Last Friday, we were among a group of journalists invited to the London set of Justice League. There director Zack Snyder, star/executive producer Ben Affleck and everyone involved all had one, simple message for us: We know. And we're trying. Early concept art for Zack Snyder's Justice League. These are not the final costumes but with the film still in production, only one new image was released. You'll find it below. All Images: Warner Bros.
They know mistakes were made with Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. Lessons have been learned. And as we watched filming on day 31 of the film's 111-day shoot, with the fate of DC's entire cinematic universe seemingly in the balance, those lessons were certainly being put into action.
"The main thing we learned [on Batman v Superman] is that people don't like to see their heroes deconstructed," said producer Deborah Snyder. "They like seeing them in all their glory… I think what's really great is where we're going is kind of what the audience is wanting. We just had to take the characters from somewhere to bring them up to where they are and that was our journey."
For those who may need a refresher, this year's Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice was one of the most highly anticipated superhero films ever. The second film in a massive DC Universe. Upon release, however, fans were divided over Snyder's dark vision of DC superheroes. Critics savaged the film and its $US873 million ($1.1 billion) worldwide gross was considered a disappointment. "It did catch me off-guard," said Snyder. "I have had to, in my mind, make an adjustment… The nice thing about working on Justice League is that it is an opportunity to really blow the doors off of the scale and the bad guys and team-building and all the stuff that I think I could justify as a big, modern comic book movie."
While Batman v Superman had to "dig down into the darker parts of them to make them fight each other," according to Snyder, the Justice League story is lighter in numerous ways. "With Justice League, [Batman and Superman] have both been freed of the shackles of the responsibility to be in a place where they would fight each other," the director explained. "That is liberating for us in making the movie because really 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."
Here's Batman's upgraded Batmobile in Justice League, on display in Bruce Wayne's new hanger. It's the only new image that was released.
At the end of the last film, Bruce Wayne told Diana Price he wanted to round up a group of metahumans discovered in Lex Luthor's files to defend against a looming, unknown danger. That danger arrives at the very beginning of Justice League, and both Snyder and Affleck made that aspect of Justice League sound a little like Ocean's Eleven. "It's about multilateralism, and it's about hope and about working together and the kind of conflicts of trying to work together with others," said Affleck. "It's a world where superheroes exist, so there's comedy in trying to work with other people. People trying to accomplish goals together is the root of all great comedy in my view. So there's, hopefully, some fun in it. But it's not unrecognisably these characters or these stories. It's not turning it upside down."
It seemed like lots of the tone and humour will come from the film's new heroes, especially Cyborg played by Ray Fisher and the Flash played by Ezra Miller. Both actors were on set last Friday, filming with Batman, Wonder Woman and Commissioner Gordon (J.K. Simmons, in his first day on set). Here's what we saw:
The Bat-Signal is back in Justice League, this time run by Commissioner Gordon. It's viewed here in Batman v Superman.
Gordon has used the Bat-Signal to call Batman and he's arrived on the roof of the Gotham Police Department along with Wonder Woman and Flash. The set takes up half a stage, including a huge veranda with terrifying skeleton/gargoyles surrounding it (gargoyles that, oddly, look like a something out of concept art we saw earlier that day of Aquaman's Atlantis).
"How many of you are there?" asks Gordon.
"Not enough," says Batman. Gordon explains dozens of witnesses saw something in Gotham. "A bad guy with flying monkeys," deadpans Batman. Apparently eight scientists are missing. Someone then yells from the other side of the rooftop.
"Nine," says Cyborg as he walks towards the group. "The head of Star Labs was abducted last night." As this happens, Wonder Woman smiles, suggesting that despite the additional bad news, she's happy to see him. (On set, there was speculation she probably tried to recruit him but he turned her down; now that his scientist father Silas has been abducted, he has decided to join them.)
Gordon continues to explain that there doesn't seem to be a pattern to all of this destruction, but the team realises the pattern is actually underground. There's a convergence in an old tunnel that was abandoned in the '30s, which was supposed to link Gotham City and Metropolis. The League decide they have to see what's doing on down there. "If he's joining us, there won't be enough room in the car," says Flash, referring to Cyborg.
"I've got something bigger," hints Batman. Gordon then turns around and, in classic Batman fashion, Wonder Woman, Batman and Cyborg disappear, leaving the Flash alone.
"Wow, did they just do that?" wonders the fastest man alive. "How rude."
As you can tell, the scene has a subtle amount of levity to it that was almost completely absent from Batman v Superman. "It's fun, it's funny. It's different," said Gadot when asked about the dynamic between the Justice League members now and in BvS. "Each and every character brings their own flavour and colour to the team." That was even doubly the case in a roughly edited scene Snyder showed the press of Bruce Wayne (Affleck) recruiting Barry Allen (Miller). It played like Tony Stark meeting Peter Parker in Captain America: Civil War, with a dash of Quicksilver from X-Men: Apocalypse:
In BvS, Bruce Wayne learns about the metahumans he'll hunt down in Justice League.
Allen returns to his home. It's a huge warehouse with graffiti all over the walls and a basketball rim over the door. He turns on the lights, revealing a huge cache of TVs, monitors, and Bruce Wayne sitting in a chair. Allen wants to know how he got there, but Wayne ignores him and hands Allen a photo of the surveillance video we saw in Batman v Superman. "That's a person who looks exactly like me but is definitely not," says Allen. "Hippie, long hair, very attractive Jewish boy. He drinks milk, I don't drink milk," he jokes as Wayne starts to walk over to a red suit standing in the apartment.
"I know you have abilities, I just don't know what they are," says Wayne.
"My special skills include viola, web design…" Allen rambles as Wayne examines the suit and notes it's made of a very specific heat resistant material. "Yeah, I do competitive ice dancing," Allen says.
"This is the stuff the space shuttle uses to prevent from burning up on reentry."
"...Very competitive ice dancing?"
Just then, the film turns to slow-motion as Bruce Wayne hurls one of the razor-sharp, bat-logo-shaped throwing stars he used in BvS at Allen. Allen looks at it inquisitively as it passes him in slow motion then, with a profound realisation, grabs it out of the air. Silence, surprise, and then: "You're the Batman?"
"And you're fast."
"That feels like an oversimplification."
Bruce tells Allen he's putting together a team of people with special abilities because he believes enemies are coming. Barry immediately wants to be part of it, and Batman can't help but ask why he's agreed so quickly. "I need friends," says Barry, just before holding up the throwing-bat/star. "Can I keep this?"
Bruce Wayne and Diana Prince first met in Batman v Superman but they will be close allies in Justice League.
It's a really good scene, and Ezra Miller is utterly charming in it. He brings a real energy to the DC universe that it's lacked from the beginning. It's — for lack of a better term — almost a Marvel-esque energy, and it's prevalent behind the cameras as well.
But a sense of fun isn't the only the only new arrival. We got to see the Flash's costume, a version of which was only briefly glimpsed in Batman v Superman. Designed by Michael Wilkinson, this new suit is comprised of 148 pieces, and takes eight days just to assemble. (But only five minutes to get on and off.) Think of a red piece of shattered glass, loosely separated and connected with wires, which will generate CGI electricity as he's running.
Cyborg is the only Justice League member whose costume is completely CG instead of practical. On set, Fisher wears a grey body suit with a red laser over his eye and another on his chest. According to the concept art, the finished version looks like a mix between the T-800 Terminator and Ultron, featuring empty sections which his human body should be taking up... if he still had a body. He'll have his traditional a gun arm, and Wilkinson even hinted that he can change his size.
Batman's main suit for Justice League is basically the same as in Batman v Superman. However, by the end of the film he gets what Wilkinson called a "Tactical Batsuit", which will have carbon fibre overlays for a more protective (and cooler) look.
The really fun stuff when it comes to Batman, though, is all the new tech he'll be sporting. Not only has the Batmobile been rebuilt since it was destroyed in the last film, it's been upgraded with new armour and lots of new weaponry, as you can see above. (One piece of concept art even showed it screwed into the ground, transforming itself into heavy artillery.) The Dark Knight also has what was referred to on the set as "The Flying Fox", a huge, modern jet that can carry around not just the Justice League, but other vehicles and maybe even soldiers, too. In addition, he and Alfred will store the vehicles in a large, new hanger near the harbour, sort of a second Batcave.
But that's still not all. Batman also has what they're calling a Nightcrawler, which looks like the Bat from The Dark Knight Rises, but if it had four legs, and those legs also looked like the treads of a tank. The Nightcrawler is the "something bigger" Batman referred to on the aforementioned rooftop scene and it will feature prominently in an underground action scene. We saw concept art from it, which showed parademons — AKA those "flying monkeys" — attacking the Justice League in a tunnel as the Nightcrawler tries to both fight them and evade their attack, smashing into and crawling up and down the walls. The tunnel was an immense practical set; when we walked through it,it was hard not to be impressed.
Steppenwolf in a deleted scene from Batman v Superman.
Although the parademons have just begun their assault on Earth, the scope of the Justice League movie stretches all the way back into prehistory — a time when humans, Amazonians and Atlantians were at peace. Each group guards an important device known as a Mother Box (briefly glimpsed in BvS) and now, eons later, a creature named Steppenwolf is after them. "[He's] a bad guy that would justify the Justice League," explained Snyder. "I think you have to have a good threat that's fun and kinda crazy. And the Mother Boxes are always fun DC weird tech, you know?"
As of press time, Steppenwolf had not been cast yet, but Deborah Snyder said the character would be performance capture. No concept images of the villain were revealed, though we did catch a glimpse of him communicating with Lex Luthor in a deleted scene from Batman v Superman, shown above. (While Snyder wouldn't confirm Luthor is in the movie, he did say that "Prisons in the comic book world are pretty porous places.")
This early image of Jason Momoa as Aquaman has a costume that's different from the one in Justice League.
Despite all the mentions of Atlantis, Aquaman actor Jason Momoa wasn't on set. And although we weren't told how he comes into the story, we did see a lot of the concept art of him and his people, along with his wife Mera (played by Amber Heard) and his advisor Volko (played by Willem Dafoe). The costumes have a very scaly, fish-like quality, but are also form-fitting and covered in armour. If you get close to them, they're almost iridescent.
So that's Batman, Flash, Cyborg, Wonder Woman and Aquaman; what about Superman? As we know, the Man of Steel died at the end of Batman v Superman, but that won't last. The makers of Justice League don't even bother to deny it. "There wouldn't be a Justice League without Superman," said Deborah Snyder. "But I think his way back to us [is something] we don't want to really spoil. But he's here."
Zack Snyder also commented that Superman's arc in this film will be a direct result of what he went through in the last one. "[With Batman v Superman] I wanted to get to a Superman that had a reason to be Superman," he said. "A reason to feel the way he felt about humanity, that we all understand from the comic books... But I feel like he had to go through something to be that. And if he does appear, I think that that would be a big part of the story, right?"
This is also a story that Zack and Deborah Snyder emphasise that will begin and end with Justice League. Despite there already being a Justice League: Part 2 on the release schedule, this movie is standalone. "We're only ever planning and we are only doing Justice League, just Justice League," said Deborah Snyder. "One movie."
On the other hand, Zack Snyder teased: "The movie doesn't end and you go, 'OK, well that's the DC Universe!'"
Zack Snyder and Superman (Henry Cavill) on the set of BvS. Cavill is back this time, but his part in the story is a mystery.
Whether the Snyders' new approach will actually rescue Superman, Batman and the rest of the DC superhero movie slate is difficult to say. This film is still so far from competition, and two additional DC movies, Suicide Squad and Wonder Woman, will be released before it. Much was left mysterious during the visit and the same creative team from BvS is largely in place.
But there's absolutely no doubt the people making Justice League want to please as many people as possible. They're trying to make a movie that not only works on its own, but works as part of a larger universe. They know lots of people didn't love Batman v Superman and in response, they're embracing a lighter, more adventurous tone — while still trying to keep some sort of edge on the characters and their world.
There are still some red flags, though. The Batmobile still has huge guns on it (bigger guns, in fact). Many pieces of the production still seemed to be in flux as cameras were rolling next door (which is common, but never ideal). Steppenwolf feels like a step back from Doomsday. And the question of how the influx of Marvel-style humour will fit into the world that Zack Snyder established in Man of Steel and BvS remains unanswered.
It's simply too soon to say anything for certain. I may have walked away from the Leavesden set of Justice League encouraged by what I saw — but that was the point, right? You don't invite three dozen journalists to the set of your huge movie, only a quarter of the way into filming, and let them write about it a full 17 months before the movie's release without wanting to send some sort of message.
The message was clear: We know. And we're trying.
Now we wait until it is released 17 November 2017 in the US to see if Snyder, Affleck and everyone involved in Justice League can actually deliver on that promise.
Note: Warner Bros. paid for Gizmodo's travel to London to report this piece.