Vaughan & Chiang's "Paper Girls" Builds a Familiar Yet Disconcerting World
The Dark Knight Rises is on its way. Man of Steel is filming. The costume from that David E. Kelley Wonder Woman show will finally get some air time. I wouldn’t even bet against Green Lantern 2.
So today, I’m here to talk about adapting The Flash.
Apparently a Flash movie has been in development for several years, at least since Green Lantern went into production (and from a few of the same folks). I don’t know the basics — which by now may well have changed — but I suspect many of us fans would start from the same points: which Flash, which Rogue(s), etc. After so many superhero-comic adaptations, we can derive certain formulae from the things.
However, to me The Flash is different.
The idea of super-speed is ideal for the comics medium, because time basically slows down for everyone but the speedster, and comics excel at playing with the reader’s perception of time. Ironically, though, in a moving-picture setting, the real effect of super-speed is trickier to pull off. Sometimes it works to show everyone else slowing down, as in The Matrix’s “bullet time,” the bionic running of The Six Million Dollar Man, or the tray-catching scene of the first Spider-Man. (Naturally, the last always seemed to be an homage to Barry Allen discovering his powers in Showcase #4.)
To bring an audience along for a super-speed ride, though, you have to go all in. When Clark Kent couldn’t fly, Smallville gave him super-zips. These got the point across — now he’s here, now he’s not — and they were probably pretty literal illustrations of his power; but as a visual they left a lot to be desired. More than a decade prior, The Flash TV show of 1990-91 used a similar shortcut, but basically it was a guy in a costume standing in one place, a WHOOSH, and then the same guy in a costume standing in a different place. (My wife, who has unexpectedly become a huge Big Bang Theory fan, is fond of a particular episode featuring a related gag.) Obviously The Flash was limited by its budget, and when the character appeared in animated form on Super Friends and Justice League, he got a more comic-booky treatment. Still, when The Flash had money to spend, it was pretty impressive, including using multiple exposures to create after-images familiar to the comics’ readers.
Moreover, when you look at something like Wally almost getting lost in the Speed Force in “Justice League,” or Dash’s high-speed set piece in The Incredibles, you start to think that sure, a few more of those and there’s your movie. And that gets us back to the formulaic nature of superhero movies: origin, second-act complications, big effects-filled finish. Plug in the appropriate member(s) of the Rogues’ Gallery, maybe tie everything into the origin, and voila!
To be sure, there’s nothing wrong with well-done super-speed sequences. I’d expect nothing less from a hypothetical Flash flick. When the first issue of Flash: Rebirth arrived, I complained that there wasn’t enough super-speed in it.
Nevertheless, that’s not all there is to the Flash. At the risk of sounding Entitled, the cumulative (1956-2011) adventures of Barry Allen and Wally West now carry with them an air of inevitability only punctured by Flashpoint’s Gordian solution. As much as I kvetch about Wally’s ambiguous fate, rebooting Barry allowed the book to focus on certain elements (including the police-scientist job and the relationship with Iris) and not have to worry about the Flash Museum or what Wally’s parents might be up to. That’s great for the comics, which need to purge every now and then. DC won’t stop publishing Flash comics any time soon, and if someone has a great Dexter Myles story or wants to bring back Rudolph & Mary West, they can. When you only get one shot at a movie, though — and Superman Returns and Green Lantern both argue that not everything gets a sequel — you want to get in what you can.
Taking a more expansive view, MGK outlines a cinematic Flash trilogy, adapting a few comics storylines pretty directly in order to lead moviegoers from Barry to Wally. It plays up the Flash legacy, obviously, but MGK also makes the salient points that you can’t rely on super-speed and you can’t make Barry Allen into Batman. (I would add that The Flash TV series had too much of Tim Burton’s Batman, most notably in the areas of costumes, sets, and music.)
While I’m not here to argue with MGK, I will say it’s not necessarily the way I would go. After a while (certainly by the early ‘70s), The Flash feature had accumulated enough minutiae that it had become almost self-sustaining. Like the Earth-1 Superman or the Batman of the 1950s, readers knew how things were supposed to work, because the stories had explained those things. They knew how the Rogues related to each other and how Barry’s costume-ring worked. They knew Barry’s parents, Iris’ parents, and the Allens’ neighbors. (As it happens, Wally’s parents had to wait much longer to be fleshed out.) Central City might have had some questionable topography, but it became one of DC’s more familiar, even comfortable, environments. Accordingly, I would try to evoke that same sort of lived-in feeling on screen. To a certain extent that means creating a live-action Cary Bates/Irv Novick comic book, circa 1976, but I don’t think that’s a bad baseline. The first Superman is illustrative in this respect: it ditched a lot of the Bronze Age/Earth-One trappings, but it kept the feel of an Elliott S! Maggin/Curt Swan production.
Anyway, we’re getting a little off track. More than most superhero adaptations, a hypothetical Flash movie presents its adapters with a number of choices: Barry or Wally (and attendant supporting cast), the Rogues, the amount of Easter eggs/comics backstory. However, I would argue that, more than most, the aforementioned “air of inevitability” tends to dictate any adaptation’s treatment. Barry may be the once and future Flash, but after twenty-plus years of Wally in the role (not to mention his Justice League exposure), both are viable stars, and each could tell a credible story. Personally, Wally seems to be the more complex character, but much of that comes from his relationship to Barry. Therefore, I don’t think you can take Barry out of Wally’s story, because otherwise he might just as well be Barry; but if you really want Wally in the role, you have to start thinking about how Barry will die. MGK’s solution is appealing, although he spreads Wally’s story over three movies and I’m trying to do as much as possible in one.
With all that in mind, then, my one shot at a decent Flash movie would pick things up fairly deep into Flash lore, with Barry as the Flash and Wally a semi-retired (because of college) Kid Flash. The Rogues (Captain Cold, Mirror Master, Trickster, Heat Wave, Pied Piper) would be regular antagonists, but nothing the Flash couldn’t handle. Unfortunately, when a really apocalyptic threat comes along — let’s say some kind of super-scientific energy experiment goes out of control — Barry ends up sacrificing himself to save the world. Wally must then grow up quickly to deal with the burdens of being a big-time superhero — and when a heavy-hitter supervillain shows up (probably Professor Zoom, but Abra Kadabra and Grodd are both tempting), forcing him to revisit Barry’s death, Wally must rise to that challenge too.
It all sounds rather boilerplate, but I think a lighthearted, optimistic tone would be crucial, and would help distinguish The Flash. After all, whether it’s Barry or Wally, the Flash is a guy in a sleek, streamlined red-and-yellow suit, with the fairly elemental power of running really fast; and he got that power literally by being in the right place at the right time. For uninitiated moviegoers, it’s almost the same origin as Spider-Man (just substitute “lightning” for “spider” and “wall of chemicals” for “radiation”), but with diametrically opposite results. Instead of Peter Parker’s power-related complications, super-speed offers easy solutions to a variety of everyday problems. (And yes, that is one of the classic Marvel Vs. DC Differences.) MGK’s trilogy would be an eloquent meditation on man’s relationship to Heaven, but on a very basic level being The Flash would be flat-out fun.
So naturally Barry has to die, right?
That’s the great dilemma facing any longtime superhero fan: how to manage the implications of what eventually becomes a macro-story. For twenty-three years, Barry Allen was defined in no small part by his 1985 death; and to a certain extent, so was Wally. (Obviously, 1993’s “Return of Barry Allen” went a long way toward helping Wally make peace with his uncle’s memory.) It’s the kind of thing which makes fans like me ask whether Barry had died and come back in the post-Flashpoint timeline — because if not, we’ll wonder how much time he has left. As long as Barry was martyred, he could symbolize all the halcyon memories fans had of the Silver Age. Similarly, though, his return might be another sign that those Silver Age sensibilities were also coming back. That sort of update seemed to be the promise of Geoff Johns and Francis Manapul’s 2010-11 Flash series. If that status quo had continued (perhaps including the rumored Kid-Flash- and Wally-centered spinoffs), Johns could have built a new Flash mini-franchise on the foundations of decades-old continuity, just like he did with Green Lantern. That would have been easy, and it might have allowed Johns to rework the Flash organizational chart into something sensible.
However, I’m not sure it would have been as entertaining as Manapul and co-writer Steve Buccellato’s New-52 take. I am not shocked (shocked!) that superhero comics can be just as fun without the in-jokes and continuity porn, but I have been pleasantly surprised a) that DC has pared away so much of Barry’s old surroundings and b) that it has been so liberating. You get used to certain things in a Flash comic, and when they’re not there you’re concerned it won’t feel like a Flash comic. Although Captain Cold and the rest of the Rogues are on the horizon, this first arc of the New-52 run features a new villain, a heretofore-unknown old friend of Barry’s, and competing romantic interests. Most importantly, Manapul’s skills at storytelling and page design have reinvigorated the feature, taking excellent advantage of the possibilities of comics to offer a new perspective on Barry’s powers. Not that he couldn’t have done much the same thing drawing Johns’ scripts, but both the relaunch and his larger role seem to have let him loose.
This is why I am wary of any attempt to bring The Flash back to moving pictures. On film, there’s only so much you can do to portray super-speed in entertaining ways. A Flash movie would therefore need to rely equally on its non-super aspects. Comics, though, have the best of both worlds, and Manapul and Buccellato are in a great groove. I don’t need a Flash film, or the return of the old status quo, as long as the book is this good.