What an adversarial time this is. Hulk Hogan versus Gawker. “The People v. O.J. Simpson.” Bernie versus Hillary. Trump versus Everybody. And now Batman versus Superman. One of these things is not like the others, I know. Two of the most famous good guys in pop culture can’t really be enemies, can they? The Gotham Bat and the Man of Steel inhabit the same intellectual-property universe, and the fight between them is, depending on how you look at it, either a diabolical stunt cooked up by Lex Luthor or a cynical cash grab engineered by DC and Warner Bros.
Still, these two founding figures of the modern comic-book cosmos, whose paths have sometimes crossed over the years, display some potentially interesting contrasts of temperament and background. Superman is an immigrant, a working journalist, an idealist and a devoted participant in a long-running office romance. Batman is an alienated rich kid, a perpetual bachelor with a dark view of human nature. He has no natural ability to leap a tall building in a single bound and so must rely on intelligence, ingenuity and a limitless fortune.
In “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice,” when Clark Kent (Henry Cavill) looks at a television screen and sees a child trapped in a burning building halfway around the world, he strips down and flies away to rescue her. When Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) discovers sexual predators or human traffickers, he suits up and brands their flesh with his winged bat logo.
A diverting entertainment might have been made about the rivalry between these two muscle-bound paladins — a bromance or a buddy comedy, an album of duets. “Batman v Superman,” directed by Zack Snyder (“300,” “Watchmen,” “Sucker Punch,” “Man of Steel”), is none of those things. It is about as diverting as having a porcelain sink broken over your head (one of the more amusing things that happens on-screen). In keeping with current business imperatives, what Snyder has concocted is less a free-standing film than the opening argument in a very long trial. Its 2 1/2-hour running time — not so much a “dawn” as an entire morning spent watching the clock in anticipation of lunchtime — is peppered with teasers for coming sequels. You may have heard a rumor that Wonder Woman shows up or caught sight of her in a trailer for the film. And here she is, played by Gal Gadot.
The character arrives in full, vintage costume a bit late (we’ve seen her in evening wear already), in time to join the climactic battle, which features a giant anthropomorphic slime monster and is a sludgy, noisy, chaotic mess. Even more than what has come before. The studio has, in the usual way, begged and bullied critics not to reveal plot points, and I wouldn’t dream of denying you the thrill of discovering just how overstuffed and preposterous a movie narrative can be.
So I won’t say anything about the trip Lois Lane (Amy Adams) takes to Washington, or about the senator from Kentucky (Holly Hunter) who holds hearings there, or about Lois and Clark’s boss (Laurence Fishburne), except insofar as I am glad to acknowledge the professionalism of the supporting cast. Jesse Eisenberg, as a tech-twerpy Lex Luthor, certainly earned some money. I’d prefer to talk about the images and — so help me — the Themes.
Intellectual pretension, long an occupational hazard in the superhero business, has been elevated to a creative principle. Christopher Nolan is partly to blame. His “Dark Knight” entries in the Batman saga raised the genre’s allegorical stakes and dialed down the humor to an all-but-imperceptible whisper. Still, Nolan’s filmmaking skill — above all the coherence of his inky, cruel vision of Gotham City and environs — enabled those movies to carry at least some of their self-assigned thematic weight.
Snyder, for his part, deploys signifiers of importance without having anything much to say. Yes, there is a lot of talk (mostly stuffed into poor Eisenberg’s mouth) about Good and Evil and God and Man, and there is also a lot of religious symbolism. (Note the crucifixes dotting the landscape near the end.) There are murky shadows and muddy nightscapes, all redolent not just of ordinary danger but of metaphysical darkness. There is Affleck’s existential brooding and the stoic dimple on Cavill’s chin.
For fun there are shots of the heroes shirtless and of Lois Lane in the bath. But the point of “Batman v Superman” isn’t fun, and it isn’t thinking, either. It’s obedience. The theology is invoked not to elicit meditations on mercy, justice or sacrifice but to buttress a spectacle of power. And in that way the film serves as a metaphor for its own aspirations. The corporations that produce movies like this one, and the ambitious hacks who sign up to make them, have no evident motive beyond their own aggrandizement. Entertainment is less the goal than the byproduct, and as the commercial reach of superpower franchises grows, their creative exhaustion becomes ever more apparent.
Not that anyone cares. (And yes, there are exceptions.) As long as we are paying attention, or at least buying tickets, the system is working to its own satisfaction. In “Batman v Superman,” the newspapers are full of controversy about the heroes, whom the fickle public alternately turns on and embraces. Batty and Supey themselves, meanwhile, perpetually mistake their narcissism for high-minded public service and are encouraged to do so by the cynical and sanctimonious institutions that are nominally in charge of things in Gotham and Metropolis.
The rest of the population — or the digitally created simulacra thereof — is required only to die en masse, to cower in terror and to watch in wide-eyed, worshipful gratitude. That is just what this movie expects of you: acquiescence. It wants you to believe that it’s on your side. Don’t be fooled.
“Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” is rated PG-13 (Parents strongly cautioned). Hints of sexuality and of extreme brutality are meant to make it seem daring and serious. Running time: 2 hours, 31 minutes.