Zack Snyder's thundering and grim "Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice" offers the kind of blunt, mano-a-mano faceoff usually reserved for Predators and Godzillas.
"Batman v Superman" takes a once almost charming tradition and plunges it into the gutter. Long gone are the telephone booths, corn fields, or any other such tokens of innocence.
"Batman v Superman," heavy and humorless, is an 18-wheeler of a movie lumbering through a fallen world. It hurtles not with the kinetic momentum of "Mad Max: Fury Road" nor the comparatively spry skip of a Marvel movie, but with an operatic grandeur it sometimes earns and often doesn't.
This is "Paradise Lost" for superheroes. It twists and grinds two of the most classic comic heroes, wringing new, less altruistic emotions out of them until their dashing smiles turn to angry grimaces.
After a handsome, impressionistic montage of Batman's iconic childhood, the film picks up where Snyder's Superman reboot "Man of Steel" left off but from a different perspective. Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) is driving through the falling debris of Metropolis while Superman (Henry Cavill) careens carelessly above.
Snyder has channeled the backlash over the high death-toll finale into Wayne, who bitterly watches Superman from the dust-filled air on the ground — a cheap evocation of Sept. 11 designed to add solemnity where there isn't any.
Months later, the two are still distrustfully circling each other. Snyder, working from a script by Chris Terrio ("Argo") and David Goyer ("Man of Steel"), delves into their opposite natures: one a godlike power from another planet who favors primary colors, the other a well-equipped human prone to a darker palette.
At a party thrown by Lex Luthor (the badly miscast Jesse Eisenberg), the billionaire-inventor who's secretly weaponizing Kryptonite, their two alter-egos are surprisingly passive aggressive. Kent, the reporter, queries Wayne about "the bat vigilante problem," while Wayne, citing the laudatory coverage of Superman in the Daily Planet, voices his distaste for "freaks who dress like clowns."
Both are combating a new environment for superheroes best articulated by none other than astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson, who, on TV, describes supermen as altering man's assumed supremacy in the universe like Copernicus' discoveries did. "We're criminals, Alfred," Batman, fresh from torturing a foe, tells his butler (Jeremy Irons, adding an icy flare to the character). "We've always been criminals."
Luthor's plot gradually brings the heroes into the same orbit, along with Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot). But it's the genuine rigor of Snyder's engagement with the psychology of Superman and Batman that keeps the film grounded and the rivalry plausible. Seeing the two warp toward villainy may be a trick, like "Seinfeld's" Jerry and Kramer switching apartments, but "Batman v Superman" is serious about contemplating the curious positions these all-powerful beings occupy in a world that has grown to resent their might.
It's in some ways an ideal film for Snyder, an exceptionally un-subtle filmmaker. But as the director of "300," he knows his way around a ramming collision. And unlike Marvel films, DC Comic adaptations have, for better (Christopher Nolan's "Dark Knight" trilogy) and worse ("Man of Steel"), been works of distinct directors.
Snyder's command is less sure when it comes to, well, normal life. "Batman v Superman" would rather spend its lengthy running time in the throes of myth than somewhere like the offices of the Daily Planet, where the eminently pert Amy Adams (Lois Lane) breezes in and out.
As for the much-discussed casting of Affleck, Keaton and Bale have little to worry about. But Affleck is a worthy heir to the part, albeit with a chin that's a dead giveaway in the suit. If anything, there's only so much room for individual performance here; when armored, Affleck's already beefed-up Batman looks like a tank.
There's an elemental fun in positing the winners of superhero square offs. Such debates are predicated on their inherent silliness, something the self-serious "Batman v Superman" ignores. Snyder's task is considerable in that he's marrying the realistic crime world of Batman and the more fantastical realm of Superman, plus providing the requisite cameos (including Jason Momoa's Aquaman and Ezra Miller's Flash) to tease movies to come.
But what's there to fight about anyway? The most important battle was already decided: Batman, long our favorite, already has top billing.