Armchair Screenwriting: ‘The Flash’

Posted: June 1, 2010 in comic books, Jeff Holland, Threat Quality, writing
Tags: , , ,

Friend of TQP Matt Burns says, “I’d personally love to see a Flash movie. It would have the best running scenes since ‘Chariots of Fire.’ Though I can’t imagine how a film about a fast runner would be marketable.”

Despite all the comic-movie excitement over Marvel’s Avengers franchise, there’s not a lot of attention going to DC’s nascent attempts to build its own movie market. Sure, everyone’s curious about the next Batman movie, and to a lesser extent when the hell a new Superman movie might happen, and to an even lesser extent if there will ever be a worthwhile Wonder Woman movie.

But jeez, Green Lantern is currently filming and nobody outside of IO9 seems to give a shit.

So why isn’t the Warner Bros. movie-making-monster banging the publicity drum for its lesser-known properties, like Marvel did with Iron Man?

The Flash – like Iron Man – has two things going for it as a property: an absolutely awesome costume, and a superpower people can wrap their brains around pretty easily. He’s the Fastest Man Alive.

It also has the same problem as Iron Man – people kinda-sorta recognize the guy, but not enough to be intrinsically interested.

So it’s up to the screenwriters to show why people should give a damn.

Don’t anyone worry: I got this one. I Am Here To Help.

Explaining the Flash to Burns, I quickly realized the thing that makes the him great for a movie is what makes him just awful as a comic book character: He’s BORING.

Barry Allen – the version the film would obviously use, since he’s the easiest to explain – has virtually no personality. His chief trait? He’s nice. Job? He’s a police scientist. See that? Even as a cop, he’s a nerd who sits in an office and doesn’t do anything exciting (though CSI has helped make staring at lab results seem interesting, so there’s that).

He doesn’t even have a particularly snazzy setting behind him: Central and Keystone Cities are the DC Comics stand-ins for Minneapolis/St. Paul. The Flash’s domain is basically the friendliest city in the U.S.*

Even his main bad guys aren’t terribly threatening. They’re mostly bank robbers with ray guns. Not exactly the psycho-drama of a Joker or Lex Luthor.

So: A nice, boring guy in a pleasant city, fighting bank robbers. A dramatic goldmine it is not.

But that could also be the hook.

The High Concept
When I interviewed long-time Flash writer Mark Waid many years back, he talked about getting people to relate to the powers their heroes have, by equating it to a basic human experience: “Nobody knows what it’s like to run at super-speed, but everyone knows that sense of freedom and elation when the bell rings and you burst out school at 3 PM.”

So let’s run with that (sorry) as a theme. The Flash is a movie about the freedom and rush of moving in high speed. But on the downside, there’s also the fear of losing perspective and becoming completely untethered – running so fast you shoot right off the Earth, so to speak.

And it all happens to a nice, boring, methodical, slow-paced Midwestern guy. Barry Allen, the Flash, would be the first everyman superhero to hit the big screen since Spider-Man. And he doesn’t have those annoying angsty teenager issues.

Which means this all becomes a lot more fun. This is important: the urge is always to make super-hero movies capital-I Important, which often devolves into self-seriousness and pomposity. But when people talk about Iron Man, they usually point to the sense of fun and humor. More super-hero movies should be like this. Not camp, but certainly more funny, light-hearted and fleet-footed, in keeping with the major theme.

The Story:
Start with a flashback (heh): Barry Allen, age 10, bored out of his mind in his flat midwestern suburban life**, his only excitement in sci-fi magazines and Buck Rogers ray-guns and toy science kits… thinking he’ll grow up to be this great science-adventurer. FLASH-FORWARD: 30 years later, he’s in a police crime lab, checking silicates in dirt while the “real” police do all the exciting stuff.

Ho-hum. This is Barry’s slow, dull-but-comfortable life. And then lightning strikes. Literally.

On a stormy night when Barry’s working late, lightning zaps a cabinet full of chemicals, shattering their jars and drenching him. Pretty literally lightning in a bottle – or more accurately, lightning in a dozen exploding bottles. Because of the randomness of the accident, and the unknown quantities of the chemicals splashed on him, the event could never be replicated.

So while Barry’s trying to figure out his powers (consulting with a couple science friends/nerd Greek Choir at STAR Labs), there’s a bunch of petty crooks who are robbing the lab, trying to find stuff they can sell on the black market. They end up stealing a case of experimental weapons.

And that is how the Rogues come into play (making this the first origin-movie where multiple villains is actually required; otherwise, there’s no logical reason Barry couldn’t just punch the bad guy really fast, quickly ending the movie).

Barry dons the costume (take the old TV show’s explanation of it helping give him traction and lessen friction), offers to help the lab out and retrieve the weapons, thinking, how hard can it be? But these guys end up using the weapons to fend him off. Not only does it work (and it would be kind of a funny, clumsy battle on both sides), but now the Rogues know they can USE what they stole, and decide to follow the Flash’s footsteps and create more flamboyant identities for themselves.

The media dubs Barry “the Flash,” and Barry, inspired by his childhood hopes of being an adventurer, makes a logo for himself, and boom, there’s the superhero identity and reason for being.

And he’s got his hands full, fighting guys who have chosen names like Captain Cold, Weather Wizard, Heat Wave and Captain Boomerang (the joke of the group – exploding boomerangs aren’t quite the fearsome weapon of a cold-gun or a wand that manipulates weather).

But while he’s elated by his newfound abilities and the responsibility of protecting the city from these new menaces, he’s neglecting his real life – and his fiancée, Iris the reporter (who coined the Flash name – and yes, this smacks of Lois Lane, but that’s the comic’s fault, not mine, and we might as well use it).

Who’s wondering why her usually dependable boyfriend is suddenly dashing off without explanation and concocting flimsy excuses.

(Not at all necessary, but a great add-on if the movie’s got time: Iris’s nephew, 12-year-old Wally, absolutely ADORES the Flash, wears the logo on his T-shirt, forms a fan-club, etc. Kid Flash wouldn’t work at all in the franchise, but it’d be a nice nod to Wally’s early years. It would also add another dimension to Iris – she’s not just a concerned love interest, she’s also the world’s coolest aunt.)

So now we’ve got the origin, we’ve got the physical conflict of Flash vs. the Rogues, and we’ve got the real conflict: how does an everyday guy find the balance between being extraordinary, and being himself?

In the last act, when the Rogues put aside their crime-sprees and work together to take down the Flash – Barry chooses what’s important, when he has to get Iris out of harm’s way, and reveals his identity to her, gaining an ally who likes him for the normal guy inside, not the speed-demon he appears to be.

He saves the day, gets the girl, and makes peace with the slow part of his life, knowing there’s room for both super-speed and taking his time.


Other Things to Consider:
A long-standing tradition of the Wally West-era Flash comics is the voiceover – Wally talks to the audience, explaining his motivations and anxieties. While voiceover is really over-used in comics, in super-hero movies it’s almost nonexistent (other than Daredevil). We can use an opening narration, where adult-Barry, during his childhood flashback, introduces himself to the audience (again: pleasant Midwesterner). Something like, “Hi there. That’s me. Barry Allen. Age 10. Resident of Blue Valley, Nebraska. And like a lot of 10-year-olds, I just kind of assumed I’d be a superhero when I grew up. I was as surprised as anyone when it actually happened.”

And then it can be bookended by a variation on Mark Waid’s Flash run, used to open every issue: “My name is Barry Allen. I’m the Flash. The Fastest Man Alive.” (Zooms past camera, run credits.)

Visual Language
How do you convey “moving really really fast” on film? Usually it’s with slo-mo. And god knows we’ve got great cameras to show how much action goes on in a single second. The Flash should utilize those camera tricks to show just how damn fast the guy’ s moving.

But it should also use the quicky speed-up tricks Smallville trots out whenever it wants to show Clark using his speed (though, ideally, with a much higher budget).

To really sell speed as a superpower, though, the FX people will have to use both these techniques, and everything inbetween – how Barry’s muscles pound, how easy it becomes for him to switch between “normal” and “super” speeds, how time slows down for him and speeds up for us, etc.  This would definitely be a challenge, but in an age where Green Lantern’s outfit is made out of CGI, I imagine someone’s already got test-footage ready to go.

Armchair Casting
Figuring out a director is next to impossible – I mean, John Favreau had a good history, but when Iron Man was first announced, it’s not like he immediately popped into my mind as the go-to guy to bring it to the screen. But if we’re picking a director with a strong visual style, who can film action sequences that are kinetic but don’t ever lose sight of what’s actually going on, I’d say Doug Liman is a strong choice.

As for actors, immediate likability and down-to-earthiness is key. Left-field casting is always exciting (Hugh Jackman was nobody’s first choice as Wolverine, but try picturing someone else in the role now), but familiarity wouldn’t hurt here. I’d go with John Krasinski: he has a friendly face and a warm timbre in his voice, he’s got a tall, lean frame, and the issues people had with his potential casting as Captain America – he’s not “steely” enough – don’t come into play here.

(As an alternate, Jared Padelecki from “Supernatural” displays all those qualities at half the price.)

So there you go, DC/Warner Bros. That’s the movie you should make. CALL ME!

*I know this sounds like I’m mocking the Midwest and the Twin Cities specifically, but on the two occasions I’ve been to Minneapolis, I’ve found it to be just about the most pleasant place in the world. Seriously. A homeless guy hugged me for giving him a dollar (and told me I looked like George Harrison). If it wasn’t so land-locked, I’d consider moving there in a second. Which is the main reason I’m pushing the location so hard – the famously friendly vibe of the Midwest directly informs the character of the Flash, and I wouldn’t want that to get lost in translation.

**Yes, we’re blending Wally West’s childhood with Barry Allen. This was the only way I could reconcile a movie starring Barry (with the easier-to-explain origin) instead of Wally (with the more interesting personality).

  1. Moff says:

    Yup, yup. I can get behind this. Maybe also (speaking for the Midwestern kids of the world) play up the “stuck in Boringsville” angle—a flashback scene from high school where someone tells him, “You’re really gonna go places.” A little montage indicating that, for whatever reason—probably his too-niceness, which translates into a lack of assertiveness, so that he always gets left behind—he doesn’t go anywhere. And then an internal conflict when he realizes he can travel to New York or Paris or Rio, or any of the other places he’s always wanted to visit, and be back before morning—but can only go by himself.

  2. sebastian says:

    As someone who never had much interest in the Flash, I would absolutely watch this movie.

  3. braak says:

    I like also, right when he gets his powers–Barry Allen as a guy who is a great scientist, but always kind of wished he could go on the adventure of being a detective or a patrolman, or something, you know? Before you get to the rogues, when you’ve got him learning to use his powers and whatnot, there’s a couple neat scenes to milk in which his police buddies tell him things like, “I’m glad we’ve got you here in the lab,” or whatnot, while he’s secretly running out and punching hoodlums (maybe also: rescuing cats from trees, pulling people out of burning buildings, helping folks with busted water-mains–the kind of thing that people in Midwest cities do).

  4. Jeff Holland says:

    One of the best last-season Justice League Unlimited episodes – “Flash and Substance” – spent some time on the idea that the reason the Flash acts as a booster and cheerleader for the League is because that’s also his role in the community. He’s someone who remembers the name of the old lady, waves at the firefighters as he jogs alongside their truck, and – my favorite part – TALKS to the Trickster to find out why he’s causing trouble (he went off his meds again).

    And that’s why FLASH gets to have a museum.

  5. Jeff Holland says:

    Part one of the aforementioned episode:

  6. braak says:


    1) Iris should be stuck doing feature and human interest stories and bored; there can be dynamic tension between her and Barry, who is convinced that her need for things that are interesting is going to drive her away. (Alternately: Iris West–Daredevil Reporter. She’s always going in stock car races and jet planes and war correspondent stuff).

    2) What if, instead of a break-in at STAR, it turns out that someone inside is selling the equipment on the Black Market? This person should be one of Barry’s geek friends, so that he can parallel Barry: he’s got the exact same problem, namely that he’s surrounded by AWESOME STUFF all the time, every day, but he’s stuck collating data. Like Barry, he likes comic books, and wants to jam their lives into a superhero narrative. He becomes the Weather Wizard–for good reason: namely, the Weather Wizard’s power is what obviates the Flash’s super speed, because of the scale of threat that it presents (it’s hard to just run up and punch the guy when you’ve also got to get to Kansas to run around a tornado until it disappears).

    Anyway, though, between him and Barry and Iris, we’ve got a really good theme going of “You were meant for more than this.”

    3) With a story like this, you can do some really neat stuff in which you explore Barry learning the limits of his powers–maybe when he first fights Captain Boomerang, he doesn’t realize how fast he is, and that’s why a guy with a bunch of heat-seeking exploding boomerangs can slow him up. The first time he’s fighting Commander Cold and he realizes how dangerous ICE is when you’re running at a hundred miles an hour is going to be great.

    ALMOST as great as when Cold tries the trick again, and you shunt into slow motion as the Flash approaches, just long enough to see him kind of jump up and set his feet on the wall, before it kicks back into hyper-fast speed and he tears off along the side of a building so he doesn’t slip on the ice.

    I also think it will be neat when his other friend at Star labs, who’s trying to figure out what’s going on, tells him such and such like, “You’re tapped into something big here, Barry. It’s not just you having a fast metabolism. If there are limits, they’re psychological, not physical. You’re as fast as you can imagine. Barry? Barry?” The Flash has left his cellphone somewhere and is now tearing across the country, BREAKING THE SOUND BARRIER.

    The part where he fights the Weather Wizard and realizes he’s fast enough to dodge LIGHTNING is also going to be so good. Man. The whole movie could be an extended exploration of his powers that leads up to that final “When we say fastest, we mean fastest” realization. But it’s also concomitant with the realization that being a hero isn’t fighting Weather Wizard to the death, it’s grabbing on to Iris and getting her away from the building as it EXPLODES.

    Shit, whoah, hey. Can you tell that I’ve already written half of this movie in my head?

    I’m also completely in love with the idea of Jon Krasinsky as the Flash. That combination of wry and earnest is the perfect thing to round out his “boring life” character (which, let’s be honest, is basically Jim Halpert if he were in the CSI lab instead of a paper company), AND would also make for a nice dynamic if he ever ended up in a Justice League movie.

  7. Moff says:

    @braak: YES. To everything.

    One thing I forgot to add is that, Holland, you are exactly right about Krasinski and how superhero movies need a sense of fun—and not just superhero movies, but DC’s superhero movies. I mean, yeah, yeah, yeah—they’ve got the Batman property and that seems to work best when it’s a little dark. But the whole contrast between DC and Marvel is highlighted in the JLA/Avengers match-up, where the Marvel heroes just cannot believe there’s, like, a fucking Flash Museum, and the JLA is sorta disgusted with how serious and real-lifey the Avengers’ Earth is. DC is bright costumes and a spirit of high adventure, brand-wise. They’d do well to take a lesson from Iron Man and realize that people want delightful entertainment as much as they want substance (and that the two aren’t mutually exclusive).

  8. Rick Russell says:

    Second the recommendation of “Flash and Substance” — it really highlighted the point that Flash is the conscience of the Justice League. He doesn’t have any mommy and daddy issues (Batman, Wonder Woman), he doesn’t think of himself as a god who is terrified he’ll “cut loose” and seriously hurt people (Superman), he’s not an alien with no connection to the community (Jon), he holds no allegiance to an extra-terrestrial police force (GL).

    For Flash, it’s all about getting through the day, putting the bad guys where they belong and making sure nobody gets hurt. And occasionally tapping into the Speed Force and becoming more powerful than all the rest of the Justice League put together.

    I’m not sure you can support a multi-movie franchise on this concept, but as an entertaining 90-minute diversion? Sign me up.

  9. Rick Russell says:

    Another great scene (that absolutely deserves a movie treatment): The Flash is facing a ticking bomb and realizes… he has no idea how to defuse it. Just as the timer ticks down to 00:01, he picks it up and runs, hoping that he can get out of town and drop it off before the explosion consumes him.

  10. braak says:

    Iris West as daredevil-reporter is good because it lets you start out the relationship with Iris as the de facto superhero (who is always late), and how tough it is for her to lose Barry’s dependability.

    But Iris stuck doing human interest stories let’s you play up the resentment. Especially if she can say stuff like how she was embedded in Iraq.

    This would be a fun movie. Holland! We should write it, at once.

  11. Jeff Holland says:

    Just watched “Flash and Substance” again, and my favorite part is when Orion, trying to understand the Flash, says, “I understand now. You play the fool to hide a warrior’s pain.” And the Flash just puts an arm on his shoulder and says, “Hey, we beat the bad guys, and nobody got hurt. You know what I call that? A pretty good day.”

    THAT is the Flash.

    @Rick Russell: “I’m not sure you can support a multi-movie franchise on this concept, but as an entertaining 90-minute diversion? Sign me up.”

    I honestly hadn’t thought that far ahead – but let’s assume “The Flash” has legs as a franchise (god, there is no end to the running-based puns, unfortunately). Where would it go from here?

    Barry’s real arch-nemesis was his literal opposite number, Professor Zoom, the Reverse-Flash from the 25th Century (time-travel is actually a pretty big part of the Flash mythos, for good and ill). That might take some extra legwork (see?) to make work within the context of the movie framework.

    Or, you could maybe go a different route – introduce the Speed Force from the Waid era, and with it Savitar, a guy who worships this force as a deity and views the Flash (and other speedsters) as heretics. This might work, as a means of challenging Barry’s scientific notions of his power against a larger, more spiritual framework. But on the other hand…well, did you just read that sentence and go “Yeeesh,” too?

    Guess they’d better put together a Justice League movie so they don’t have to worry about that. It’s no problem. They just have to develop a solid Superman movie, and a Wonder Woman movie, and…crap, am I gonna have to write an Aquaman treatment?

    I don’t wanna! Someone else do it.

    BRAAK! Do an “Armchair Screenwriter” thing for Aquaman. I DARE YOU.

  12. Jeff Holland says:

    @Braak: Also, all your Iris ideas are spot-on.

  13. Jeff Holland says:

    @Braak: Also, your Weather Wizard idea is good. The one scientist, who secretly armed the other Rogues with their weapons, keeps the best one (the weather wand) for himself. But hold him off for the majority of the movie – he sees the Flash, and the Rogues, and realizes he’s got the weapon that could make him a Serious Player. So after Flash dispatches the Rogues, he’s still got the Weather Wizard (and there should absoLUTELY be groans at the name, since this is totally a nerd’s idea of a bad-ass name) to take care of.

    (Though I’m not wild about Weather Wizard knowing about Barry’s origins – it smacks a little of the wackiness of “Unbreakable,” a movie that bothers me to no end. We can surely find a work-around. Maybe he’s the weirdo Barry’s other nerd-friends don’t associate with, or something.)

    And because I am THIS MUCH of a Timm-verse nerd, I would say Miguel Ferrer (voice of Weather Wizard on the Superman animated series) would probably be an awesome in-movie Weather Wizard.

  14. braak says:

    @Holland: Also, we must NOT forget Gorilla Grodd.

    Regarding the Weather Wizard: here’s the thing. I actually don’t think the Unbreakable idea is so bad–I think it’s kind of a neat idea, and one that you don’t see a lot of: the idea of Destiny, but sort of turned over on its head. This isn’t about secret grudges or…or, well, why else do we have villains in comic book movies?

    I also am not necessarily in favor of the evil nerd being the outcast one. I don’t like perpetuating the idea that shy loners are automatically one step away from being sociopaths, firstly, and secondly I’d be worried that he’d be too easy to spot as the main villain. And, thirdly I guess, I think it’s more dramatic if the enemy turns out to be someone that Barry really thought he was friends with.

  15. Everyone who’s commented here has thought more and deeper about the character, his legacy, and a potential film than anyone involved with Daredevil: The Evanescencing ever did. GO RUN HOLLYWOOD.

  16. braak says:

    We are the Threat Quality Brain Trust. Hollywood must consult us on all future projects, I have just decided.

  17. Jeff Holland says:

    Yes, Hollywood. America has spoken.

    Now ask us for our well-reasoned positions on why more movies should have evil gorillas with MIND-CONTROLLING POWERS!

  18. braak says:

    Does that…just, before Hollywood asks…are our well-reasoned opinions more elaborate than “because they are EVIL GORILLAS that have MIND-CONTROL POWERS”?

  19. Jeff Holland says:

    No. No they are not.

  20. Hsiang says:

    Many years ago I accepted Grodd into my heart as my Saviour. People often ask my why I worship a telepathic gorilla bent on global domination.
    I really don’t have any choice , do I?

  21. Moff says:

    OH I KNOW! Gorilla Grodd could be the villain in the third movie, and it could turn out HE WAS MANIPULATING THE FLASH’S PREVIOUS ENEMIES THE WHOLE TIME.

    What a dramatic reveal that would stun audiences and make absolutely perfect sense.

    @Hsiang: None of us do!

  22. Jeff Holland says:

    If “The bad guy was THIS TELEPATHIC GORILLA all along!” was the twist of more movies, I think the world would be a happier place.


  23. Hsiang says:

    I’m absolutely certain a telepathic gorilla is behind the Sex and the City movies, and anything by Judd Aptow.

  24. braak says:

    Here is what will make it awesome: in the first movie, there will be (among other crazy things) a gorilla in a cage in Star Labs. And at some point (possibly several) the camera will zoom in on the gorilla and the movie will play scary music, as though HE IS EVIL.

    Then the movie will proceed at pace. In the third movie, Grodd will reveal himself to be behind all of the previous villainy.

    Kind of what I always wanted to do with Mysterio in the Spider-Man movies: have Mysterio show up and explain an elaborate plan that required each of Bruce Campbell’s cameo appearances.

  25. Jeff Holland says:

    OH SHIT!

    (Hello, everyone, from the far-off year of 2011. I was just perusing this page to link to a newer post I did, and noticed THIS!).

    Edgar Wright should do the Flash movie.

  26. […] bajillion (in insurance fees for Liam Neeson alone!). No need to pay me. Just let me take a pass at that Flash script (which, in my draft, would actually be about 50% chase scenes, though ironically, very few cars […]

  27. […] ***For example. Like this:LikeBe the first to like this. […]

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