The conflict between Batman and Superman is barely a factor in the long, loud, lugubrious “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice,” but the second part of that terrible title is accurate, or at least hints toward accuracy. The real purpose of the film is to set up the Justice League movie, in which Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, and whoever else isn’t busy will team up to fight evil. By the end of “BvS,” I was indeed thinking that I’d like to see more of these three together. But paradoxically, I was also thinking that if the Justice League movie is going to have the same grim, headachy tone as this one, count me out. It’s like putting your head in a beehive for two and a half hours.
It’s a direct sequel to “Man of Steel” (which I mostly liked), again directed by Zack Snyder, who has lately exhibited more style than sense. Eighteen months have passed since Superman (Henry Cavill) saved the world from General Zod and destroyed Metropolis in the process. (The footage of that has a fresh, 9/11-y scent to it, for maximum coolness.) Across the harbor from Metropolis in Gotham — they’re adjacent, deal with it — Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) watched the devastation and, like many viewers of “Man of Steel,” felt Superman should have done more to minimize it. Most people, though, consider Superman a hero. (Allegedly. The movie keeps telling us how beloved he is, but all we ever see are people like Batman criticizing him.)
Over in Metropolis, Superman — or “Clark,” as his girlfriend Lois Lane (Amy Adams) calls him, all the time, in front of people — is as wary of Batman as Batman is of him. Seems the Dark Knight has begun branding villains with a hot, bat-shaped iron, which Superman feels is excessive. He thinks Batman is acting like he’s above the law. Batman thinks the same of Superman. He’s been working in Gotham for 20 years, and the hulking, gray-templed Affleck terrifically conveys Batman’s “too old for this crap” grumpiness. Superman is newer, younger, idealistic — not to mention an alien being who fell to Earth with god-like powers and a magnificent jawline. Not that it’s a surprise when a middle-aged white billionaire mistrusts a foreigner, but you can see Batman’s point. Who IS this guy? Who does he answer to?
Some exploration of the philosophical differences between these two heroes could have been fascinating. At one point, Bruce Wayne says of Superman, “If we believe there’s even a 1 percent chance he’s our enemy, we have to treat it as an absolute certainty” — an appallingly illogical, Trumpish declaration, one that begs to be unpacked. The movie, of course, ignores it, just as it ignores all of the other interesting topics that are raised. (A senator played by Holly Hunter leads a congressional hearing on Superman’s activities; it, too, is snuffed out just as it’s getting good.) The actual fight between Bats and Supes turns out to be 1) quite brief, and 2) without substance: they fight not because they disagree, but because Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg) has manipulated them into it for his own gain.
Oh, yeah. Lex Luthor. In the past, Superman’s arch-enemy has usually been smart, wry, and charismatic. Now he’s a coked-out nutcase, chattering away like a … well, like a Batman villain. Eisenberg’s hammy performance doesn’t help, but most of the blame belongs to the screenplay. Written by Chris Terrio (“Argo”) and genre stalwart David S. Goyer (“Batman Begins”), it’s overburdened with Stuff To Do — introduce Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot)! refer to Aquaman and the Flash! set up Superman and Batman’s shared world! — but has no clear-headed plan for how to fill in the details.
This is most apparent in the last 30 minutes. After nearly two hours of slogging, borderline incomprehensible storytelling, suddenly there is a new enemy who inspires split-second decision-making and hasty conclusion-reaching. Like all of a sudden we’re on a time frame here, in a movie that previously saw fit to include several of Bruce Wayne’s dream sequences. (YOU ARE ALREADY TOO LONG! WHY ARE YOU WASTING MY TIME SHOWING ME THINGS THAT AREN’T EVEN REALLY HAPPENING??) This enemy does, finally, unite Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman (presumably; nobody calls her that), enough to whet our appetites for more. But the finale is oppressively bleak, and the consequences of what has happened aren’t treated with nearly the weight they merit. Just like “Man of Steel,” you’ll note.
Public service announcement: Clark Kent’s mom (Diane Lane), newspaper boss Perry White (Laurence Fishburne), and Batman’s butler Alfred (Jeremy Irons) are also in this movie. So is Scoot McNairy, playing an embittered Wayne Industries employee who was injured in the destruction of Metropolis. All four of these characters (and actors, for that matter) deserve more than the scraps they’ve been thrown.
When there’s action on the screen, it’s mildly exciting, if hard to see because of Snyder’s fondness for shooting at night and his insistence on having the cameras operated by jittery, untrained monkeys. (Union rules, man.) And frankly, for a film supposedly centered on the conflict between two unstoppable forces, it has little action and even less substantive head-to-head dialogue. It’s deathly serious, too, with hardly any levity to contrast the dimness. Didn’t these things used to be fun? Or at least thrilling and emotional enough to engage us even when the story was gloomy? Or at least coherent? Oh, well. Maybe they’ll nail it in the reboot.
C- (2 hrs., 31 min.; )