It takes roughly 90 minutes for "Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice" to justify its title, and another 30 to establish it's a red herring. Rather than focusing on a cataclysmic showdown between pop culture's most famous men in tights, Zack Snyder's flashy, cacophonous follow-up to 2013's "Man of Steel" is basically one long teaser for the next installment. Next fall's "Justice League: Part One" has plenty of plot details set in motion by this dreary spectacle, but doesn't fare as well in the department of good ideas. As its title implies, "Batman v Superman" plays like a mashup of things we've seen before.
Which isn't to say the movie lacks some modicum of intrigue, at least insofar as it further explores the massive universe of DC Comics' properties. But that's also its Achilles' Heel. So obviously beholden to the next stage in its story, "Batman v Superman" barely has the patience to linger on its current one.
It begins with an admittedly compelling hook, by offering an opposing perspective on the climax from the last installment: a fiery battle between Superman and his evil Kryptonian foe Zod that reduced Metropolis to smoldering mess of metal. Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck, more stone-faced and disinterested than usual) watches in horror from the ground, managing at the last minute to salvage one would-be victim (Scoot McNairy). The shift in point of view cannily acknowledges criticism of "Man of Steel" for taking its iconic hero in such a dark direction. Even Batman can't believe it.
And we know that he's Batman, of course, before he even dons the cape. Wayne's murky backstory — millionaire playboy, parents killed as a child, overly obsessed with bats, you know the drill — comes and goes in a slo-mo opening sequence, acknowledging his mythological origin story without wasting too much time on it. That's about as deep as this movie drills into psychology before it rushes into a series of effects-driven battles, shadowy threats and half-baked plot twists. It's a spectacularly empty vision that fans already gleaned from the marketing.
Eighteen months after Superman's widely publicized role in the Metropolis disaster, Batman's lurking around Gotham, doing his usual demon-in-the-shadows thing. Naturally, the two masked avengers don't trust each other, and leering rich brat Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg) picks up on the tension. Gesticulating wildly underneath a Cheshire cat grin, Eisenberg's cartoonish Luther comes across as a child eager to play his toys. He epitomizes the simplified gravitas of Snyder's filmmaking, which once reflects an attempt to imitate Christopher Nolan's grim style without its substance. Instead, Batman and Superman's inherent distrust for each other never quite adds up, as their initially tense exchanges never quite dig into their motivations. These muscular bad boys know how to solve problems with brawn, but can't seem to grasp the concept of diplomacy.
In any case, much of the story surrounding the pair reeks of the usual routine. Intrepid reporter Lois Lane (Amy Adams) continues her obsession with Superman while maintaining business as usual with Clark Kent, now a romantic interest. (The talented actress' alternating expressions of bafflement and fear suggest the "one for them, one for me" philosophy at its height.) Superman copes with a skeptical media (including goofy cameos from the likes of Anderson Cooper and Charlie Rose). Eventually, a damsel in distress sets in motion the much-awaited showdown, but it's little more than a handful of punches before the grand finale, when Wonder Woman essentially shows up out of nowhere to aid in a final smackdown. Then comes an abrupt final twist that so clearly sets the stage for future installments that it may as well end with a link to buy more tickets.
In other words, "Batman v Superman" has reasons for being unfinished, but that's particularly frustrating given the established potential of the material. Fans of Frank Miller's quintessential eighties series "The Dark Knight Returns" will recall the astounding climax in which the same characters wrestled for supremacy against far more engaging reasons for the pair to face each other. Devoid of such inspired rationales, "Batman v Superman" reduces its premise to the world's most expensive child's play.
But Snyder's an accomplished stylist who can at least make the dumbest movies justify their heft. His "Dawn of the Dead" remake remains his best effort by reducing the formulaic premise to a series of tense sequences. "Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole" similarly energized the animated fantasy genre by increasing the intensity of its action. Likewise, filled with motion-heavy sequences rich in light and color, "Batman v Superman" doesn't lack for inspired visuals. The palette is rich with engaging contrasts. Superman drifts in space against a rainbow-colored earth; the hulkish doomsday monster that Luther dreams up looks like a Golem on steroids. The climax erupts in a symphony of neon light and shadows.
At no point, however, do those elements imbue its spectacle with brains. David S. Goyer and Chris Terrio's script offers plenty of weighted dialogue about playing gods, being gods and killing gods, but such pontifications can only take the one-note premise so far. Engineered to give audiences what they want, Snyder's by-the-book treatment assumes they want a watered-down treatment that never rises above the call of duty even with its big twists. Some viewers may just roll with it, but they ought to consider the possibility that they've been had. Trailers tease the premise of "Batman v Superman" with the catchy hashtag #WhoShouldWin, but the movie inadvertently suggests that the real topic is #WhoShouldCare.
"Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice" opens nationwide this Friday.