Twenty miles outside London, on Day 31 of a mammoth, expensive shoot for next winter’s film Justice League, an unlikely group surrounded Zack Snyder in the production’s sketch-strewn “war room”: his critics. Many of the assembled writers and journalists had contributed to the abysmal 27 percent Rotten Tomatoes score earned by Snyder's previous effort, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, savaging the movie in reviews and questioning the foundation Snyder had built for Warner Bros.’ burgeoning DC expanded universe. One wrote, “To say that Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is a bad movie doesn’t go far enough,” while another said, “I am gobsmacked by just how dull this movie turned out to be.” So when Snyder called over all his skeptics for an on-the-record chat, I had to laugh: Among the iPhones thrust into his face to record the conversation was one emblazoned with Captain America’s shield, a detail that sums up everything you need to know about what Snyder’s movies are up against and why the studio had invited us here for what proved to be a very unusual set visit.
Batman v Superman remains one of the highest-grossing movies of this year. Still, in an era when the similarly superhero-stuffed Captain America: Civil War easily breezed past a billion-dollar worldwide take, Batman v Superman fell short; it was outpaced domestically by the smaller, scrappier Deadpool and made far less worldwide than Christopher Nolan’s last two Batman films, despite offering a match-up between a pair of iconic DC Comics heroes that had never before been seen on the big screen. Pundits panned the film, audiences complained about its dark tone, and Warner Bros. responded by reshuffling its plans for a series of interconnected movies that the studio hopes can compete with Marvel’s lucrative, acclaimed cinematic universe.
“When Batman v Superman came out, I was like, ‘Wow, okay, oof,’" admitted Snyder. At Comic-Con to promote the film last summer, he wore a tight black T-shirt pulled over his muscular frame, but on Justice League’s Leavesden, England, set, the now-slighter Snyder was dressed in a tweedy vest and tie, his reading glasses dangling from a lanyard. Since coming onboard to direct Man of Steel in 2011, Snyder has worked virtually nonstop on these DC Comics films, and he began production on Justice League a mere two weeks after Batman v Superman debuted to scathing reviews.
“It did catch me off guard,” he said of the response to BvS. “I have had to, in my mind, make an adjustment. I do think that the tone of Justice League has changed because of what the fans have said.” That, ultimately, is why Warner Bros. summoned a crew of journalists and naysayers to report on a movie that has not yet released any official stills, is barely weeks into shooting, and won’t be out until next November. The message was clear, and the principals stuck closely to it: The creative team behind the DC Cinematic Universe has heard your complaints, and the grim fog that suffused Snyder’s last two superhero movies is about to lift.
Earlier in the day, Snyder’s wife and longtime producer, Deborah, held court on one of Justice League’s biggest stages, an iron foundry in Gotham that Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) has turned into a private hangar. "Listen, every film is a learning experience," she explained. "We hear what everyone has to say because we care what the fans say."
Near her was the Batmobile, which had been ripped open by Superman (Henry Cavill) in the last film, and the Flying Fox, a giant military aircraft in the middle of the room meant to hold Batman and other Justice League heroes like Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), the Flash (Ezra Miller), and Cyborg (Ray Fisher). With that imposing vehicular decor as a backdrop, Deborah promised a “totally different movie” than Batman v Superman.
“What’s really great is that where we were going is kind of what the audience was wanting, which is a good thing. We just had to take the characters from somewhere [dark] to bring them up to where they are now.” When it came to touting the new film’s tone, Deborah was Justice League’s most upbeat, on-message pitchwoman; even more so than her husband, she did her damnedest to sell us on the notion of a three-film arc that hit its darkest point in the previous movie but was always meant to swing upward. Still, she hinted at some growing pains along the way.
“If every film is a learning experience,” I asked her, “then what did you learn from Batman v Superman?”
She paused, and let a rueful smile slip out. “The main thing we learned, I think: People don’t like to see their heroes deconstructed.”
Justice League, then, is meant to give the fans what they’ve supposedly been clamoring for: more traditional depictions of these classic comic-book characters. Batman will do less cold-blooded murdering of criminals and more canon-honoring detective work. The Flash and Cyborg will provide a youthful, irreverent counterpoint to their more grizzled Justice League teammates. And Aquaman (Jason Momoa) will swim into the movie from the franchise’s most fantastical realm yet, an under-the-sea kingdom featuring characters like ocean queen Mera (Amber Heard) and axe-wielding chief adviser Vulko (Willem Dafoe).
The film also tells a much more expansive story than its predecessors, so much so that it opens with a universe-establishing “history lesson” meant to set the stage for sequels and spinoffs to come. In that prologue, ancient Amazonians, humans, and Atlanteans are entrusted by the god Zeus to guard three “Mother Boxes,” a set of microwave-sized cubes that hold enough cosmic power to potentially bring about an apocalypse. (Think of them as DC’s equivalent to the Infinity Stones frequently fought over in Marvel movies.) In the present day, without the defeated Superman and beset by winged parademons from another planet, Batman and his cohorts race to find the hidden Mother Boxes before battling the villainous alien Steppenwolf.
It is, make no mistake, a giant movie. The role of Steppenwolf hasn't yet been cast, but plenty of boldface names are already attached. Amy Adams will return as Lois Lane, J.K. Simmons has been added as the new Commissioner Gordon, and the filmmakers and concept art teased nearly a dozen cameos, including Robin Wright and Connie Nielsen from the upcoming Wonder Woman solo film, Jesse Eisenberg’s Lex Luthor, and the possible appearance of several side characters like the Flash’s love interest Iris West. As Aquaman might put it, this movie is stuffed to the gills.
“I love the characters, and maybe to a fault sometimes, I dork out on the hardcore aspects of the comic books,” said Snyder. Behind him as he spoke was a table strewn with Justice League weaponry, including enough swords, shields, and pitchforks to populate Snyder’s war film 300; earlier, we had seen a host of armored, ammo-laden vehicles including the Batmobile and the brand-new Nightcrawler, a spider-like vehicle with a flamethrower on top. Near Snyder, in a piece of concept art tacked to the wall, the Nightcrawler could be glimpsed incinerating an unlucky foe with its flame blast.
Snyder’s interest in hardcore-skewing comic-book violence has always been evident: His first three genre movies earned a hard R for mayhem, Man of Steel was criticized for its cavalier depiction of city-leveling apocalypse, and when Batman v Superman makes its way to home video with an extended director’s cut, that version will be R-rated, too. The question, then, is whether Snyder’s sensibility can truly be tweaked enough to suit a mainstream, four-quadrant audience turned off by Batman v Superman’s unrelenting grimness. The sets we saw were still dark and rubble-strewn, and most of the costumes on display treated their comic-book counterparts’ bright colors as only a faint suggestion. Wonder Woman’s suit was a rare exception to both the muted aesthetic and the visit’s positive-skewing message: At one point, costume designer Michael Wilkinson told us that the red in Wonder Woman’s costume had been enriched for this film because “We always talk about it as almost like centuries of congealed blood from her victims on her breastplate.” At that remark, a journalist next to me muttered, “Wow.”
It’s clear, then, that the fundamental tension between Snyder’s darker inclinations and the studio’s mandate for a happier movie will provide more drama than even Steppenwolf could manage. At one point, when asked how the critical response to Batman v Superman is informing Justice League, Snyder hemmed and hawed for a moment, trying to find the words. “Listen,” he said at last, “if it’s about putting more fun in the movie or embracing some of what I think is in all the characters inherently, this sort of larger-than-life, big, fun stuff …”
He trailed off, digressed, and then returned to the subject with a defense of his heroes’ uncharacteristically grim countenances in the last film: “You really had to dig down on the darker parts of them to make them fight each other. I really do believe that with this movie, with Justice League, they’ve been freed of the responsibility to be in a place where they would fight each other. That’s liberating for us in making the movie, because now we have a single enemy with a single objective, and it’s really about uniting the team. That, to me, is a fun activity.”
Shortly after lunch, we got to confer with Justice League's lead about the plan. In his bulky, muscled-up Batman suit, Ben Affleck strode toward us, his cowl off and hair mussed. “You guys must be the press,” he said. His eyes were wary and still coated in the black makeup he wears under the Batman helmet. “Christian never let anyone see him with the raccoon eyes,” Affleck joked. “I look like Iggy Pop or Lou Reed when I try to wipe it off.”
Our meeting took place on Leavesden’s Stage C, which was draped with so much green screen that if you had to look at it all day, you’d probably desaturate your movies, too. Affleck was between takes on a rooftop scene where, flanked by Wonder Woman and the Flash, he meets Commissioner Gordon to discuss a series of mysterious kidnappings. “How many of you are there?” Gordon asks Batman, eyeing his comrades. “Not enough,” Batman replies.
With Superman taken out of commission at the end of Batman v Superman (and though he’ll clearly return somehow, the Man of Steel was absent from the concept art we saw detailing Justice League’s first-half set pieces), it falls to Affleck’s hero to do the heavy lifting. In order to inspire fellow superheroes to come together and take up his cause, Batman has to become a more encouraging figure himself. “Definitely, in the last movie, Batman went to a very dark place,” Affleck acknowledged. “He’s no longer extreme in that way.”
“Superman’s death helps Batman regain his faith in humanity,” said Deborah Snyder. “Here’s this alien who just gave his life for us. It really changes who Batman is, and he also feels a responsibility to honor him, because he didn’t feel like he did it while they were living.” Affleck concurred: “He’s feeling like he wants to redeem himself and he’s wanting mankind to be redeemed. He’s wanting to make the world better.”
The actor under the bat-mask is invested in making the franchise better, too. Affleck took an executive producer credit on Justice League just as veteran DC Comics producer Charles Roven saw his role reduced, and it’s been rumored that Batfleck's heavily involved in rewrites. If done right, these movies could provide ballast to Affleck’s career by giving him a constant, high-profile job to return to, but in the wake of Batman v Superman’s less-than-stellar reception, Affleck earned just as much attention for grimacing through the film’s press tour. One viral video soundtracked Affleck’s downcast look with “The Sound of Silence,” while countless tweets noted that Batman v Superman was somehow pulling in worse reviews than 2003’s Daredevil, Affleck’s notorious first foray as a superhero.
So, though Affleck took great pains to note that on Justice League, “We’re all here executing Zack’s vision,” he wasn’t without suggestions. “There’s definitely room for more humor,” he said, noting a key difference between the Snyder-helmed movies and Marvel’s quippy blockbusters. “These DC movies, by their nature, are still a little bit more gothic — or a little bit more mythic, rather, than some comic-book movies are. Batman v Superman was a heavy, dark movie that was really rooted in The Dark Knight Returns, a heavy, dark book. This is not that. This is a step forward and an evolution from that.”
Still, Affleck sought to downplay his increased role on the film. “Why I’m an executive producer,” he said, “is because I’m directing another one of the movies,” a stand-alone Batman film targeted for 2018. “There’s some cross-pollination of story and characters, and I don’t want to give any of that stuff away, but it just basically means that there might be things that happen in my Batman that are affected by [Justice League].” He admitted, though, that his solo film could be pushed back. “I don’t know that I would necessarily be able to make that date, because I don’t have a script that’s ready yet,” Affleck said. “My timetable is that I’m not gonna make the movie until there’s a script that I think is good, because I’ve been on the end of things when you make movies with scripts that aren’t good.” He grinned. “It doesn’t pan out.”
But while Affleck comes to a leadership role naturally, his Justice League character has more trouble. As we saw in Batman v Superman, this version of the Dark Knight keeps to the shadows, confiding in no one but his loyal butler, Alfred (Jeremy Irons). “That’s the interesting thing about this Batman,” said Affleck. “On the one hand, he’s the ultimate loner, and on the other hand, he’s tasked with putting together a group. Is the guy who basically broods in a cave all day really the best person to put together a team of superheroes? He doesn’t have huge success initially. He’s got to figure out how to play well with others, and he barely knows how to play well with Alfred.”
One of those new recruits may prove to be Justice League’s secret weapon. Twenty-three-year-old Ezra Miller has heretofore been best known for indie films like We Need to Talk About Kevin and The Stanford Prison Experiment; a famously free spirit, he talks casually about his bisexuality, eschews deodorant, and once waltzed into a film festival party wearing a fur coat and no shirt underneath. As the Flash in Justice League, he has been shorn of the long hair and scraggly goatee that he usually favors, but crucially, Snyder encouraged him to keep his live-wire charm.
The rooftop scene we watched them film was hardly a barnstormer, filled as it was with dutiful exposition and actor-thwarting lines like, “The demons must have caught the scent of the Mother Box,” but in every take Miller improvised freely, adding so much sorely needed humor to the proceedings that Snyder kept expanding his role. Before one take, Miller did a little jig that spurred a sustained, scene-ruining giggle fit from Gal Gadot; in another, when Ray Fisher’s Cyborg appeared to join the Justice League, Miller reacted with such outsized enthusiasm that Fisher broke up, too. “This is going great, guys,” snarked J.K. Simmons, the only actor to remain stone-faced. “Ay yai yai,” said Gadot, trying to collect herself.
“There’s a quality to what Ezra does that is young and fun and full of life, that’s excited about what they’re doing, that’s so in contrast to who Batman is,” said Affleck. “What does Batman do around a guy who’s really excited and positive all the time? It’s not his natural state of being.”
It may not be Snyder’s, either, but Miller’s attitude should prove a boon to his cinematic universe. The Flash will get his own Rick Famuyiwa-directed movie in 2018, though it’s not as stand-alone as it might appear, since it’s rumored to involve a team-up with Fisher’s character, Cyborg. Asked if he had any additional intel, Miller just shook his head and laughed: “We cannot confirm or deny anything regarding any people named silly names like the ones you just said.”
He doesn't really need to. In an optimistic stockholders’ conference call and a more official Comic-Con follow-up, Warner Bros. set release dates for a passel of planned DC adaptations, including Wonder Woman next summer, Aquaman in 2018, and Cyborg and Green Lantern films set for 2020. Still, the plan seems mutable, based on how well Justice League does: Though the movie was initially announced as a two-parter, Deborah Snyder assiduously disabused us of that notion. “We were only ever planning and we are only doing Justice League,” she said. “Just Justice League. One movie.” Not two parts? “No.”
When asked if he planned to return for a Justice League sequel, her husband wasn’t quite as Shermanesque. “I think we still have a release date,” he told me. Then, as another of Snyder's critics leapt in to ask a question, he muttered an addendum almost under his breath: “As far as I know."