They Are Legend


The Dark Knight and the Mna of Steel face off at long last in Batman V Superman:  Dawn of Justice.  Empire revels how director Zack Snyder turned a straightforward sequel into the big bang for a new cinematic universe.

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The creators of Batman v. Superman:  Dawn of Justice do not refer to their new movie as a sequel, or an episode, or the next phase.  They call it an expansion.

There had never been any doubt that Man of Steel was the start of something.  Did you spot those cunningly placed Easter eggs?  Logos for LexCorp and Wayne Industries, the acknowledgement of a world far bigger than simply Smallville and Metropolis.  But when it came to it, sitting down to imagine where their newly rebooted and suited Superman franchise might go next… Well, this happened.

Think of this as our pre-credits sequence.  A boardroom. Day.  Possibly the very boardroom where Empire is currently sitting opposite director Zack Snyder.  The Snyder brain trust is deep into a meeting about who might serve as the villain in the second Superman movie.  They consider Braniac, what they might do with Lex Luthor; all are determned it couldn’t be another alien-invasion movie.  Then the director just puts it out there….

“‘We should put Batman in the second movie,'” says Snyder, reliving the historic moment.  “Actually, I think the first thing we mentioned was the movie would end with some Kryptonite being delivered to Wayne Manor.  Da-dah!  Everyone was like, ‘Oh, shit!'”

What is it about this showdown that stirs such excitement?  The two most legendary superheroes going Batmano a Supermano.  The comic books have tried the dust-up/team-up from all angles (most effectively as ageing titans in Frank Miller’s hugely influential The Dark Knight Returns.)  In Will Smith’s post-apocalyptic hit I Am Legend, a deserted Times Square displays a Batman Vs Superman hoarding — an in-joke referring to a previous Warner Bros. attempt to pit the two heroes against one another on the big screen (hopefully, the new film doesn’t prefigure a global apocalypse).  There were plans in Tim Burton’s aborted Superman Lives to have Michael Keaton’s Dark Knight gaze upon Nicholas Cage’s Kryptonian hero from a rooftop.  Who is this alien dude in the blue pants?  It’s been lurking in the zeitgeist — the idea of it.  The potential of it.  Batman V Superman.

“Once you’ve said it out loud, you can’t put it back in the box,” Snyder laughs:  good ideas, really good ideas are like genies.  “It started to evolve from there, to the point where we said, “The bad guy, in a way is Batman…'”

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Okay, DC is about to happen in a really, really big way.  A Marvel-sized way, but let’s not get too caught up in the whole Marvel V DC thing just yet.  Leastways, from that Batman epiphany has sprung an extended universe (commonly:  EU) based upon the catalogue of Marvel’s rival comic-book house, Detective Comics (commonly:  DC).  A many-limbed saga of superheroes and supervillains branching forth from the Justice League, the supergroup of DC big-hitters led by, yes siree, Batman and Superman (at some point, it is safe to assume, they will have to set aside their differences and bro up). “What we are doing is ground-up all the way,” stresses Snyder.  “It is one giant story.”

Indeed, if you want the narrative ground zero for their exponential epic, it is when Superman switches on the scout ship in Man of Steel.  The same thing that Zod, saw, other beings saw.  Other beings like Aquaman and Wonder woman.  A world began to stir…

Snyder’s personal headquarters are concealed in a quite corner of leafy L.A. suburb Pasadena — a suite of offices with a spare, warehousey vibe.  In reception, the latest DC editions of Red Lanterns, Constantine, Supergirl et al lie in neat rows alongside Produced By magazine and  Variety.  Only the background subwoofer rumble of closely scrutinised scenes tells you that a major film is being nudged towards completion.

Somewhere deep in the Snyder-cave is a whiteboard upon which the entire DC EU is sketched out.  “Kind of a timeline of what every movie is,” says producer Deborah Snyder, who follows her husband into the Empire interrogation, “where it is going, and where the films fit in in relation to each other.”

Empire BvS 092015  FThe inner council, those who circle such not-likely-Ikea conference tables, is comprised of Snyder, Deborah Snyder, producer Chuck Roven (who helped steer the Dark Knight trilogy to greatness), screenwriter Chris Terrio (who has plotted the through-line from Batman V Superman into back-to-back Justice League movies) and Geoff Johns, Chief Creative Officer at DC Comics, keeper of the lore.

“The first thing we had was the Justice League concept,” says Snyder.  “The other movies, in a way, have to support that.  That is our Wonder woman, our Aquaman.  They have their own creative concepts that support them, but they do serve Justice League in the coming together of those heroes.”

It’s the inverse of The Avengers.  We will meet Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman first in Batman V Superman, and then her origin will be fleshed out in Patty Jenkins’ (who was once set to direct Thor 2) stand-alone Wonder Woman movie.  We will meet Jason Momoa’s Aquaman properly in The Justice League — he gets an elusive introduction in Batman V Superman (“You will understand he exists,” teases Snyder) — before tackling his own adventure.

“I want all the other directors of the other films to be able to stretch their legs and do what they want, but at the same there is a big interconnected universe.” Snyder remains the creative heart of the enterprise, their facilitator of a coherent DC style; indeed, the Brainiac of the EU.  “I have given everyone amazing access to our story, to me, and what we are doing.  All the films have like-minded conceptual jumping-off points.”

No-one is about to devise a hilarious romantic comedy featuring Cyborg.

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“We call it the sandbox,” says Chuck Roven when Empire visits him the next day at Atlas Entertainment, which occupies a hushed floor in a Beverly Hills high-rise.  “It has borders around it, but everybody gets to play in the sandbox.  On Suicide Squad, David (Ayer) has a lot of specific control over his area of the sandbox.  Even if he crosses the line a bit, we see if we can push our boundaries back a little bit.”

Logistically it is staggering.  As Batman V Superman gains its coat of special effects, and the various stages of editing, scoring, grading and sound mixing are completed, Deborah Snyder, along with Roven is watching over a sandbox that stretches around the world.  Jenkins is in London prepping Wonder Woman, which will shoot there this autumn.  Suicide Squad, already well underway in Toronto under the earthy gaze of Ayer, will shoot through to September.  “I do watch the dailies,” she promises, enthusing about the film’s “street quality.”  They are already doing soft prep for The Justice League which will begin shooting in the spring, and overseeing the script for Aquaman, which James Wan will direct.  Kirk Johnstad, Snyder’s writing partner on 300 is fathoming (sorry) how the Atlantean king will fit into their real-world ethos.  Deborah Snyder raises her eyes to the ceiling, shuffling through a comic-rack in her brain, “and we have Flash we are working on, too.”

It is an obvious question, but it needs to be asked.  How does their EU compare with what Marvel has established to the tune of billions? “Top down it is a different universe,” replies Snyder, more than ready for this line of enquiry.  “Right from the beginning it is different tonally from where those movies are.  You know, DC is an ancient world in a lot of ways.”

Deborah Snyder meets the question with her perfect smile.  “I can see how people would want to make it this big, intense rivalry.  Listen, they are so great.  I loved Guardians Of The Galaxy… Our films are a bit more serious.  They deal with things that are a little darker. Things that place them in our world.”

There was a moment during the casting of Man of Steel when they knew they had their man.  It’s dinner-party material now, how Henry Cavill strode out for his screen test garbed in Christopher Reeve’s old Superman suit and no-one laughed.  He felt so emphatic, so real.  Well, Ben Affleck had been immersing himself in the comic books and had seen an image of Bruce Wayne. “I need my hair to look like this, “he informed his filmmakers, brandishing the comic book in question.

“I remember not being too sure,” admits Deborah Snyder.  Later, she and Snyder were in Michigan busily readying the shoot, with Affleck still in Los Angeles taking meetings with head-of-hair Chase Heard.  A photo arrived of that hair.  “It was perfect — he looked like Bruce Wayne.”  The producer was delighted to be proved wrong.  “It was that moment: ‘Oh, we gotta do this.'”

Truthfully, it’s nothing drastic.  Affleck wears a wig in the movie that makes concrete Wayne’s age and experience.  It instantly made him their Bruce/their Batman: older than ever before.  Older, in fact, than Affleck (42).

Empire BvS 092015 G“We are playing him 45 or 46,” explains Snyder.  “He has been Batman for 20 years.  All the history is there.  Was there a Robin at one time? Possibly.”

Suicide Squad is a key crossover film in this respect.  Jared Leto’s Joker is the Affleck-Batman Joker.  As Snyder confirms, Batman’s had a relationship with the Joker, Harley (Quinn), all the Belle Reve reprobates in Ayer’s inverted team-up movie.  He put those guys in prison.  There have been sightings of Batman on their Toronto set.  You can also imagine that somewhere out there is a Riddler, a Penguin, and a Two-Face.  A rebooted Catwoman…

“We want to assume that Batman has reached this point in his life and career as a superhero, and Superman represents a sort of philosophical change,” says Snyder keenly.  “He is a paradigm shift for Batman: ‘I’ve been fighting criminals all my life, trying to find justice, and now I am confronted with a concept that is transcendent to me.’ In the face of Superman, a man robbing a bank doesn’t matter.”

We have arrived at the hear of the proposition:  the why of the V.  Batman witnessed the devastation of Metropolis (they call it the ‘Black Zero Event’) and fears Superman is a beacon for aliens like Zod, bent on destruction.  To his mind, this only gets worse. “He has lost those that are near and dear to him,’ says Roven, hinting at a more immediate motivation, “and not necessarily from old age or disease.”  There are striking shots in the recent trailer of a Wayne Enterprises skyscraper being levelled.

How can we know Superman?  We live by his good graces.  We make assumption that he will always be good and never turn on us… Can we trust him?  These are themes similar to those that orbited Superman-satire Doctor Manhanttan in Snyder’s Watchmen.  Superhero or god?  “He’s having a crisis of conscience,” says Snyder of his Dark Knight: “Am I really just a vigilante who stalks the alleys of Gotham?’ It is rich stuff that he deals with.  Ben does an amazing job.”

A brief flashback to the set in June 2014: Ben Affleck squinting into the Michigan sunshine.  The air a blizzard of dust.  The cowl covers Bruce Wayne’s good looks, but curiously, Batman is wearing a Spaghetti Western-style duster coat and carries a machine gun.

“Initially I thought, ‘I’m older, it doesn’t seem like the right sort of fit for me,'” Affleck says, as wind machines are carefully repositioned.  “Then Zack pitched me his concept for this older, more broken, kind of f*****-up Batman.  It was something we hadn’t seen.”

He likens the role to Hamlet, or James Bond.  Hardy perennials that thrive under different conditions.  Anyway, this isn’t a Batman movie, Affleck insists.  It’s Batman V Superman.  “We have seen that Batman is willing to cross the line in order to protect people,” he elaborates.  “That vigilantism has been a part of this character all along, and we are tapping into that mentality when faced by something as potentially deadly as Superman.”

Snyder loves his size:  at six-four in that suit, Affleck is a giant.  “There is just this gravitas to him.  He is operatic.”

Empire BvS 092015 ESuperman, for his part, is not convinced Batman is an entirely healthy concept either.  This vigilante who is judge, jury and executioner all rolled into one black suit?

Roven explains that their Superman/Clark Kent “is a natural extension of what happened in Man of Steel.”  That dilemma of where he belongs hasn’t gone away.  He is still troubled.

Another flashback: Cavill on set, rising like a Greek god.  The set is the steps of the Capital Building.  He is suited, but the digital cape comes later.

“In this movie, everyone has split into different directions as how they feel about his alien,” Cavill says, summarising Kal-El’s plight.  “Some people love him, some hate him.  Other people fear him.  Is he a tyrant?  It’s the human outlook on Superman, and that includes Lex and Batman, which is why such a major thing happens.”

He means escalation.  The big showdown.  This almighty face-off that encouraged the filmmakers not to leap straight into The Justice League.  How it becomes a fair fight is as much about Batman’s ingenuity as Superman’s power.  Think Bat-armour.  Think Lex Luthor.  Think Kryptonite being delivered to Wayne Manor.

Which makes this a paradigm shift for an audience naturally rooting for Batman.  “It’s a point-of-view thing,” responds Snyder, suggesting Batman is and isn’t the bad guy.  “That is why Dawn of Justice is the full title.  What it does is allow us to start this conversation.  That is where Wonder Woman came from in the movie.”

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Deborah Snyder admits she cried when Gadot first walked onto set as Wonder Woman.  It was another one of those moments.  Gadot had blown them away in her audition.  They were down to a list of five each filming a scene with Affleck.  But Gadot somehow was Wonder woman.  “She is a feminist icon,” says the producer proudly of the character.  “It is so timely, gender has been a hot topic.”  Plus a fine opportunity to puncture some testosterone-fuelled egos.  “Not just the men,” she laughs, “but how ridiculous the situation seems.”

Vitally, they haven’t treated her action scenes any differently to the men’s.  She might fight in her own style, but she is just as intense and brutal.  Snyder notes that Wonder Woman (aka Diana Prince) is a key catalyst in shifting the story towards The Justice League.

And let us not forget Luthor, a young man with a plan, as assayed by the intriguing choice of Jesse Eisenberg.  Think of this as a post credits sting for a forthcoming issue with more Lex, Clark, Bruce, Lois, Diana, Zack, Deborah, Chuck, Metropolis and Gotham.

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Warner Bros. is still game for further solo outings for the grand dames of DC.  Affleck, together with Geoff Johns, is writing a definitively Batman movie that he will direct as well as star in.  Which redoubles the point that Snyder hasn’t made a Batman movie.  “If it was a Batman movie it would be a much more difficult propostion,” he admits, “because of how good Chris’ movies are.”

Ah yes, the elephant in the conference room:  executive producer Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy.  Snyder admits Nolan had been taken aback when he revealed he wanted to reinterpret Batman alongside Superman, but is fully supportive.

“We live in gratitude to those movies,” Snyder urges.  “Chris set a tone for the DC universe, and separated us from Marvel in a great way.  We are the legacy of those movies.”

Stylistically, at least, that makes them prequels.

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Source: Empire, September 2015