Ahoy, squirts! Quint here with something a little special for you guys. Warner Bros is in an interesting spot right now. They're all in on the DC movie universe, but has stumbled a bit when it comes to critical and fan reaction to Zack Snyder's Superman and Batman films.
While Justice League, the DC film universe's Avengers, is only a month into shooting they're already battling negative buzz and dimmer fan expectation. Don't get me wrong, there are die-hards out there who dug Batman V Superman, but most people would admit that the film was hardly the ideal launching off point for DC.
So that led to something pretty unprecedented in the world of major geek franchise marketing: an early set visit with practically no embargo. Not only that, but Zack Snyder reached out via his longtime publicist Bebe Lerner specifically to those movie writers who had bones to pick with Batman V Superman. I mean, Devin Faraci was invited. Think about that for a second.
My own review of Batman V Superman was mixed-negative, so I'm not sure I was on their radar. I just happened to be lucky enough to be in London for another set visit (not the one you're thinking of, sadly, but I promise it's going to be a fun read and you'll want to know more about it when I can post about it) and they let me tag along with the other Stateside press flown in for the visit.
The set visit happened last Friday and the tiny embargo was pretty much only in place to give us time to gather all the massive amount of material we got into something cohesive.
You gotta give Warners and Snyder credit for this. It takes some mighty big balls to invite a big group of bloggers, the vast majority of whom didn't care for your last movie, give them huge access into your even bigger movie and then let them write about it almost immediately.
It's clear the filmmakers didn't do this out of the kindness of their hearts. They have to know the buzz on their movie isn't spectacular and they're wanting to change the conversation a little bit. Batman V Superman was very dark and people are worried that Justice League is going to be just as dour. Obviously Snyder and company don't believe that and wanted to prove it to their biggest critics.
Did they succeed? In many ways, yes. We watched a scene shot involving Batman, Commissioner Gordon, Wonder Woman, The Flash and Cyborg on the roof of Gotham PD (bat signal all lit up and everything) where Batman showed a sliver of humor, Wonder Woman got to have an emotional beat with Cyborg and Ezra Miller's Flash brought a light, funny touch to what could have been a simple exposition dump.
We also saw a scene cut together, once again focused on Miller's Flash and it was full of humor.
In short, almost everything put in front of us screamed “See, we're not as dark and brooding as the last one!”
There was also a feeling from those we talked to that they really paid attention to the fan and critic reaction to Batman V Superman. Snyder himself admitted to being kind of knocked for a loop by the reaction, but that it did make him “put the screws” to the tone on this one and make sure it was as right as possible.
Deborah Snyder, Zack's wife and producing partner, had probably the most insightful quote of the trip. When asked about lessons they learned on Batman V Superman she took a long moment and said that the most important thing they learned from the reaction of the last film was that fans don't want to see their superheroes deconstructed.
Out of everything I saw and heard on the trip, that little moment felt the most real and the least like spin, an honest admission that maybe the critics might have a point and a quasi-promise that there's some sort of course correction going on.
I personally don't feel they need to do anything major other than injecting some sense of fun into the whole thing and make Superman actually happy to help people again. I'm an easier mark for them in that regard.
Now that we've talked a little bit about the Why of this trip, how about we dig into the What a little bit.
Considering that the movie isn't slated for release for another 16 months and they were letting us write about it pretty much right away, they were justifiably tight-lipped when it came to the story, but judging from the ton of production art we saw and the interviews we did with the actors and heads of departments I think I can pass along the bare bones version.
Bruce Wayne is a little like a born again Superman acolyte now. Superman's death impacted Batman in a profound way. He feels guilty for picking a fight with him and not believing in his goodwill and a sense of duty to protect the Earth from something that is coming. That something is Steppenwolf, one of Darkseid's Elite, and he's got an army of winged creatures called Parademons with him. Steppenwolf will be played by an actor, but Deb Snyder said she couldn't tell us who was playing him because they haven't completely closed his contract.
They're after the Mother Boxes, I think, which are glowy cubes of power gifted by the Gods back in the ancient times to the three races of Earth: Atlanteans, Amazonians and Humans.
The production art I saw showed all three in various locations. One piece of art showed Aquaman hovering over the Atlantean Mother Box like Indiana Jones judging the weight of the Fertility Idol in Raiders, another showed the Amazonian Mother Box in a circular temple chamber surrounded by warrior statues holding spears and swords and the humans' mother box was being tested in a containment case in Star Labs.
I think there's going to be some kind of flashback moment that explains these Mother Boxes as I saw production art for Ancient Kings and Old Gods (including Zeus and Artemis) with the label “History Lesson” on it. One of these guys looked a whole lot like Kristofer Hivju (aka Tormund on Game of Thrones).
I know Superman does come back, but I don't know how or when, but I'd guess it's later in the movie since there was only one big piece of art that showed him with the rest of the team and it was at the very end of the art room. In case you were wondering, his hair was as short as it ever was in the art piece I saw, so I wouldn't get your hopes up for Fabio Superman.
There will be a big action set piece that takes place in the tunnels below Stryker's Island (where most of the Doomsday fight happened in BvS, the island between Gotham and Metropolis) and it will involve one of Batman's new vehicles, something called the Nightcrawler, which is a bit like a tank with four legs.
Wayne also has built The Flying Fox, which is essentially a troop carrier aircraft that can transport all the Justice League as well as the Batmobile itself. Think of it like a three decked Quinjet and you're close to picturing it. Oh, and I think I saw some art of Alfred manning the guns like he was a WW2 gunner on this thing as well.
The Batmobile has some new weaponry including what looked like a 50 calibre canon on the top. I saw art of both the Nightcrawler and the Batmobile laying waste to winged Parademons, who were drawn to look a bit like Mothmen. Humanoid, but not human, maybe 6-7 feet in height.
Since these things are creatures instead of supervillains, I think that's how we're going to get Batman and his lovely toys to mow some of them down and not make him appear as bloodthirsty as he did in BvS.
One piece of art I saw had a flame jet spraying liquid fire on one of those poor Parademon bastards in mid-air.
Also saw another piece of art that showed two Parademons trying to pick up the Batmobile on the battlefield, explosions happening all around. Wonder Woman was leaping off the back of the Batmobile, sword raised in one hand, shield out front in the other.
I know that the Parademon are kidnapping scientists, including Star Labs' Silas Stone (played by Miles Dyson himself, Mr. Joe Morton) and I know the Super Friends aren't too happy about that. In fact, the context clues from the visit lead me to believe that Cyborg joins up specifically because Stone is taken.
Aquaman, I think, is a late comer as well, but I think we get a pretty good look at Atlantis in the flick. I saw some art that had Aquaman standing in front of the skeleton of an old King, still sitting on his thrown with a golden trident in his boney hand and golden crown drooped on his white-haired skull head.
Mera and Vulko were also represented, played by Amber Heard and Willem Dafoe, respectively. Dafoe's art in particular was great. He looked very regal, long hair floating over his shoulders, armor well used and battleworn and sweet looking.
As far as the Amazonians, pretty sure Robin Wright's Antiope makes an appearance in Justice League as well, although it's possible they could have included a piece of warrior outfit production art from Wonder Woman and not told us. Other characters on the art wall included Hippolyta, Euribya, Serague and Otera.
While Snyder admitted he loves Easter Eggs, he also said Justice League is a complete movie. In fact, we got conflicting reports on the whole Justice League two-parter thing. When asked about it, Snyder said there's a release date for Part 2, but earlier in the day Deb Snyder actually said there will not be a Part 2 at all. Here are her exact words:
Deborah Snyder: We were only ever planning and we are only doing just Justice League. One movie.
When pressed with “So, not two parts?” She said an emphatic “No.”
One more aside before moving on, but Deborah Snyder also mentioned that Junkie XL will be back to score Justice League, but that Hans Zimmer will likely not be joining him this time out.
Before seeing any footage shot we got a tour through the costuming department, led by the very personable costume designer Michael Wilkinson. There's so much detail in all the costumes we saw I could easily spend 4,000 words on this section, but since I need to have this posted in time for the embargo lift, I'm going to give you guys the quick version.
The Flash – He had my favorite costume of all that we saw. The reds were a little on the Iron Man side, but still popped and he had a big, almost vulgarly yellow lightning bolt emblem on his chest. Everything was designed using aerodynamic reference, including the helmet, which looked exactly like what you'd expect The Flash's helmet to look like from the front, but when viewed in profile it had a little bit of a bicyclist helmet shape to it.
The costume was built with 148 pieces in an almost patchwork quality. Wilkinson said the concept behind it was that Barry Allen has been testing pieces that sometimes work and sometimes don't work, patching it as it needs it. The result is a multilayered costume. It's absolutely not just red spandex.
One of the coolest design elements here was this weird metal wiring that criss-crossed the armor elements, sometimes going under them, sometimes over. Apparently as The Flash runs he creates energy, so these conducive wires will channel this electrical energy. I assume he'll be able to redirect it and that's where his throw-lightning ability might come into play. Visually they're going to use CG to animate that electricity glowing through the wires as he runs.
Cyborg – His costume will be almost completely computer animated. On set actor Ray Fisher was in the familiar gray Mo-Cap suit, but had practical red eye light and a red chest light.
We got to see some art of of the character in regular mode with one arm turned into a gun and Full Battle Mode, which had a full almost bucket head face plate armor and four arms. Pretty much looked straight out of the comic book.
Batman – Seeing the cowl up close and in person was actually pretty sweet. Affleck's a tall man, so his suit up on display was actually pretty intimidating up close. The scowl designed into the rubber cowl is legitimately creepy.
Bats is gonna get a suit upgrade in this one. They're calling it his Tactile Suit, and it's what he comes up with when he realizes his regular duds aren't going to cut it. It's a more heavily armored, sleeker version of his regular batsuit. The biggest change is there's almost what looks to be angled welding goggles over the eyes. We only saw art as this costume was still in process of being built, but it looked sleek. Funny side note: there was a whole lot of Arkham video game reference photos up for both Batman suits. The Tactile version specifically had both Batman and the Arkham Knight's looks as reference.
Oh, and apparently Affleck wears a size 13 bat boot. The more you know...
THE NIGHTCRAWLER - Patrick Tatopoulos led us through some of the sets, started at what was really just the temporary home of the pilot's seat for the Nightcrawler. This is a three-seater domed pod with three distinct angled windows. Very much in a matte black style that would fit in with the Nolan Batfilms, but it had the distinct look of an insect head. Kinda fly head shaped, with the pilot's seat right in the middle (with joystick looking controls and a big, fancy instrument panel) and two jump seats, one on either side.
The Nightcrawler was not something Bruce made or had built. It was a repurposed military vehicle. The four legs had tank-like treads on them and could be used to crawl like a bug or punch through walls and scale up.
Steven Spielberg is soon going to be moving into Leavesden with Ready Player One. We passed their casting office during our tour and while walking to the big set we passed by the Ready Player One Paint Dept and the signage had those words, but written in the Jurassic Park lettering. Pretty nerdy off-track observation, but I thought I'd share.
On my other set visit, the one I still can't tell you about yet, I wandered through a different end of Leavesden and saw some actual physical sets being built for Ready Player One. Let's just say the stacks are looking just as I imagined them.
VENTILATION TOWER – STRYKER ISLAND - The next set we saw was an old brick and iron tower that acted as a ventilation tower for the abandoned underground line that was begun, but never finished and was supposed to connect Gotham to Metropolis. This tower, somewhere on Stryker Island, was already abandoned and further damaged during the Doomsday fight, but another big fight is going to happen here. The set was incredibly detailed, from rust covering all the metal to the perfectly broken windows barely occupying their old frames. It looked great, but I must admit I got a teeny tiny Batman '66 vibe from it. Like a more realistic version of one of those sets, obviously, but it was very theatrical. I mean, it had a big hole in the brick wall that almost looked like the Kool Aid Man busted through.
WAYNE HANGAR - Our next stop was the Wayne Hangar, an old submarine base that Bruce Wayne secretly bought and uses to build up a lot of his toys. It's where the Flying Fox is stored and apparently rests shoreside somewhere in Gotham.
A big hulking greenscreen version of the Flying Fox hung over the center of the set (there to cast the right shadow) and the Batmobile was parked along a side wall.
They brought in a photographer and let us take pictures with the car. It's the one set photo they're letting us share, so forgive the Braggy McBraggypants nature of the below picture.
Gotta say, the Batmobile makes pretty much anybody standing next to it look cooler. If you follow a lot of bloggers on social media you'll see pretty much that exact same shot with a ton of different nerds standing next to it, but that one's mine!
Here's a shot of the Batmobile without my handsome self in it in case you don't want too much dork in your Batmobile picture.
On one of Bruce Wayne's computer stations they had some of the emailed Justice League teaser material from BvS and all the visiting bloggers got an up-close look at Barry Allen's ID which firmly planted Century City in Ohio, which was the original state it was tied to, although it has moved to Missouri in recent years. I guess this one's going back to the beginning canon.
GOTHAM PD ROOFTOP – This was the set they were filming on and it was by far my favorite set I saw. The Gotham PD roof had the Batsignal set up next to a loose sheet of plastic flapping in the wind. Smoking chimneys in the deep background, midground and foreground really sold it as a living, breathing place even though it was surrounded by 360 greenscreen.
There was a dome built up that towered over the set with giant shrouded skeletons holding up shields. Gothic stuff that reminded me a little of Burton's Batman and just looked insanely cool.
We happened to be there on JK Simmons' first day as Commissioner Gordon. I know everybody's seen his super buffed out workout photos. Don't worry, in person he didn't look like Schwarzenegger. His Gordon was decked out in a black fedora, black trenchcoat, glasses and trademark mustache. I'm told he also has hair again, but I couldn't confirm the existence of a toupee since he was wearing his fedora.
The scene is the Commish waiting under that flapping plastic tarp, Bat signal on. Batman, Flash and Wonder Woman show up with some news and Cyborg shows up unexpectedly with some bad news.
This was the group's first exposure to how Ezra Miller is playing The Flash and the best way I can describe him is he's to Justice League as Spider-Man was to Civil War. Miller is playing him full of excited energy with just a hint of playful dickishness. The funny thing is that's the way he was acting with the cast behind the scenes, too. Here's an example:
We were set up at the monitors and our first visitor was Ray Fisher, who plays Cyborg. He was in his Mo-Cap getup and did that sports guy thing where he ran down the length of the two rows of visiting blogger people and got high fives from us all.
Ray was asked how he came to the project and was just starting his nice story about being noticed while doing a play about Muhammad Ali's life when Ezra snuck up behind him (full suit, minus the helmet) with a big, goofy grin on his face. The group started snickering and he turned around, nearly jumping out of his seat when he saw Ezra.
”What're you doing, man? Giving them origin stories!?!”
When the first take was about to go up, Zack's voice boomed over the soundsystem. “EZRA! I'm going to have you turn the light off! We don't need to have the bat signal on the whole scene.”
Ezra's response: “That's so cool! Thank you, Zack. In your FACE, Ray!” Later on, Ray took over the sound system and we heard “Check, check. Ezra, you won't be needed for the rest of the day. Ray's going to take the rest of your lines...”
Shot goes up. Batman, Wonder Woman and Flash walk up to Gordon.
”How many of you are there?” he asks.
”Not enough,” says Batman, who then tells Flash to turn off the Bat signal.
Lightning effects flash during this whole scene, the set glistening with a fresh wetdown before each take.
Gordon hands Batman something and says “Dozens of witnesses all over Gotham. Description matches the suspects in the Metropolis abductions.”
Batman says “The bad guys' flying monkeys,” obviously referring to the Parademons.
Wonder Woman speaks up. “The demons must have the scent of a Mother Box. They carry them away to find out what they know.”
Gordon: “The Eight may still be alive.”
Cyborg walks out of the shadows: “Nine.” (Flash grabs at his chest like Cyborg's sudden appearance scared the shit out of him). “The head of Star Labs was taken tonight.” Simmons did a great bit here when Cyborg walks up, kind of a “what is this now?” raise of the arms at the sight of what will be a walking robot.
Gordon: “Okay, so another scientist. Where do we find them?”
Wonder Woman says there must be a nest nearby and Gordon says “I've plotted all the sightings in Gotham and Metropolis. There's no discernible pattern. The lines don't converge.”
Batman: “On land.” He then describes the old Stryker Tunnel that was supposed to connect Gotham to Metropolis (remember that?).
Flash motions to Cyborg and says, “Now that he's here I don't think we'll all fit in the car.”
Batman: “I've got something bigger.”
Gordon turns around and looks out over the city, starts to ask another question and turns around to find everybody gone except for The Flash, who looks around and starts apologizing. “Did they just do that? Rude.”
That was the scene. As you can see, it was designed to have a lot of playful interaction with the characters, so it's no surprise this is what they wanted us to see.
Simmons played his Commissioner Gordon a little more lightly than Gary Oldman did, but he wasn't joking around. Except on rehearsal. Then he let a few jokes fly. The one I remember most was on the “Witnesses in Gotham” line when he said “Dozens of witnesses in Gotham and... uh... that other city, where Superman lives.”
He also chided Ezra, who as the last to get to his mark with a “faster, faster!” which is funny considering who Ezra's playing.
We saw two set ups, maybe 8-10 takes in total. The first set up had A and B cameras (35mm) in a wide, one a master shot and the other a profile on a crane that rose above the Bat Signal. The second set up was the close up on Gal Gadot's reaction to Cyborg's appearance. It was a total glamour shot of her. She looks surprised to see him at first and then flashes a dazzling smile, like she didn't expect him to be there, but is happy he showed up.
Gal looked great in her costume. Everybody did, in fact. I can't tell you how surreal it was to be sitting on the set and see Batman take his cowl off less than 15 feet away.
The group that went was so big and the area near the stage was so small that they broke us up into two groups to spend some time close to the action and not just sitting at the monitors on the other side of the greenscreen. I was in group 2, which meant that I got the shit end of the stick because group 1 ended up talking with Ben Affleck for, like, 15 minutes. They waved us all over about 6 minutes in.
I got the full transcript from Stax over at IGN, which I'll be posting in full as its own article, so when you're done here, hit that back button and go seek out the chat. It's pretty great. Affleck was pretty brutally honest about his willingness to walk away from his standalone Batman movie if the script isn't right and also talks pretty in-depth about his understanding and admiration of the character. It's a good insight to Batman's brain at this very specific moment in time. Go read it!
Our day was almost up. Only thing left to do was head back to the art room and wait for Zack Snyder to come by. When we got up there, the publicists had set up a bar. I'm not kidding. A no shit, full on bar. I didn't partake, but I was tempted.
Snyder ended up joining us about 15 minutes later. He came into the art room (which they dubbed The Fortress, get it?) sipping at a mojito and ready to show us a little something-something on two large TVs and answer some questions.
FOOTAGE - BRUCE WAYNE RECRUITS BARRY ALLEN:
The little something something was one of the first scenes he cut together in which Ezra Miller enters his weird studio apartment (with his suit on a mannequin and a bunch of high tech monitors and computer equipment cluttering up the place) to find Bruce Wayne sitting in corner, waiting for him.
”Barry Allen. Bruce Wayne.”
”You said that like it explains why there's a total stranger in my place, sitting in the dark, in my second favorite chair.”
”Tell me about this.” Bruce hands over the security cap from BvS of Ezra in the grocery store.
”This is a person who looks exactly like me, but who is definitely not... me. Somebody... hippie, long hair... A very attractive Jewish boy who drinks milk. I don't drink milk.”
Bruce wanders over to the Flash outfit. “I know you have abilities. I just don't know what they are.”
”My special skills involve viola, web design, fluent in sign language... gorilla sign language...”
Bruce ignores him, admiring the suit. “Silicone-based sand quartz fabric. Abrasion resistant, heat resistant...”
”Yeah, I do competitive ice dancing.”
”It's what they use on the space shuttle to prevent it from burning up upon reentry.”
”I do very competitive ice dancing. Look, man, I don't know who you are, but whoever you're looking for, it's not me.”
Bruce quickly throws a Batarang right at Barry's head. He slows down in super slow motion as Allen reacts, looking in stunned awe at the iconic bat symbol while Bruce is still in slo-mo throwing motion. Light strobes as Allen calmly reaches out and pinches the slow moving, sharp Batarang out of the air and Bruce transitions back into normal motion.
”You're The Batman?”
”So, you're fast.”
”That feels like an oversimplification...”
”I'm building a team, people with special abilities. You see, I believe enemies are coming...”
With a huge grin on his face, Barry says, “Stop right there. I'm in.”
Shocked, Wayne says “Just like that?”
”Yeah. I need... friends.” Holds up Batarang. “Can I keep this?”
The scene went on a little long (it was a first assembly afterall) and should probably lose the “I need friends” bit at the end and go right into “Can I keep this?” but the point is the scene worked. Ezra was light and funny, undercutting broody Bruce's seriousness a bit and we were left with something a little more similar in tone, character interaction-wise, to what we're used to with the Marvel movies.
I can't tell you how the whole thing is going to shake down. It could feel forced or lagging behind the successful Marvel formula, but I can say that the effort seems to be being made to actually have some fun this time.
Of course, take that with a grain of salt and consider that everything on this visit was very carefully planned and remember my opening thoughts about how this was a clear attempt at changing the conversation. I've seen a tiny fraction of what Snyder and company are planning with this film, so I can't vouch for the whole product, but I will say that it's clear this isn't going to be Batman V Superman. Whether that was always the case and they just wanted people to understand or they made a bunch of last minute U-turns, I can't say. All I can do is pass along what I saw and let you guys judge for yourselves.
Snyder stuck around for a bit to answer questions. I'll post that full interview as its own story as well, but that just about brings us to the end of the line here.
However the film turns out, I can say I appreciate Zack, Deborah and the rest of the crew deciding to be more transparent instead of withdrawn and secretive in the face of criticism. They fielded some tough questions on this visit, tougher than I usually experience at these sorts of things anyway.
I hope this turns into a more standard experience for these big group visits. Quick turn around time, invites open to more than just those who play nice all the time and hope to get rewarded. If you guys like being able to read these kinds of reports this early on in the process (they were on day 31 of 111) sound off in the talkback below and let your voices be heard.
It's no secret I enjoy it more this way and I suspect you guys do, too.
Thanks for following along. Make sure to go check out the on-set interviews with Ben Affleck and Zack Snyder!