Batman vs. Superman? The greatest gladiatorial match in the history of the world? There must be some mistake.
Aren't these two men friends and colleagues, fellow fighters for truth, justice and the American way? Don't they share a deep and intuitive understanding that, to borrow a line from another determined crusader, the weed of crime bears evil fruit?
It turns out that that sunny vision of superhero camaraderie is a product of an earlier, more innocent era, a time before the brooding darkness that engulfs and energizes "Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice."
As directed by Zack Snyder, the two-hour, 33-minute "Batman v Superman" does go on too long and lingers more than it should, as Snyder's "Man of Steel" did before it, on its climactic action set pieces.
But the director, a strong technician whose slam-bang emphatic, occasionally operatic style seems made for comic book adaptations, has been well-served by an adept script co-written by Chris Terrio (an Oscar winner for Ben Affleck's "Argo") and David S. Goyer, which raises a number of interesting issues.
Goyer wrote on all three of Christopher Nolan's Batman films, and the spirit of that trilogy (Nolan and his partner Emma Thomas are executive producers here) is the key to its success in the creation of a despairing, decaying Batman (convincingly played by a committed Affleck) who is flailing for purpose after years on the job.
In this, "Batman v Superman" consciously refers back to the Caped Crusader's modern origins, the 1986 appearance of Frank Miller's somber and ominous graphic novel "Batman: The Dark Knight Returns," which repositioned Bob Kane's 1939 creation as a contemporary figure of almost existential torment. Miller is the first person thanked in this film's credits, and that is not an accident.
Terrio and Goyer's script shrewdly places this figure in a suspicious world that resents the fact that no deed, however good, is without its collateral damage, a world that casts a cynical eye even on pure-hearted heroes like Superman (Henry Cavill, once again a model of modest strength).
In this world, the Man of Steel is considered an unwelcome alien, occasionally greeted by signs reading "This Is Our World, Not Yours" and "Earth Belongs to Humans." In this world, obviously, there are strong echoes of our own.
One of "Batman v Superman's" deft notions is to position Gotham, Batman's home base, and Metropolis, Superman's headquarters, as two cities facing each other across a bay, a comic book universe equivalent to Oakland and San Francisco.
With a multi-focus plot that is filled with twists, "Batman v Superman" begins with not one but two different flashbacks, the first being the classic one of a young Bruce Wayne watching in horror as his loving parents are murdered by a criminal in front of his eyes.
The second flashback references the end of "Man of Steel," with Superman fighting off the invading Kryptonian legions of Gen. Zod (played by Michael Shannon). But it's seen from the vantage point of Batman's alter ego, Bruce Wayne, who watches helplessly from street level as an alien weapon slices through the Wayne Enterprises building in Metropolis like an intergalactic Vegomatic and cripples loyal employee Wallace Keefe (Scoot McNairy).
The film's present is 18 months after that attack, with the world still getting used to Superman's seemingly unstoppable presence and a big hunk of his ancestral nemesis Kryptonite discovered in the Indian Ocean.
What the world doesn't know is that Superman's alter ego is mild-mannered reporter Clark Kent, perennially under the thumb of Daily Planet editor Perry White (Laurence Fishburne) and still very much in love with co-worker Lois Lane (Amy Adams), the only person who is in on his secret.
When a rescue of Lois leads to some of that collateral damage, Superman runs afoul of the U.S. Congress, specifically Sen. Finch of Kentucky (a welcome Holly Hunter), who pointedly insists, "We're so caught up with what Superman can do, no one has asked what he should do."
Sharing the senator's distaste is perennial Superman nemesis Lex Luthor, here played by Jesse Eisenberg as a twitchy tech billionaire, frustrated because he's not in control of the world and sure that it is not possible for someone to be both all powerful and all good.
And then there is Bruce Wayne/Batman. With Wayne Manor now a crumbling wreck, he can be found in a Mies van der Rohe-ish lake house, still attended by the loyal Alfred (Jeremy Irons), who waspishly reminds him he's "too old to die young."
Decades of fighting crime have left Wayne discouraged and grizzled (can't a man this wealthy afford a decent shave?) and turned him into the kind of vigilante that straight-arrow Clark Kent finds abhorrent. And Wayne, for his part, still broods about all that Superman-related damage. And so it begins.
The two men, or at least their alter egos, first come face to face at a glitzy party thrown by the conniving Lex. There, Wayne meets the alluring Diana Prince (Gal Gadot), a mysterious presence who means it when she tells him, "I don't think you've ever known another woman like me."
We'll be hearing more from Diana Prince later, and from lots of other folks as well, as Warner Bros. is deeply involved with a whole series of movies based on the DC Comics universe. While the Marvel universe, now owned by Disney, is glib and sunny, it's a nice echo of Warner's past as a home to gangsters and gritty melodramas to find its DC world operating very much on the dark end of the street.
'Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice'
MPAA rating: PG-13, for intense sequences of violence and action throughout, and some sensuality
Running time: 2 hours, 33 minutes
Playing: In general release