It plants a flag for a new corporate entertainment franchise and it will make international containerships of money, so does it matter that “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” is joyless and incoherent? Probably not. Years of marketing hype have by now instilled in worldwide audiences a Pavlovian response: A new superhero movie has to be good, so it will be, and, besides, isn’t this what movies are about? Zack Snyder’s film tries to pulverize you into agreement. For the death of cinema, it’s not bad.
“Batman v Superman” should be titled “DC Comics v Marvel,” because those are the actual stakes here. With this follow-up to 2013’s “Man of Steel,” Warner Bros. hopes to challenge the hegemony of the Marvel Studios/Disney alliance by producing a sequelizable movie “universe” based on pop culture’s other line of superheroes: DC’s Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, The Flash, and so on (although let’s hope they stop before they get to Matter-Eater Lad and Krypto the Superdog). Maybe you don’t care, but if it works, the studio gets to print money for the next 25 years.
At first, the new movie does work. Picking up where “Man of Steel” left off, “Batman v Superman” replays that film’s climactic destruction of Metropolis from the point of view of Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck), a CEO fuming with grief as the Wayne Enterprises skyscraper collapses and takes hundreds of his employees with it. For once, one of these literal blockbusters pauses to mourn the individual humans who usually get treated as ants. Superman (Henry Cavill) may have saved the planet, but, as Lois Lane (Amy Adams) reminds him, “there’s a cost,” and that cost is people.
“BvS” busies itself for a while with how a 2016 society might in fact respond to the appearance of a superhuman in its midst. There would be a Senate subcommittee arguing over this immigrant alien who leaves rubble wherever he goes, and it’d be headed up by Holly Hunter. Nancy Grace and Neil DeGrasse Tyson would work themselves into a froth. Over in Gotham City, Wayne would stoke the anti-Superman factions while plotting revenge for his dead workers.
Daily Planet reporter Clark Kent, meanwhile, would be concerned with this churlish Batman fellow who brutalizes criminals with no regard for due process. And in a tower above them all, a spindly billionaire Internet brat named Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg) — Mark Zuckerberg with fewer social graces, basically — would be plotting, I don’t know, world domination, or longer wait times at the DMV. And everyone’s trying to get at a certain green element left behind in the wreckage of the last film.
That’s all I can tell you without the Warner Bros. elves coming at me with knives. Well, I can say that the imposing Israeli actress Gal Gadot, from the “Fast and Furious” movies, turns up as a Superhero to Be Named Later, and she’s good enough that I wish they’d skipped this movie entirely and gone straight to hers (it’s due in 2017).
Otherwise, “Batman v Superman” sinks slowly into dank, noisy chaos over its 2½-hour running time, as Bruce and Clark work out their issues by beating each other silly before bumping fists in sudden solidarity. (That’s not a spoiler, that’s canon.) Eisenberg probably has the right approach: He overacts even more severely than Gene Hackman did in the Christopher Reeve “Superman” movies, and you’ll find him either an active irritant or the one giggly note of revelry in the gloom. There’s no Robin this time out, but Alfred seems busier than usual and, in Jeremy Irons’s playing, more elegantly depressed.
The film’s problems include a script, by David S. Goyer (of the “Dark Knight” series) and Chris Terrio (“Argo”), that hits a few real-world hot buttons for relevance before devolving into absurd dream sequences, mommy issues, and over-plotted mayhem. The story’s parts never quite fit together, and Snyder still has difficulty directing an action sequence with logic and flow. In one of those dream sequences — the ridiculous one with the flying bat-monkeys out of “The Wizard of Oz” — the director pulls back for a slo-mo 360-pan a la his breakthrough film, “300,” and you can feel him sigh in relief: Yeah, that’s how it’s done.
Here’s something else I never realized: Gotham City is actually Jersey City. Or maybe it’s Hoboken. Whatever, it’s right across the river from Metropolis/Manhattan, which makes sense in this movie, because Cavill’s Superman is one of those graceful 1 percenters with no body fat and hand-tailored outfits that not even a nuclear warhead can wrinkle. He doesn’t sweat, whereas you just know Affleck’s Batman has a bad case of bridge-and-tunnel BO. The latter has gone heavy here, his muscles under a thick layer of unforgiving flesh. This movie’s Bruce Wayne doesn’t bother to shave even when he puts the mask on. He drives a bitchin’ Bat-Camaro. He’s the guy at the gym who drops the weights hard so you’ll hear him.
If Snyder and the script had dug into the subliminal class rage that’s obviously driving Bruce Wayne — the fact that he’ll always be a rich yutz from New Jersey instead of a slim, godlike Manhattanite with a weekend condo at the North Pole — “Batman v Superman” might have amounted to more than a WWE smackdown with billions in ancillary profits riding on it.
It doesn’t. Affleck is aiming for a character here, but he gets lost on the way, and you miss the cruel, clean inscrutability of Christian Bale in the Christopher Nolan “Batman” films. Eventually the script’s illogic and the relentless pounding of the action scenes wear you down. Why do Batman’s eyes start glowing two-thirds of the way through the movie? What does Lex Luthor’s hotsy minion (Tao Okamoto) actually do? Who decided there had to be a climactic countdown alarm clock that doesn’t actually count down to much? Who thought up what can only be considered a sociopathic version of the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man from “Ghostbusters”?
These are the things that keep you distracted as “Batman v Superman” stomps and grinds its way to about six false endings, each meant to set up a future film in the franchise. “The Justice League Part One,” due in late 2017, will gather up all the DC heroes for what promises to be a hell of a three-day company offsite. Here’s an idea: Pit them against The Avengers right now and get the whole thing over with.
Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice
Directed by Zack Snyder Written by David S. Goyer and Chris Terrio. Starring Ben Affleck, Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Jesse Eisenberg, Jeremy Irons, Gal Gadot, Diane Lane. At Boston Common, Fenway, suburbs; Jordan’s Furniture IMAX in Natick and Reading. 153 minutes. PG-13 (intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action throughout, some sensuality).