A near-total drag, "Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice" plays like a loose, unofficial quarter-billion-dollar remake of "The Odd Couple," in which Oscar and Felix are literally trying to kill each other.
I kid. A little. This certainly is not true of director Zack Snyder's solemn melee. The movie does not kid. It takes the mournful death knells of the Christopher Nolan "Batman" trilogy and cranks up the volume, while ignoring any of the visual strengths and moral provocations found in Nolan's best work.
Nothing I have to say about Snyder's technique will mean anything to anyone at Warner Brothers if "Batman v Superman" does what it needs to do, i.e., gross a billion or more worldwide, thus setting up ready-made audiences for the chain of interrelated DC Comics movies in production and pre-production. The actors in Snyder's two-and-a-half-hour lesson in jaw-jutting and awkwardly framed handheld camerawork save what they can, where they can. I particularly enjoyed Jeremy Irons' Alfred, who clearly should be running the show, rather than his boss, zillionaire three-day-stubble boy Bruce Wayne, aka Batman, played by Ben Affleck. Amy Adams as Lois Lane remains an asset as well.
Crucially, there's a new headliner in town, even if she's not yet playing the big room. Gal Gadot's Wonder Woman helps out in one of several climactic destruction festivals featured in "Batman v Superman." Long before she actually suits up, though, you're good and sick of waiting for Gadot to hijack all the rage-y, steroidal, bone-crushing smackdowns setting the tone in Snyder's literal blockbuster.
Affleck's adversary is played by Henry Cavill, who hit his green-screen marks well enough in Snyder's 2013 "Man of Steel" (which is looking better every minute). Still, in "Batman v Superman," he's as narcissistic a Superman as you'll ever see. Cavill never should've taken on "The Man From U.N.C.L.E."; working on that project with director Guy Ritchie, perhaps the only successful contemporary filmmaker whose facility with big-screen action is more assaultive and aggravating than Snyder's, he seems to have crossed an invisible line of smugness, from which it is difficult to return.
Having killed thousands of innocent bystanders at the end of "Man of Steel," high-flying alien Superman is now considered a pariah by many. Batman, meanwhile, has hardened into a boozy sociopath (a "criminal," says Wayne himself) who wants to murder the alien invader with the "S" as badly as Lex Luthor, played by a skittery, occasionally amusing Jesse Eisenberg. Luthor wants to destroy them both.
An hour into "Batman v. Superman," you wonder: Can we just settle this little spat and move on to Gadot's "Wonder Woman" movie?
In the comic book superhero universe, be it DC or Marvel or an outlier, each new franchise cycle divides audiences between those who appreciate the dark, nasty stuff, quality issues aside, and the nostalgists who'd rather take it easy and have what the old folks call "a good time." The action in most superhero outings dives headlong, Frank Miller "Sin City"-style, into the muck and depravity of the modern world, whether it's dramatically satisfying or not.
The "Batman v Superman" script by Chris Terrio and David S. Goyer plows familiar ground for much of its 153 minutes, revisiting the brutal murder of Bruce Wayne's parents, and starting off where "Man of Steel" ended: with Superman and General Zod leveling much of Metropolis, which saved our planet long-term but piled up a lot of unseen corpses in the short-term. Batman is epically miffed. And while Eisenberg's Luthor develops a precious hunk of Kryptonite for his own genocidal purposes, the big boys inch closer, often in Snyder's preferred, hackneyed slow-mo, to the battle royale.
Diane Lane returns as the widowed Martha Kent, here abducted by Slavic dastards and threatened with blowtorch disfigurement and death. (What is this, "Taken" or "Saw"?) A terrorist bombing on a major D.C. landmark is just another tasteless, ill-timed "gotcha!" moment. Human trafficking, intimations of child abuse (Luthor mutters about suffering his father's "fist and abominations"), a hollowed-out Superman resigning himself to the notion that "no one stays good in this world" ... the film is only slightly more pessimistic than Lars von Trier's "Antichrist." You'd have to go back to Mel Gibson's "Passion of the Christ" to find this much Christian iconography wedded to this much sadism.
Snyder is not without skills, or ideas, but when a critic finds himself at odds with almost every aspect of a director's visual approach to material like this, material like this becomes pretty joyless. Compare the first big sequence in "Batman v Superman" featuring the Batmobile in action, to the Bat Cycle/semi-trailer truck game of chicken in Nolan's "The Dark Knight." The latter builds beautifully, and shows off the toys and old-fashioned, non-digital effects with serious class. The "Batman v Superman" equivalent is pure, empty noise: fireballs; the usual overdose of insane automatic gunfire; and absolutely no rhythm.
"You don't owe this world a thing," Lane tells Superman at one point. Maybe so. But at this point in the twinned mythologies of two extremely hardy DC heroes, humankind deserves a better blockbuster.
MPAA rating: PG-13 (for intense sequences of violence and action throughout, and some sensuality).
Running time: 2:33