There's a small joke spoken toward the end of 'Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.' It's a throwaway gag most superhero movies offer out of sheer instinct.

Not this super-serious epic.

The moment reminds us the biggest piece in DC Comics’ movie puzzle lacks what even clunkers like “Green Lantern” possess.

A sense of humor. Adventure. Joy. Because, at the end of the day, these are still stories about grown ups in tights. “Batman v Superman” misses that point entirely.

It’s not a death sentence for the project, manufactured to make Marvel suits learn two can play this game. It still reminds us the best superhero movies spring not from a killer marketing session but an auteur’s vision.

Director Zack Snyder is more ringleader than visionary.

We all remember the death of Bruce Wayne’s parents. We’ve seen it again … and again … over the past 17 years. “Batman v Superman” opens with that tragedy all the same, using it to introduce a newer, angrier Dark Knight.

Ben Affleck’s Batman doesn’t flinch when it comes to collaring thugs. And he still recalls how Superman took out half a city 18 months ago while fighting General Zod. It’s one of the film’s best conceits, a way to realistically plug the Man of Steel into the modern world.

And give Batman a reason to hate the Krypton native at the same time.

As for Superman (Henry Cavill), he’s seen what Batman does to Gotham’s criminal underbelly. It’s not pretty. Never mind Pow! Bam! Wham! This Bat brands his victims, a mark that seals their fate once they enter prison.batman-v-superman-review-henry-cavill

The two heroes are on a collision course, and a tech gazillionaire named Lex Luthor (Jesse Einsenberg, moderately effective) is happy to hasten their clash.

“Batman v Superman” dares to pick up the Dark Knight’s tale just four years after Christopher Nolan sensational trilogy.

Affleck, with an unshaven face and attitude to spare, delivers an almost frightening Bruce Wayne. He’s a vigilante with a score to settle and a butler who does far more than fix him breakfast.

Jeremy Irons is a younger, more plugged in Alfred who serves as his unofficial Robin. They’re a tag team even if Alfred never leaves the Bat Cave. Their work together feels practiced, perfunctory, like they’ve been doing this for so long they don’t need to speak to get the job done.

Snyder (“Man of Steel”) keeps the tone relentlessly, oppressively grim. The government thinks like Batman when it comes to Superman’s heroism. What if this god-like creature turned on humanity? What then?

Superman on Trial

Holly Hunter is the determined face of the U.S. Government, and while she’s terrific in any situation her story arc isn’t given enough attention to matter.

Those clamoring for superhero action will have to wait … and wait. And then they’ll get their fill, along with our first look at Wonder Woman.

Gal Gadot’s Diana Prince appears briefly throughout the film. It’s long enough to make us hunger for her feature-length movie. The performance also tells us those Warner Bros. executives chose wisely. Gadot can scrap with the big boys and hold the screen quite nicely, thanks.

FAST FACT: Zack Snyder cut his teeth making award-winning commercials for Nokia cell phones and Corona Beer before Hollywood came calling.

At times poor Superman is reduced to a supporting player. He’s still as convincing as ever thanks to Cavill, who resembles every Superman sketch done over the past 75 years. He’s tender and true, a man who can’t believe anyone would doubt his good will.

Amy Adams gets plenty of scenes to show she’s worth fighting for as Lois Lane, but the Lois and Clark romance doesn’t move forward.

“Batman v Superman” is massive in every way, down to its deliriously over the top score by Hans Zimmer and Junkie XL. Yet the key plot decisions appear to have been made on the walk from the trailer to the set.

To wit:

  • What drives Lex Luthor to do what he does
  • The reason Batman and Superman might stop fighting
  • Falling back on the laziest storytelling tropes to ignite a key battle
  • Squeezing in the future Justice Leaguers in a riotously slapdash manner

It’s great that modern storytellers have added grit and sophistication to the superhero template. The “Captain America” saga offers rip-roaring action and commentary on the war on terror. Netflix’s “Daredevil” captures a fearless hero whose heroism puts his friends in mortal danger.

RELATED: What Really Makes a Hero? (It’s Not the Tights)

Even those “Avengers” stop fighting long enough to consider the gravity of their power. That only makes these Lycra-clad heroes more engaging.

Post-Modern Superman

Yet “Batman v Superman” doesn’t always earn its grit. Even when it throws up its hands and lets the action take over we’re not sold on the finished product. Instead, it feels like a paint-by-numbers blockbuster, enhanced by the usual CGI magic.

Above all, “Batman v Superman” was meant to make us weak kneed at the thought of a “Justice League” movie. It’s the DC Comics answer to “The Avengers,” an existing franchise known for its heart, humor and heroism.

“Batman v Superman” just can’t rekindle our inner child like the best superhero films do.