2 stars (out of 4)

Thousands of people have gathered outside the city to catch a glimpse. Suddenly, Superman — the Man of Steel himself! — 
is spotted soaring in the sky. Wow! There he is!

He soon lands atop a skyscraper. Is he going to save a woman in peril? Help an aircraft land safely, perhaps? Not exactly. He proceeds to … testify at a Senate committee hearing about nuclear weapons.

That’s just one of many anticlimactic moments in the lackluster Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (opening March 25). Though hyped for more than a year as a Clash of the Titans epic, the final product is 151 minutes of gloom and doom. Not only is it the anti-Deadpool, it takes itself more seriously than a Best Picture Oscar winner.

Batman gets top billing in the title, but this is essentially a sequel to 2013’s equally laborious Man of Steel. Indeed, this film’s prologue is a reprise of the final clash between Superman (Henry Cavill) and General Zod up in the clouds above Metropolis — but from the perspective of the panicked citizens on the ground. For once, the mass destruction on display in countless comic book films has real consequences. Many locals lost their lives that day, while other survivors jumped into action to help. Among them: billionaire businessman Bruce Wayne (a salt-and-pepper-haired Ben Affleck, scowling to perfection). The new POV is quite ingenious.

That marks the first and last time you will be able to follow the inner workings of a convoluted screenplay. The story immediately jumps 18 months to an island in the Indian Ocean, where natives stumble upon Kryptonite rocks. Elsewhere, Superman helps Lois Lane (Amy Adams) escape from terrorists in Africa. This too is loosely tied to the Kryptonite. In Gotham, Bruce uses his vigilante Batman alter ego to plot revenge against Superman. And tech mogul Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg) figures out a way to use these events in his favor and lord over all.

We haven’t even gotten to Gal Gadot’s elusive Wonder Woman yet.

Director Zack Snyder shows no mercy in throwing a slew of disconnected scenes at the audience. Blink and Lois is persuading her Daily Planet editor (Laurence Fishburne) to travel to Washington, D.C., to get answers from a congressman. Blink again and Superman is staging a rescue in Mexico during its Day of the Dead celebration. He also has time to trek to Smallville to visit his mother (Diane Lane). Over in Gotham, Bruce uses handy-dandy technology to learn the identity of a beautiful woman (Gadot) eyeing him at a party. All this big-budget narrative window-dressing muddles the basics — such as, you know, who exactly is mad at who and why.

And yet Snyder botches the only scene fans truly crave: the fight between the classic superheroes. After an intriguing teaser (in which Batman snarls to Superman, “Do you bleed? You will”), the brawl is a head-scratching letdown. These are two extraordinary men plagued by tormented souls; mommy issues should not be a make-or-break factor. (This is not a spoiler, I swear.) You may not even be capable of seeing the duel, as it's staged in pitch black in the pouring rain. The first Spider-Man movie aside, is that cliché backdrop ever effective?

The metaphorical darkness is more problematic. If the success of the delightfully twisted Deadpool proved anything, it’s that moviegoers prefer their comic book pics bright and loose with a side of self-knowing wit. (That winning combination also worked for Guardians of the Galaxy and the Avengers flicks.) You could even make a case that Christopher Nolan’s superb Batman trilogy reached its apex with The Dark Knight due to Heath Ledger’s live-wire Joker. A popcorn film — and this is a popcorn film — should never feel like Sunday night homework. Read: This is not the place to introduce a story line such as the mystery behind the delivery of arms to rebels in Africa. When real-life news personalities including Anderson Cooper and Nancy Grace pose deep existential questions about whether Superman should be viewed as a god, it comes off as pontificating blather. 

Maybe a standout, snarky villain would have helped the cause. But Eisenberg’s Lex Luthor is terribly miscast. The actor plays him like an overcaffeinated Mark Zuckerberg, all twitchy and bratty. He’s got billions and drones on and on about his thirst for power. So what? He’s a diminutive twerp. The superbuff and glowering Affleck and Cavill look like they can overtake him with one halfhearted punch to the gut. Oh, boy (wonder).

Dawn of Justice isn’t just a movie, by the way. It’s also the dawn of a new high-stakes cinematic D.C. Comics universe, in which characters such as Wonder Woman, the Flash, Aquaman and Cyborg all get their own stand-alone features. Alas, as of now, this franchise desperately needs saving.

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