reporter quotes Cruise as claiming The Flash has “everything you want in a movie” and “is the kind of movie we need right now.” These statements are (deliberately?) vague and don’t really address the quality of the movie so much as its potential to generate money. Perhaps more damning is that Cruise only saw the movie because Zaslav set up a private screening for the actor. Cruise is smart to not to piss off a major studio head, and if The Flash does well at the box office, other movies like Cruise’s next Mission: Impossible movie (which comes out a month later) could benefit as well.
Can we trust his opinion? Yes, but not about The Flash.
Like Zaslav, Gunn has pushed the narrative that The Flash is “probably the greatest superhero movie ever made.” Like Zaslav, he has an obvious conflict of an interest as he’s the newly installed co-head of DC Studios. Unlike the WB executive, Gunn has geek and genre cred thanks to his work in the Marvel Cinematic Universe with his widely liked Guardians of the Galaxy trilogy. Maybe that’s enough to really believe him? After all, the director showed his good taste when he listed his 5 favorite comic book movies of all time.
And yet, it’s hard not to believe that Gunn can’t say he doesn’t love The Flash when his boss, and the future of his job, relies on the movie doing well with critics and fans. After all, the director tweeted out his admiration for Shazam! Fury of the Gods, saying, “I loved it. It’s a complete blast.” The Shazam sequel is one of the worst superhero movies of the last decade, so it’s hard to trust his critical assessment of another DC movie.
Can we trust his opinion? No.
Last month, the public, or a tiny sliver of it, was finally able to watch a final cut of The Flash at CinemaCon, an annual trade show where studios present their movies to theater owners. Film reviewers were able to watch it, and the responses seemed to back up Zaslav’s and Gunn’s “greatest superhero movie ever” claim. I won’t quote any particular one here, but The Hollywood Reporter has a good rundown of all the critical reaction to the film.
It’s important to remember that CinemaCon is a promotional event, not a film festival, and so while WB’s movie was shown to critics for the first time, these critics tend to write in CAPS and put exclamation marks at the end of almost every sentence in their reactions! In short, these critics tend to like a lot of things, especially when they are invited to an exclusive event and get a chance to watch a highly anticipated movie for the first time. Also, if you cross-reference these critics with other positive, even effusive reactions they had to other awful DC movies like Shazam! Fury of the Gods and Black Adam, you’ll find a lot of overlap. Not all of the critics who saw the movie are like this, of course, but there are enough of them to still call into question the ecstatic appraisal of the movie.
Can we trust these critics’ opinions? Not really, but if one of them is a critic who usually likes what you like, then yes.
Perhaps the oddest endorsement yet is the one recently given by Stephen King, who no needs no introduction. The man is a living legend, and has shown good taste in his movie-watching habits in the past. On May 17, he posted the below tweet:
Yet, even with King’s reputation, I’m still not sold. First, I never like it when someone claims they don’t care for a particular genre, and then say with authority that one thing from that genre is great. It’s supposed to lend extra validity to that person’s opinion, so when King says he’s not a “superhero movie” fan, the fact that he likes The Flash means it must be really good. To me, the opposite seems more likely to be true; that the movie seems special to people who don’t like superhero movies to begin with or, worse, look down on them. It’s comparable to a film director like Gus Van Sant saying, “Hey, I don’t like horror novels, but Stephen King’s next book, which almost no one has read yet, rocks.” Would you trust his opinion? I wouldn’t. Even though I love Gus Van Sant, I’m not looking to him to recommend a horror novel.
It’s also worth noting the conflicts of interest at play here. King didn’t see this with a regular moviegoing audience in Bangor, Maine; he saw an advanced screening specifically set up for him by someone at WB. Also, The Flash‘s director, Andy Muschietti, worked on the two IT movies, which, of course, were adaptations of Stephen King’s famous novel. WB made those movies, and King has a professional relationship with the studio, with the prequel series Welcome to Derry being developed for Max and Billy Summers set to be released theatrically in the near future. Finally, why is WB being so aggressive about random celebrities endorsing this movie in advance? First Tom Cruise, now Stephen King; who’s next, Oprah Winfrey? Joe Biden? Again, I respect King a lot, but there are just too many red flags to take his recommendation seriously.
Can we trust Stephen King’s opinion? Not on The Flash.
Now that The Flash is out, we’re able to suss out the overall critical opinion of the long-waited movie. On Rotten Tomatoes, the movie currently has a critical rating of 68% based on 265 reviews. RT summarized the critical consensus as this: “The Flash is funny, fittingly fast-paced, and overall ranks as one of the best DC movies in recent years.” Of course, while some reviews vary in their praise or dismissal of the movie, I’ve got to give credit where credit is due: this critical rating isn’t bad. It’s a low bar, but The Flash‘s critical reception is one of the better ones in the DCEU’s troubled history, and is certainly more loving than the previous entry, the disastrous Shazam! Fury of the Gods.
Yet what we’re judging here isn’t the fact that The Flash is good, but rather if it lives up to the hype that Zaslav, Gunn, King, Cruise, and the DC Marketing team generated earlier this year. The most effusive reviews don’t claim this the best “best superhero movie ever” and there are even some reviews that address this claim in their reviews. Here’s a notable one from David Rooney of The Hollywood Reporter: “The early word on The Flash calling it one of the greatest superhero movies ever made was pure hyperbole. But in the bumpy recent history of the DC Extended Universe, it’s certainly an above-average entry.”
So no, the movie isn’t the best of all time from a critical standpoint, and probably shouldn’t have been hyped as such. There’s nothing wrong with an “above average” time at the movies, but in their desperate quest to make as much money as possible, Warner Bros. applied too much gloss to what was always a passable product. The cherry on top of all of this is that Across the Spider-Verse, another comic book movie dealing with the multiverse, has been called, by critics and fans, as one of the best superhero movies ever without the help of Sony or any random celebrity. In that movie’s case, its high quality spoke for itself. Wouldn’t it be great if WB could finally make a DC movie that could do the same?
The Flash is currently playing in theaters.