Jeremy Irons is driving the Batmobile across the floor of an industrial building. Once an auto assembly plant, the cavernous interior of this massive structure has since been converted into a soundstage and become ground zero for the big-screen confrontation fans have waited generations for – Warner Bros. Pictures’ upcoming action-adventure epic, Batman v Superman: Dawn Of Justice.
It’s a surreal moment as the Oscar-winning actor tries to corner one of the most iconic vehicles of all time, but what makes it all the more memorable is the fact that Irons is not in character as Alfred Pennyworth and this isn’t part of a scene. He’s just doing it because he’s Jeremy Irons and it’s fun. It’s even funnier when his director finds out… but we’ll get to that part later.
We’re on the outskirts of Detroit, Michigan, and the weather is cool outside but nowhere near as cool as what Zack Snyder is building here. With Watchman and Man Of Steel behind him, the director is reaching for the stars with BvS. And here, on this soundstage, he and his creative team are doing nothing short of laying the foundation for an entire universe – one big enough to contain the biggest icons in the world.
Born one year apart in separate runs of DC Comics, Batman and Superman have leapt off the page to become cultural touchstones across the globe, embraced by generations of fans through decades of social and political change. One orphaned by crime, the other by a dying planet; one shaped by his thirst for vengeance, the other by the values of his human family. Their legends have fuelled adaptations in every new medium under the sun, including landmark graphic novels and more than a dozen movies between them. But never have these two seminal superheroes faced off against each other on the big screen… until now.
Black and blue. Day versus night. Man versus God.
The stage was set for their epic face-off in Snyder’s earlier foray into the DC Universe, Man Of Steel, when Superman tears through Metropolis like a ballistic missile to defeat the alien enemy, General Zod, in an airborne battle that destroys Wayne Tower – and everyone inside it. In BvS, we’ll see that moment again, but this time, through the eyes of Bruce Wayne as he runs into the billowing clouds of dust to search for survivors. 18 months hence, the scars may be healing in Metropolis, but not in the heart of the dark vigilante stalking the mean streets of nearby Gotham City.
This Batman has a score to settle and, both behind the mask and in the persona of Bruce Wayne, the character being brought to life in the film by Oscar winner Ben Affleck (Argo) is older and far less idealistic than any we’ve seen thus far on screen. He’s facing off against a Superman who, while not as seasoned, has grown more confident in his powers and his place on this planet than the reluctant hero of Man Of Steel and, after delivering the goods in that film, Henry Cavill is now fully owning both the role of the hero and his human alter ego, Clark Kent.
Around them, Snyder has assembled a heavyhitting cast of all-stars, including Oscar-winning Man Of Steel alums Amy Adams (American Hustle) as Daily Planet ace and Clark’s live-in love Lois Lane; Laurence Fishburne (What’s Love Got To Do With It) as their boss at the Daily Planet, Perry White; and Diane Lane (Unfaithful) as Clark’s steadfast mother, Martha Kent. And, of course, we’ll see Jeremy Irons (Reversal Of Fortune) as Wayne family butler Alfred Pennyworth, who now possesses a Special Forces background that adds a new dimension to his role as father figure and moral compass to Bruce Wayne. Oscar winner Holly Hunter (The Piano) joins the cast in the role of Senator Finch, who spearheads congressional hearings to determine if Superman is mankind’s saviour or humanity’s greatest threat.
It goes without saying where Lex Luthor falls in that equation, and from what we’ve seen of Oscar nominee Jesse Eisenberg (The Social Network) in the role, this film is giving Superman a formidable adversary for the 21st century. We’ll also get our first glimpse of Gal Gadot (Fast And Furious films) as the enigmatic Diana Prince, a.k.a. Wonder Woman, in the lead-up to the cornerstone DC legend’s firstever standalone feature film, out next year. To comic-book fans – and Snyder, whose college thesis explored the mythological importance of superheroes and who counts himself among them – Batman versus Superman is the Holy Grail of superhero showdowns. But to do it justice means orchestrating the collision of not just these seminal characters, but the worlds and mythologies that accompany them, into one sprawling cinematic universe.
The epic story he’s telling with this film emerged as a provocative idea while he and producers Charles Roven and Deborah Snyder were brainstorming during production on Man Of Steel. “We were talking about what could be Superman’s challenge for the next movie,” the director recalls while grabbing a quick lunch in between set-ups. “[In Man Of Steel], a giant spaceship comes from space and tries to terraform the Earth. How do you raise the emotional stakes higher than the destruction of the planet? At one point, I asked, ‘Well, what if Batman was the bad guy?’ And once you say that out loud, there’s no going back.”
With his 2013 blockbuster, Snyder was already plunging us into an environment that was real and recognisable but heightened to allow for the existence of the Last Son of Krypton… so why not widen the lens to reveal the Bat of Gotham? “Did we think that Batman existed in that universe? Yes,” he says. “But the timetable for bringing them together hadn’t been established.” Once the prospect was out there, however, the gauntlet was thrown. “As the audience, you think, ‘How the hell are they going to fight?’” Snyder laughs. “And I agree! They can’t fight. But if you can line up the superhero chess moves just right, clearly you can figure it out. That’s the fun part – figuring out not only how but why they fight.”
To distill their ideas into a screenplay, the trio brought in Man Of Steel and The Dark Knight trilogy veteran David Goyer, as well as Chris Terrio, who won an Oscar for his work on Argo. Even though this was Terrio’s first time navigating the iconography of DC comics, Snyder attests, “Chris is a student of everything, so once the challenge became superheroes, he read everything he could get his hands on and now knows more about them than anyone I know. But Chris also has a masterful understanding of relationships and sees these characters beyond their comic-book trappings. He brings a very real tone to the conflict.”
At its core is what Charles Roven calls a “philosophical war” between Batman and Superman, who are essentially two sides of the same coin. “Their causes are similar, so you might think they’d be allies,” the producer notes. “It’s their approaches to that cause that turn them into enemies. Their opposing versions of justice pull each into an inevitable clash with the other, and that philosophical rift – and how personal it becomes – was interesting to us thematically. It gave us a compelling way to make a big spectacle but ground it in something real and emotional.”
In Snyder’s view, their monumental clash is “an easy fire to stoke”. In contrast to Batman’s 20 years hunting down the worst of Gotham’s worst, Superman, he details, “has a much more straightforward view of right and wrong. He can take the moral high ground because he hasn’t gone through the process of losing his innocence, as Batman has. He still believes in the system, and, as you can imagine, doesn’t look kindly on someone he believes is acting as judge, jury and executioner in a vigilante position.”
Batman’s rough style of justice has divided the public and alienated him from Gotham PD. But, underneath the armour, he’s still a human being… unlike Superman. “We know Superman as this amazingly benevolent and kind individual, but you can see how his powers would be pretty scary for someone like Batman,” Snyder offers. “The potential for abuse would be staggering. Human rights violations could go on big time and no one could stop him.”
Though shaped by Snyder’s singular visual style, the large-scale action in this film feels designed, not for its own sake, but as an outgrowth of who these characters are, and it’s their very reality that sweeps us along for the ride. That connection, producer Deborah Snyder attests, was important to the filmmakers back when they took their first dive into the DC Universe with Watchmen and continues to be their true north as they look ahead to Justice League. “Even though these are heroes who have super powers, they also have flaws and weaknesses. They face the same kinds of struggles and challenges that we do – to believe in yourself, to connect with other people, or to find your place in the world. That’s what resonates through all these stories, no matter how fantastical – it’s that human struggle, that journey we all go on.”
With a roster of acclaimed directors joining this band of filmmakers to bring a whole slate of DC films to the big screen over the next few years, Zack Snyder can’t hide his excitement over the prospect of further exploring the universe he’s creating here. The fan in him keeps trying to break free and, when we bring that to his attention, he unleashes a big laugh. “Just to see Batman and Superman together is a weird and awesome experience for me,” the director confesses. “The nice thing about this process is that no one mandated this thing. None of it was forced. It was a very organic evolution. Once we had Batman, we knew we could at least hint that Wonder Woman was out there, and once you throw Wonder Woman into the mix, then it really starts to get cool.”
The central challenge of BvS, and Man Of Steel before it, is taking these mythical heroes off the page, rendering them as living, breathing human characters, and dropping them into a culture not unlike our own. It’s a provocative notion to cogitate on, and we get a taste of what it might actually feel like as we take in the sheer, tactile reality of what Snyder and his team are creating here… and nowhere more than our first stop.
Massive and immersive, Bruce Wayne’s Batcave has to be one of the most astonishing movie sets ever constructed. The entire structure hangs suspended, with no structural support from below. This miracle of engineering and style was dreamed up by production designer Patrick Tatopoulos (300: Rise Of An Empire), in close collaboration with Snyder, and its vast scope is matched only by the precision of its details. Fusing organic stone with minimalist metal and glass enclosures, the superstructure is connected to the cave walls by a metal bridge, where a second Batmobile sits like a coiled snake. Above, jutting from a rock, is a crisp and elegant structure of concrete and glass – Batman’s lab. At the far end of the set is a multi-storey armoury decked out with a tantalising array of weapons and accessories, and a display case where Batman’s iconic armour hangs in wait for the man who wears it.
Tatopoulos tells us their inspiration for the set’s suspension concept was Bruce Wayne’s animal avatar – the Bat. “Everything is hanging in space – every workstation, even inside the shop. The only thing that touches the ground is the chair. This building is not even touching the ground. It’s all cantilevered on the outside.”
There’s no greenscreen set extension or trickery at play here. To stand inside the meticulously crafted cave walls of the Bacave is to believe that such a lair could conceivably exist in our world. Of course, crimes are solved here. Of course, this is where a hero suits up for battle. Of course, this is where Batman would hang his cowl.
It is then that we see the man himself, or rather his alter ego. As Bruce Wayne, this is a different Ben Affleck than we’ve seen before. With grey streaks in his hair and a touch of stubble, he looks like a man who has seen his share of combat. There’s a determination in those steely eyes and a grit to the character that will certainly feel familiar to fans of Frank Miller’s seminal comic, The Dark Knight Returns, which Snyder calls an inspiration but not the source for the original story driving BvS.
Following a brief exchange between Snyder and cinematographer Larry Fong – his 300 and Watchmen collaborator – cameras roll and the scene unfolds over a series of takes. Watching from a monitor in ‘video village’, we see Affleck staring down that famous costume. Suddenly, the Oscar winner disappears; in his place, a dark and damaged hero emerges. The camera comes in tight to Batman’s mask, and it’s astonishing just how much power there is in that image.
As the crew breaks to reset, Affleck tells us that the number of talented actors who have worn the cape and cowl made the prospect somewhat daunting. “The audience has this larger-thanlife expectation and everyone has their own sense of what Batman is, so you have to just be willing to take a risk and try to do something. I think the important thing, for me and for Zack, was that we were confident we were doing something that was really different from what had been done before, but that still falls within the generally accepted idea of what Batman is. The suit was so well-made and cool-looking that it became part of the allure for me.”
Even though we don’t get to see the suit in action today, it’s not hard to picture the physically imposing figure the 6’4” actor must cut in it. Through months of rigourous training, Affleck even put on an extra 25 pounds of muscle for the role. As gruelling as that was, it did have an upside. “My son thinks I am Batman,” he laughs. “Literally.”
In the lead-up to filming BvS, Affleck had a full schedule as both an actor and filmmaker, which is why he tells us he initially hesitated when Snyder first called him about taking on Batman. “Then I went down to his studio where he has all these drawings and the script, and it was nothing like what I expected,” he remembers. “It wasn’t about a guy who is 25 years old and venting his anger at his parents’ murder by going out at night and pummelling the criminals of Gotham City. It was Batman at the end of his career, more of a brawler, more existential and broken – a guy looking back at his life and wondering if any of it had been worthwhile. And Bruce Wayne is part of that. The playboy philanthropist – with the cars, women and parties – is another kind of mask. It’s him trying desperately to fill this void in his soul.”
That’s the man who looks up from the rubble of Wayne Tower and sees the superhero he blames for taking the lives of those who worked for him, people he considers his family. “The loss of life and the loss of his friends and the wanton recklessness of it – he takes all of that very personally,” Affleck says. “In big action movies, we sometimes get carried away with blowing up buildings rather than recognising what we now know is all too terribly true – that when big buildings blow up, people are in them.”
It’s impossible not to see the real-life parallels in BvS and, in fact, Affleck tells us they’re a big part of what drew him to the project. “There’s a sense that there are forces at work out there that are beyond our control and can hurt us,” he relates. “Whether it’s terrorism or the economy collapsing, I think, collectively, we feel less safe, and Zack wanted to tap into that feeling. Bruce Wayne has a line in the movie when he says, ‘If there’s a one percent chance that this Superman can destroy the world, then we have to treat it like an absolute certainty.’ It gives you a very real sense of the unease and paranoia that an alien coming down to Earth would evoke in people.”
As difficult as it is to pry ourselves away from the Batcave, there’s a green-screen stage in another part of the building where we have a chance to see the titanic force he’s talking about in action. When Henry Cavill comes into range, it’s clear from the figure he carves in the iconic blue and red suit that the actor has not only kept his chiselled form in between films, but even put on some extra muscle. He’s absolutely shredded. At the moment, the 6’1” British actor is being pummelled by the wind and rain machines that flank him from all sides. We know this is a piece of one of the film’s epic fight scenes but, other than the fact that Superman is using his ocular laser beams, we’ll have to wait till the finished film to see who – or what – is getting vaporised. But, even without visual effects, there’s a clear sense of the Man of Steel’s magnitude as a fighter. As we watch the actor in close-up on the monitor, the intensity and power emanating from his eyes is Superman at his most intimidating.
In person – once he’s had a chance to dry off – Cavill is so charming and disarmingly attractive that it’s difficult to imagine that this is the same person we just watched dealing out serious damage in take after take. And while he won’t say exactly what we just witnessed, there’s a glimmer in his eye that tells us it’s not what we might expect.
Though this is Cavill’s second time embodying the character, he says the journey he first embarked on in Man Of Steel is far from over. “Clark knows he’s an alien on this planet, but it’s the only home he has and he’s sacrificed his own culture and race to save it,” he reasons. “He’s this incredibly powerful being, yet at no time does he use it for his own gain, which is remarkable. And once he takes the leap as Superman, he’s out there in the world for people to judge, and not all their views are positive. He’s just trying to do the right thing by everyone, trying to ignore the slings and arrows, but we see how deeply they affect him in this film.”
Nonetheless, his desperate actions to take down Zod have prompted a simmering backlash and jarred a few powerful enemies to the surface, Batman among them. But on that score, the feeling’s mutual. As battle lines are drawn, Cavill hints that the outcome might not be as obvious as we might think. “In an all-out, to-the-death fight, who would win? Clearly Superman,” he posits. “But that’s not Superman. He doesn’t agree with Batman’s idea of justice at any cost. He doesn’t want to stoop to Batman’s level. When confronted, he wants to solve the problem as cleanly as possible. So Batman immediately gains an advantage.” It’s an interesting dynamic and Cavill is giddy about facing off against Affleck’s grizzled Dark Knight in this film. “I love playing Superman, but I also really love the character of Batman and it’s exhilarating for me, as an actor, to be there for his introduction,” he smiles. “Batman and Superman appearing together is movie history, and I’m really excited to see how the audience reacts to what we’ve done.”
Or what they’ll do next. As the title makes clear, this is the dawn of the Justice League and, though we pepper the actor with questions about it, Cavill is circumspect, electing to let the audience discover it for themselves.
The crew needs Cavill back on set, but there are so many things left to discuss. Lex Luthor. The other pins falling into place that will set the Justice League in motion… But one superhero we can confirm in this film is Wonder Woman.
Gal Gadot is not on set today so we don’t get to see the Amazonian warrior in action, but we are able to view an exquisitely sculpted model of Gadot in full Wonder Woman regalia, side-by-side with the film’s two central titans. All three of these performers look the part and, in costume, they capture the larger-than-life element that makes these stories so transcendent.
As physically chiselled as you’d expect DC’s greatest fighter to be, all 5’10” of Gal Gadot cuts a striking figure. Re-imagined to imbue her colours with a more earthy tone, Wonder Woman’s costume hints about her origins while fusing naturalistic practicality with the character’s seminal look from the page.
From the complexity of the characters, to the precision and edge of the design, what we’re seeing in this soundstage is a testament to the richness and sheer scope of the universe Snyder and his collaborators are crafting as a contemporary staging ground for these classic icons. To say nothing of the menacing Batmobile we saw Irons joyriding earlier. Speaking of the film’s Alfred Pennyworth, we catch the actor for just a few moments in between scenes and seize the moment to find out what it feels like behind the wheel of Batman’s sleek machine. “I was driving it in a very large, empty studio with walls all the way around, so I couldn’t do quite what I wanted with it – which I felt it was capable of,” Irons confesses with a knowing nod. “But it was great to drive it. Great fun. I really wanted to get it outside… just to see if we could do a few donuts and that sort of thing.”
Snyder’s response? “It doesn’t even have a license plate! That’d be a great headline: Jeremy Irons gets arrested in the Batmobile!”
With a wave, Snyder disappears back to the Batcave to resume his quest to immerse audiences in this exciting new evolution of the DC Universe. It’s a good time to be a DC fan.
Batman v Superman: Dawn Of Justice opens on 24 March 2016.