UPDATE: So the proposed Flash film has lost its director. Make of that what you will.
(Original post follows)
The 1965 and 1966 films Dr. Who & The Daleks and Daleks – Invasion Earth 2150 A.D. might seem a bit strange to modern audiences, conceptually speaking. Produced in the midst of the “Dalekmania” that swept the U.K. after the villainous aliens debuted on the Doctor Who television program in 1963, the films are not, as one might expect, new Dalek stories conceived for the big screen; rather, the films are remakes of the Doctor Who episodes in which Daleks initially appeared, with the stories condensed to fit the running time of a feature film and the television cast of Doctor Who completely replaced by new actors. Why would audiences of the time consider paying to see a story they’ve seen before without the cast they already know and like, one could ask, particularly when the Daleks were continuing to appear in new episodes of Doctor Who around the same time?
The Dalek films being remakes of recent television broadcasts makes a large degree of sense, though, when considered with the production and distribution contexts of the time. For the filmmakers, the initial Dalek stories from Doctor Who provided material that was already known to be popular with audiences and which could be quickly adapted to the demands of the film medium before Dalekmania subsided. For audiences, the films provided not only the opportunity to see the original stories done with the technological and production advantages provided by film — including the films being shot in colour, unlike their black and white television counterparts — but also the opportunity to experience the stories “again,” something that was not guaranteed to happen in the 1960s. With no home video or internet and limited opportunities for old programs to be rerun, it was unlikely for audiences at the time to have a chance to see the original episodes. As such, the films simply had to “compete” with the memories of the episodes, not the episodes themselves.
Given the growth of home video and the subsequent development of digital downloads and video streaming services, it is no surprise that film productions of the type represented by the Dalek movies have more or less ceased to exist. Contemporary cinematic remakes of television properties are nostalgia driven, as studios try to tap into audiences’ (presumed) love for long gone programming. Films intended to capitalize on the popularity of recent television programs have typically taken the form of narratives which extend the storylines of a given show, such as The X-Files: I Want to Believe picking up six years after the final episode of The X-Files’ original broadcast run. This is assuming a film happens at all, however: while part of the supposed appeal of a feature film continuation of something like The X-Files in the past came from the increased production quality associated with feature film budgets, the narrowing gap between technological and narrative boundaries of film and television have made this one time selling point increasingly irrelevant, particularly given how home viewing has replaced the theatrical exhibition as the primary way of watching films.
Given these distribution and technological trends, I think it is only fair to ask a simple question of Warner Brothers: what the hell are you thinking by remaking the first season of the CW television series The Flash as a feature film?
I admit my question is slightly disingenuous: the impending Flash film is not a remake or an continuation of the currently airing television series, but rather a standalone work based on the same DC comic books the series draws upon as source material. Furthermore, the film will be part of the DC Cinematic Universe, a series of films that began with the 2013 film Man of Steel, and which introduced its version of the Flash with the recently released Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. Yet if my question is a bit misleading and/or an oversimplification of what the proposed Flash film will be, it isn’t by much.
While not much is known about the film project at this time, those involved with the solo Flash film have insisted that the upcoming movie will be distinct from the popular television program, providing a different take on the source material with its own tone. Indeed, one of the reasons the television version of the Flash is being kept apart from the cinematic version of the DC Universe is because, according to Justice League director Zack Snyder, the tone of the show does not fit with the tone of the feature films. Certainly, the dour world established in Snyder’s DC films is about as far from the upbeat world of The Flash as it can get.
Of all of DC’s stable of characters, The Flash is perhaps the best suited to having multiple incarnations appearing outside of the comics. Unlike Batman or Wonder Woman, The Flash is an identity which has been held by four characters, each of which has been considered the “primary” incarnation at one time or another. The current television series (much like its short-lived precursor, The Flash, which aired from 1990 to 1991) focuses on Barry Allen, the second and arguably most famous version of The Flash. If one considered Allen off of the table, that still leaves three other versions of The Flash as options for Snyder’s cinematic universe: First, there is the original Flash, Jay Garrick, whose Mercury-inspired costume would visually have made him a fit of Zack Snyder’s “superheros as gods” approach to DC’s characters; secondly, there is Wally West, Barry Allen’s former teenage sidekick who inherited the mantle of The Flash following Barry’s death/disappearance, an angle which provides the opportunity to explore the theme of legacy which the television series The Flash has yet to really touch upon; and finally, there is Bart Allen, who briefly inherited the identity of the Flash and whose complicated backstory makes him the least likely to make an easy translation from the comics to screen, but who still provides opportunities to distinguish the DC feature films from their television counterparts.
Warner Brothers and Snyder, however, have instead chosen to introduce another incarnation of Barry Allen to audiences. To be fair, there is still a bit of wiggle room for a cinematic version of Allen to be different from the television series incarnation. While the CW series focuses on a young Barry Allen whose life has been defined by witnessing the murder of his mother when he was a child, the character in his comic book past has also been presented as an older man with an average life, married and struggling to balance his personal, professional, and superheroic duties. However, with the casting of twenty-something Ezra Miller in the role of Barry Allen, Snyder and Warner Brothers have pretty much ensured that their big screen Flash will be compared to the television version played by twenty-something actor Grant Gustin on the CW series, regardless of whether or not the film is an origin story for the character.
Audiences will be encouraged all the more to make such comparisons if the recently rumored casting breakdown is true. While Iris West, Allen’s longtime romantic partner from the comics, is not an unexpected role to have pop up in a Flash film, the inclusion of the villainous Eobard Thawne, aka the Reverse-Flash, raises more than a few red flags, given that a version of Thawne served as the antagonist for the entirety of The Flash season one. Indeed, while the various incarnations of the Reverse-Flash are certainly a significant part of the Flash “canon,” the use of the Reverse-Flash as the primary antagonist of a Flash film seems strikingly unoriginal when so many of the Flash’s classic villains have either yet to appear in the television series — the absence of the Mirror Master over the last two seasons has been particularly striking — or have put in such relatively minor appearances thus far that a competing cinematic incarnation would be seen as less of an issue.
It is not as if there isn’t a recent example of a film rehashing familiar beats and characters having failed: Sony’s Spider-Man reboot The Amazing Spider-Man and its sequel came under harsh criticism for retreading familiar elements from the prior Sam Raimi Spider-Man trilogy, including a nearly beat for beat retelling of Spider-Man’s origin and a plot in which Peter Parker’s friend Harry becomes a version of the Green Goblin. Beyond taking a critical beating, the declining box office of the films resulted in the scuttling of Sony’s grand plan of an expansive range of Spider-Man related films and, in what could only be seen as a humiliating defeat for Sony, ultimately having to turn to Marvel Studios for guidance on getting the franchise back on track. Given the potential for such problems, why on Earth would Warner Brothers want to risk emulating the failed Sony game plan?
There are two arguments I could see Warner Brothers using as a defense for making a Flash film which mirrors the television version. First, there is the argument that the audience for a television series is not the same as the audience for a film, with a film needing to play to a broader crowd than a weekly show. Certainly, there is a degree of truth to this view: a multi-million dollar Flash film will need to reach a wider audience than the current television series if it aims to make a profit, meaning that a large portion of the audience will likely be unfamiliar with any of the finished film’s story. What this argument leaves out, however, is that there remains a significant overlap between the audience of The Flash television series and whatever film Warner Brothers ends up producing, and it is this audience, the one which is already invested in the property, that Warner Brothers needs to be concerned about. Fans tend to be rather vocal, particularly when they are displeased with what is seen as an inferior production featuring a character they love, and as Batman v Superman proved, that kind of vocal displeasure can quickly taint a film’s longterm financial prospects.
The second tired defence Warner Brothers could argue is that even if the film offers story beats already covered by the series, the film version will be able to execute the spectacle of those familiar elements of The Flash television series in a way that the series simply can’t. As I pointed out earlier, however, the gap between what is achievable on television and film is one which is closing with each passing year, with The Flash television series building episodes around CGI creations such as King Shark and Gorilla Grodd, something that likely could not have been achieved with any degree of success even ten years ago. Moreover, when it comes to the scale of the spectacle in the DCU films thus far, the lack of it hasn’t been a problem, with the bombastic sensory assault of Zack Snyder’s films alienating as many viewers as they impress. Should the reaction remain divisive with Snyder’s Justice League, it will be more likely that The Flash film will need to scale itself back rather than up in an effort to interest audiences.
So if Warner Brothers really is intent on rehashing elements of The Flash mythos already familiar to viewers in its big screen take on the character despite the risks, the question remains as to just what Warner Brothers gains in doing so. I suspect that the reason is perhaps not dissimilar to the reason the Dalek films from the 1960s were remakes of preexisting television episodes: time. In its efforts to get the DC Cinematic Universe up and running, Warner Brothers has been pushing projects through at an accelerated rate, with Batman v Superman being announced mere days after the idea was conceived, followed by an announcement of an entire slate of DC films before anyone even knew if audiences were going to like the follow up to Man of Steel. If Warner Brothers seriously aims to keep to the schedule of films it has announced, a Flash film is going to need to enter production fairly shortly after Snyder’s Justice League finishes film. Given this timetable, as well as the fact that the film looks to be directed by first time filmmaker Seth Grahame-Smith (EDIT: see the update at the top of the article), one can see why Warner Brothers might want to latch onto something that has been proven to work in some form.
Will such a gamble pay off? To me, it seems dubious. There was a time and a place for “recent TV remake” films, but that time died out approximately around the time Night of Dark Shadows — the second feature film remake of episodes of the television series Dark Shadows — bombed at the box office in 1971. As a nerd, the idea of a Flash film baring more than a little resemblance to the television incarnation has intellectual appeal, but as a lover of cinema, the whole enterprise seems like an ill-conceived waste.
If I were a Warner Brothers executive, though? I’d be very, very hesitant to start rolling film on this production.