Henry Cavill in Batman v Superman: Dawn of JusticeBATMAN V SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice never gets better than its wittily imagined, narratively essential scene of mass destruction five minutes into the movie. It never gets worse than the thunderously oppressive, soul-draining two hours and 20 minutes that follow.

Director Zack Snyder does, however, give those 140 minutes a run for their money with one of his signature slow-motion preludes – a dream sequence, no less – that instantly establishes his typically clunky handling of plot signifiers and porn-y fetishization of violence. (I couldn’t tell if it was intentionally or unconsciously symbolic that this opener literally climaxes with a pearl necklace.) But once Snyder wraps up his shorthanded account of Batman’s origin – Hey, did you know Bruce Wayne’s parents were gunned down when he was a kid?! Did you know he fell into a cave filled with bats?! – DC’s comic-book sequel-slash-franchise-starter actually does something rather revolutionary: It apologizes for the movie that preceded it.

That movie, of course, is 2013’s Man of Steel, Snyder’s thuddingly portentous and dull Superman reboot that earned widespread derision for its closing scenes of destructive mayhem. If you haven’t blocked the whole, ugly experience from memory, you’ll recall that Man of Steel ended with an aerial battle above Metropolis that resulted in buildings collapsing and the unquestionable loss of hundreds of lives, none of which the villainous General Zod (understandably) or our hero (far less understandably) appeared to give two hoots about. Batman v Superman, cleverly and importantly, addresses that issue immediately, because it turns out that one of those collapsed buildings was a Metropolitan skyscraper owned by Bruce Wayne – who, as we’re shown, watches impotently from afar as his business partners and employees die, with Superman seemingly responsible.

Despite its discomforting 9/11 implications, there are so many things right with this sequence that it’s nearly bracing. Naturally, the film’s very title poses a quandary: What confluence of events could possibly lead to the DC universe’s two most iconic figures finding themselves separated by a v? And the assumption that one directly caused the deaths of the other’s friends proves an excellent starting point – fuel for Batman’s growing distrust and rage and Superman’s guilt-ridden melancholy. Yet there are other perks. Viewed mostly as faraway spectacle from the perspectives of Metropolis’ terrified citizenry, the CGI and sound effects that felt so bludgeoning in Man of Steel’s finale have a queasy, evocative power in this context. Plus, with its ground-level take on the melee above, Snyder’s usually irritating shaky-cam shots finally serve an actual purpose beyond self-conscious stylization; the presentation, for once, matches the on-screen panic.

Ben Affleck in Batman v Superman: Dawn of JusticeEverything about this early, beautifully paced sequence, including its de facto apology for Man of Steel’s casual cruelty, suggests that – miracle of miracles! – Snyder actually learned a few lessons from his previous superhero outing. But if he did, they were lessons quickly forgotten, because the rest of his latest is just as overbearing and humorless and hellish to sit through as Man of Steel, with the added detriment of feeling less like a movie than an endlessly extended teaser for future movies. At one point near the finale, just when colliding events are reaching their boiling points, the narrative actually stops for a wholly needless detour introducing characters that will figure prominently in the forthcoming Justice League film. I was half-surprised that our Batman v Superman screening itself didn’t stop, with ushers brought out to sell advance tickets for the summer of 2017.

I’ve gone this far without remotely detailing the plot, and there doesn’t seem much point; in a nutshell, Lex Luther contrives for our heroes to fight, and then they do fight, and then they team up to fight some sort of Kryptonian-human hybrid that looks like an oversize, pissed-off Ninja Turtle without his shell. But Snyder, as he’s proven innumerable times, doesn’t much care about his stories, either. They’re basically just excuses for mindless brutality, awkward posturing, desaturated colors, and pushy religious symbolism, all of which is deeply in evidence in Batman v Superman – as is his carelessness in the handling of actors, nearly all of whom, it appears, needed more guidance than Snyder was willing or able to provide. Blessedly, Holly Hunter, who’s sensational as a righteous senator with a grade-A bullshit detector, exudes a natural spark that elevates her from the torpor. But Ben Affleck’s Batman/Bruce Wayne and Henry Cavill’s Superman/Clark Kent seem to be competing for “Mopiest Hero/Alter Ego Alive” honors while other major players (Amy Adams, Laurence Fishburne, Jeremy Irons, Diane Lane, Scoot McNairy, Gal Gadot) just seem distracted or bored. As for Jesse Eisenberg, heaven knows his Lex Luthor doesn’t appear to be either, but the actor’s coke-addict-after-four-Red-Bulls routine is so intensely, obnoxiously tic-y that I was praying for Batman’s utility belt to come equipped with an elephant tranquilizer.

It should go without saying that the applause greeting my screening’s conclusion depressed me to no end. But I was less depressed by the response than by its coming so soon after similar applause for Deadpool, a comic-book movie that cheerfully mocks everything Snyder and company treat as holy writ, and that actually has the audacity to be fun. Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is no fun at all. And God help us, with umpteen Justice League installments and offshoots already scheduled, it’s just the beginning. Lamenting the decay of Gotham City here, Affleck’s Caped Crusader rhetorically asks, “How many good guys are left?” Too many, Batman. Way too many.

 

Andrea Martin and Nia Vardalos in My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2MY BIG FAT GREEK WEDDING 2

Arriving at least a decade after anyone could have possibly wanted it, My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2 reunites us with the braying, sociopathically needy Portokalos family that star/screenwriter Nia Vardalos first introduced us to in 2002, and the movie does pull off a significant accomplishment: It manages to be just a little less funny than Batman v Superman. I actually quite enjoyed the original; like its follow-up, it was formulaic to a fault, but Vardalos and her screen fiancé John Corbett shared a relaxed, playful chemistry, and the exaggerated Greek milieu at least gave the predictable rom-com goings-on some welcome ethnic flavor. The flavor of Vardalos’ and director Kirk Jones’ outing, however, is unremittingly bland, with running gags and punchlines delivered so lethargically that you can’t even build up the energy to hate them. (I came close, though, during the scene in which the Portokalos men have to help Michael Constantine out of the bathtub, and can’t pull off the chore without squeezing their eyes shut and whining like ninnies.)

Happily, the professionalism of co-stars Lainie Kazan and Andrea Martin – both beautiful and neither looking a day older than she did in 2002 – gets us through some of the sicklier subplots, and Elena Kampouris is quite lovely as the 17-year-old daughter who wants, for reasons I could empathize with, to attend a college as far from her family as possible. But Jones’ direction is wan and the jokes all eye-rollers and the forced contrivances too ludicrous for words, and as a performer, Vardalos seems way off her game; half her screen time finds Vardalos mugging and unnecessarily loud, and the other half finds her looking mildly lobotomized. Whatever genuine affection appeared on display in the original has, in My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2, been replaced with nothing but sitcom fraudulence, and I almost cried when Bess Meisler, as the clan’s mute and elderly matriarch, danced down a suburban street wearing Vardalos’ red nightie. Twin Peaks’ return is scheduled for next year, and a Lynch-ian image as weird and upsetting as this one is wasted here?

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