SPOILER WARNING: If you want to go into Batman v Superman and be surprised whenever possible, don't read on.
Since the publications of Action Comics No. 1 in June 1938 and Detective Comics No. 27 the following May, DC Comics has published untold thousands of Superman and Batman titles, every single one of which is stuffed into Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, turned up to 11 and smashed to smithereens. This isn't a movie; this isn't even an experience. It's nothing more than a messily assembled revisit of the most cynically told story in Superman canon (The Death of ...) and an Easter egg hunt for fanboys who'll squeal at dream sequences featuring The Flash astride his cosmic treadmill warning of the coming Crisis on Infinite Earths and the panoramic shot of the Omega symbol heralding the some-day arrival of Darkseid, the baddest baddie in the DC universe.
Batman and Superman fight, of course; it's easily the best five minutes of the movie. Problem is the other two and a half hours (!), which tease and ultimately waste Wonder Woman (Gal Godot, who might be great but who knows), lay waste (again!) to Metropolis (or maybe it's Gotham City -- who can tell?!) and turn Lex Luthor into a rambling, petulant, ADHD-afflicted brat who looks and sounds a lot like that other social-networking wunderkind Jesse Eisenberg once played. Deafening, dumbed down and drab -- another Zack Snyder DC movie, in other words. Snyder's movies have three shades of color: dark gray, darker gray and fire.
Batman v Superman certainly aims for epic and aspires to be meaningful. Countless characters ramble on and on and on and on about the responsibilities of gods and the fears of humans. Repeatedly, we're reminded, Superman (Henry Cavill) is the outsider, the other -- an "illegal alien," per the protester's placard outside Senate hearings, who could destroy the planet with some heat vision.
Batman (Ben Affleck) is the paranoiac with a point: As soon as Superman showed up, in Snyder's Man of Steel, most of Metropolis wound up in ruins, and many of its citizens in cemeteries -- including those who worked in the toppled offices of Wayne Financial. And we see that fight, between Superman and General Zod (Michael Shannon), replayed during the opening moments of Batman v Superman, this time from Bruce Wayne's ground-level perspective. It's a powerful sequence, watching humans watch superhumans destroy everything they've built.
From there, though, the glum only grows while the plot fractures into a thousand shards until, finally, Doomsday arrives to destroy everything rebuilt in the 18 months that have passed since Man of Steel. Snyder, unlike, say, Jon Favreau or Joss Whedon or James Gunn or the other Marvels, doesn't really seem to like the "comic" part of comic books. To him it's all metaphor and portent, Sturm und Drang. In the words of The Joker in a far better Batman movie: "Why so serious?"
That said, Affleck's Batman is the closest we've seen on screen to Frank Miller's nasty Dark Knight, the aged and anguished crime-fighter who, when he debuted 30 years ago, reinvented the comic book and provided the template for Tim Burton and Chris Nolan's big-screen renditions. Writer David S. Goyer and re-writer Chris Terrio (Affleck's Argo-to man) lift whole scenes from Miller's 1986 comic book for Batman v Superman -- the fight sequences, of course, but also the parade of talking heads on small screens commenting on the action (here, they range from Anderson Cooper to Neil deGrasse Tyson).
Affleck is also pretty dyn-no-Bat-mite as Bruce Wayne, the booziest Bats in a bunch of otherwise stiff cowls and droopy capes. He's the billionaire playboy who keeps wine bottles on the bedside table and women in the bed; he looks like he smells three days into a hangover. Which makes sense: Superman, living across the bay in Metropolis, is still the relative newcomer, but Batman's mid-career at this point with 20 years under his utility belt. Wayne Manor's already been reduced to charred ruins, and based on the Robin costume behind glass in the Batcave, the Boy Wonder's already been slain by the Joker. In the words of Alfred (Jeremy Irons, a highlight in a movie in desperate need of them), the butler now rendered mechanic and sidekick, he's grown too old to die young.
Which, come to think of it, is exactly how you'll feel after sitting through Batman v Superman.
BATMAN V SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE (C-)
Directed by Zack Snyder. PG-13 (for intense sequences of violence and action, and some sensuality). 153 minutes. In wide release.