EW was lucky enough to be on the set of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and for this week’s special double-issue Comic Con Preview, they are bringing us inside the production. The two heroes have crossed paths plenty of times in the Gordian tangle of comic-book canon, but never on-screen. But as Hollywood continues both its preoccupation with superheroes and universe-building — complete with more five-year plans than a Communist regime — it seemed inevitable that eventually these two brands would find their way into a single title.
Capes of Wrath
It's cold. The sky looks like an ashtray. It’s like being in the first half of a TV ad for antidepressants. “Perfect weather, right?” There’s a slight possibility Zack Snyder is not being sarcastic. The scene is almost comically grim. Crew huddle near space heaters like bums around a barrel fire as a serrated wind slices through the derelict husk that was once Wayne Manor, strewing dead leaves across the floor. The set has been built in the middle of a field that looks like Andrew Wyeth painted it in a bad mood, only miles from the urban decay of Michigan’s shuttered auto plants.
But Snyder couldn’t seem sunnier. That’s because for Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, this is exactly what the 49-year-old director needed. For those who thought his Man of Steel was a love song to gray scale, well, that was before we ever got to Gotham. And right now, Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) and his loyal butler, Alfred (Jeremy Irons), are gravely intoning their lines into a burned-out fireplace, as Bruce prepares for his Valley of Elah moment with Superman. The billionaire vigilante appears weary but determined, not unlike the actor portraying him. It’s October 2014 and Affleck, his temples streaked gray for the role, has been shooting since April. “This is – what do they call it? – Heartbreak Hill, the last two miles,” he says.
In a way, it’s really just the first two. A week before EW visited the set last fall, Warner Bros. unfurled it’s plans to release 10 DC movies in the next five years – a blueprint for an extended universe. To sum it up in one breath: Batman v Superman hits theatres on March 25 next year, followed by Suicide Squad next August; then Wonder Woman and the first half of Snyder’s Justice League movie in 2017, followed in 2018 by The Flash and Aquaman; then Shazam and Justice League Part Two in 2019; and finally, Cyborg and Green Lantern in 2020. Now inhale.
“It’s a marathon. No, it’s a marathon within a marathon,” says Snyder. “Do you know that race from Death Valley to the top of Mount Whitney? It’s, like, 100 miles and it’s from the lowest point in the continental United States to the highest. It’s crazy. Anyway, it’s like that.” In the age of event cinema, spectacles can’t settle for simply being spectacular – they also have to be recognizable and branded, with planet-size plots and production budget comparable to Palau’s nominal GDP. Hence, Snyder’s movie has a title that sounds more like a pay-per-view fight than a summer blockbuster: Batman! Superman! Dawn! Justice! Not enough for you? We’ve got Wonder Woman, too! Not to mention an appearance by Aquaman.
No one will mention him, actually. When it comes to plot or character details, the film’s actors all speak in the practiced vagueness of spies guarding state secrets. Take Jesse Eisenberg, who plays Lex Luthor, the other billionaire in Dawn of Justice with Superman in his crosshairs. He would love to tell us about it, but the studio has other plans. “They’ve given me talking points which are… I’m just a little concerned,” he says, before he's even been asked a real question. “I don’t know if I’ll be able to form full sentences.” (If that sounds paranoid, it is, sadly, for good reason. A few days before the BvS trailer debuted on April 17, someone leaked a phone recording of it and caused an Internet firestorm.)
So a visit to the set of this movie is curated with the carefully controlled peripherals of a Potemkin village. One of the propmen showing off Batman’s new grappling gun mentions that there was one item in particular he was really excited to work on... but he can't talk about it. Might it begin with the letter k and end with ryptonite? An expression of panic crosses his face, and he glances down at the grappling gun as if he’s considering firing it into the rafters and flying away.
Originally, there was no batman in Batman v Superman — the film wasn’t planned to be anything more expansive than a straight sequel to Man of Steel. “I remember we were talking about ‘What’s the next villain?’” Snyder says. “We can’t do another alien invasion.’ Brainiac was definitely down the road. Metallo, I think, was going to be the main bad guy of this movie.” Then out of the blue, in a meeting with screenwriter David S. Goyer and executive producer Christopher Nolan, Snyder made a suggestion. “I said, ‘What about at the end of the movie we do a scene where there’s a crate full of kryptonite delivered to Wayne Manor.’ Everyone was like... ‘Okaay.’ Once you say it out loud it’s a problem because you can't unsay it.”
Suddenly, the project exploded in scope. “As far as the individual character is concerned, this is not a Superman sequel,” says Henry Cavill, 32, the series’ Superman, who had to make room for Affleck on the marquee. “It’s more of an introduction to Batman, an opening to Justice League, and an expansion of the world that was created in Man of Steel.” Yet when the studio cast 42-year-old Affleck, the immediate reaction among the chattering classes was ambivalent at best. Even the actor thought the filmmakers might have made a mistake coming to him. “My first reaction was ‘Are you sure?’” Affleck says. “At the time I was 40, 41, and had just finished Argo, and l felt like ‘This seems like a strange way to get to Batman.’ But Zack convinced me.”
The director then brought on Gal Gadot (Furious 7) to play Diana Prince, better known as famed Amazon princess Wonder Woman. The 30-year-old Israeli actress is about to become the first female superhero this decade to get her own film — she is currently prepping to shoot Wonder Woman with director Patty Jenkins, and then it’s straight on to Justice League. “I think it’s about time for a female heroine to hold her own in a superhero movie,” Gadot says. “It’s been too long.”
To craft the costumed-hero mash-up, Snyder and Chris Terrio — the Argo screenwriter who was brought on to Batman v Superman for a rewrite and who has since finished the Justice League script — locked themselves in a room with an enormous supply of Diet Coke and plotted out their epic saga visually, like a giant cave painting.“Chris would talk and I would draw and it was basically this weird mural of the movies with no words,” says Snyder.
They drew from their awn imaginations as well as comics mythology, including Frank Miller’s revered 1986 The Dark Knight Returns, which also posits an embittered Batman past his prime setting his sights on our boy in blue. In his editing suite in Pasadena last month, Snyder showed off early passes of the money sequence, a rainy rooftop battle between the two capes. There's an undeniable thrill to watching these pop culture icons go at it — throwing each other through walls and skylights — that can likely be traced back to a memory of lying stomach-down in the living room, an action figure in each hand.
But this brawl royale comes with an equal amount of philosophical conflict. Snyder also reveals a scene in the Batcave where Bruce Wayne outlines his motivations to a skeptical Alfred, a bit of realpolitik reasoning that weighs the morality of a preemptive strike on Superman against even the minimal chance of humanity’s destruction. This kind of thoughtfulness helped attract the distinguished 66-year-old Irons to a comic-book-inspired production. “I don’t believe I’ll be embarrassed by this,” Irons says. “In fact, I might even be proud of it.”
It’s been seven years since Iron Man turned Hollywood’s superhero fad into a full-bore end-of-empire survival strategy, and while the genre shows no sign of slowing at the box office — Avengers: Age of Ultron took in enough money to purchase a small fictional Eastern European nation — the genre isn’t as fresh as it once was. Still, Snyder believes there’s a way to stave off staleness.
“If [this genre] talks about us and the human condition, which I think hopefully these movies do in some way, then I think that it doesn’t really have an expiration date,” he says. “But l do believe the sort of mass-marketed consumerist version could get thin if you’re not careful. We’ve just got to be careful.”
That human-condition stuff is what Snyder hopes will be the DC brand. As a filmmaker, his stylistic grittiness — the desaturated palette, the operatic emotions paired with narrative and moral realism — is both an aesthetic continuation of Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy and a way to distinguish DC’s nascent cinematic universe. “It is more mythic, it is more grand in that way, and it is a little more realistic,” says Affleck. “Just by their nature, these films can’t be as funny or as quick and as glib as Marvel movies.”
But Snyder’s approach hasn’t come without detractors. When Man of Steel hit theaters, one of the more prevalent criticisms was that the film’s third-act catastrophe climax, in which a dueling Superman and Zod raze half of Metropolis, played fast and loose with civilian casualties. “I was surprised because that’s the thesis of Superman for me, that you can’t just have superheroes knock around and have there be no consequences,” says Snyder. Barman v Superman addresses these concerns head-on — Superman’s collateral victims serve as Batman’s impetus to take him down. “There are other superhero movies where they joke about how basically no one’s getting hurt,” Snyder says. “That’s not us.” Snyder’s quest for realism may seem inherently quixotic. He is, after all, the CGI fantasist behind 300 and Sucker Punch. But this franchise, it’s fair to say, requires a new arsenal of cinematic weapons.
Back on the set, the weather is still unpleasant, but now it might be a little too miserable. Snyder gazes out through the windowless embrasures of Wayne Manor at the field behind it and sighs. “Everyone’s going to think that’s digital,” he says. “We built this set in the middle of nowhere and it looks like the fakest f--ing thing I’ve ever seen.” He chuckles. “Nobody’s going to believe it’s real. It’s too real.”
Huge thanks to @steele131 for the scans!