When Warner Bros. and DC Entertainment made the somewhat controversial choice to keep their superhero movies and TV shows separate — ruling out any crossovers between their big and small screen projects — they were clearly differentiating themselves from Marvel’s interconnected “Cinematic Universe.”
(Never mind that, while ostensibly all taking place in the same continuity, the heroes from Marvel’s TV shows have yet to play any meaningful role, or even merit a namedrop, in Marvel’s movies — that’s a gripe for another day.)
Instead, DC views its properties as a “multiverse,” in which two versions of Superman can coexist peacefully because each story takes place in an alternate dimension: Tyler Hoechlin embodies the Man of Steel on The CW’s Supergirl, while Henry Cavill dons those iconic tights on a parallel earth — a narrative shortcut that comic book publishers have used for years to excuse the conflicting continuities and characterizations of their heroes across their various titles.
We all know the precocious Bruce Wayne played by David Mazouz on Fox’s Gotham definitely won’t grow up into the same Batman portrayed by Ben Affleck, which frees the writers on each project to take creative liberties with their characters without having to stick to the established rules of one universe.
“[This] frees the writers on each project to take creative liberties with their characters without having to stick to the established rules of one universe.”
This approach has its pros and cons: While DC’s expansive TV universe allows creators to spotlight lesser-known heroes who might not have otherwise been seen as worthy of headlining their own movie — like Green Arrow, Firestorm and Black Lightning — having multiple actors portraying the same characters can rub fans the wrong way, which is exactly what happened when Warner Bros. announced that Ezra Miller would play The Flash on the big screen barely a week after The CW debuted a wildly popular TV series also centered around the character, played by Grant Gustin.
Fans, critics, and even Gustin’s co-stars Tom Cavanagh and Stephen Amell criticized WB’s decision to announce Miller in the role so soon after Gustin’s iteration debuted, with many wondering why Gustin wasn’t given a shot at taking his critically-adored performance to the big screen.
At the time, Justice League director Zack Snyder threw some undeserved shade at Gustin and The CW’s version of Barry Allen, remarking, “I just don’t think it was a good fit. I’m very strict with this universe and I just don’t see a version where… that (tone is) not our world.”
This is particularly ironic in hindsight, considering that Snyder was calling out The CW’s Flash for its lighter, more comedic tone, which at the time seemed at odds with the dark and gritty themes of the director’s Man of Steel and Batman v Superman… right up until Warner Bros. and DC pivoted sharply, making Miller’s Barry Allen into Justice League‘s comic relief, injecting a much-needed dose of humor and humanity into Snyder’s brooding universe.
While reviews for Justice League have been… rotten, general consensus seems to be that Miller’s take on the Scarlet Speedster was one of the few bright spots in the muddled movie; he even manages to have some fun with an otherwise stoic Superman in a genuinely charming post-credits scene.
While it’s undeniably weird to see Justice League echoing beats that The Flash series has already explored — the emotions, framing and even the music cues during Barry’s visits to his father in jail seem eerily reminiscent of Gustin’s scenes with John Wesley Shipp back in Season 1 — for the most part, the movie saves itself from too many comparisons by nature of how different Gustin and Miller’s performances are.
Miller’s quippy take on Barry is a lot more reminiscent of Wally West, Barry Allen’s younger sidekick, nephew and eventual successor as The Flash in the comics. While comic book Barry is more noble and studious, closer to Gustin’s interpretation, Wally is an energetic jokester who’s always trying to live up to his mentor’s example. (Sound familiar?)
Wally, not Barry, is the speedster who was popularized by the Justice League animated series, where he often served as the comic relief to balance out the seriousness of Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman — an iteration of the character that won plenty of fans during the animated show’s run. Miller’s rapid-fire jokes and eagerness to please certainly evoke that version of The Flash.
Starring in an hourlong show that has currently aired more than 70 episodes, Gustin also has the opportunity to really dig into Barry’s psychology, insecurities and relationships in ways that a two-hour movie simply can’t do, consistently excavating his character’s inner conflicts and refining what it means to be a hero. Unlike Miller’s nerdy loner version of Barry, Gustin’s take on the character is shaped by his team of sidekicks and family members — both a narrative necessity in an ongoing series and also a defining characteristic of the small-screen Flash that Miller’s version can’t replicate.
Miller doesn’t have to do the heavy lifting required of a lead actor on a relentless broadcast TV schedule, but he also has less narrative real estate with which to make an impression. It’s a testament to his charisma that Flash works as well as he does in Justice League, while Cyborg and Aquaman seem painfully underdeveloped, even though all three have comparable screen time. (Of course, it’s a lot easier to be quippy than to dump exposition like poor Cyborg.)
In other words, both Gustin and Miller bring something unique and equally compelling to the table — each one distinct enough that there’s no danger of confusing the two iterations.
While it’s understandable that loyal fans of The Flash series were eager to see Gustin given his due on the big screen, the actor has remained classy about the comparisons, even posting an open letter voicing his support of Miller and imploring fans to “be nice” when it seemed like the internet was trying to pit the two Flashes against each other.
Likewise, Miller called Gustin a “boss” and expressed hope that the two iterations of Barry might meet somehow in the Speed Force, perhaps in Miller’s solo Flash movie — which was initially slated for 2018 but has since been pushed to 2020, having lost two directors and gone through several rewrites since being announced.
Regardless of the corporate competition, the warm reception Miller’s performance received in Justice League, and the continued success of The CW’s Flash (which is still the highest rated series on the network in its fourth season), proves that the multiverse is big enough for two Scarlet Speedsters — even if it would be nice to imagine them working together one day.