JUSTICE FOR ALL
FANS HAVE BEEN WAITING FOR A JUSTICELEAGUE MOVIE FOR DECADES. AFTER A PARTICULARLY ROCKY ROAD IT’S FINALLY HERE, BUT AS THE LEAGUE THEMSELVES EXPLAIN, IT MAY NOT BE WHAT YOU EXPECT
A wise man — we think it was Aaron Eckhart in The Dark Knight — once said, “The night is darkest just before the dawn.” And, being Aaron Eckhart, he was right. But if that’s right, then the inverse also holds true. After the dawn comes nothing but light. Bright, bright light. Darkness begone, you’ve had your shot.
Which is something for Empire to bear in mind as we travel to Leavesden Studios on a bright August day last year to visit the set of Zack Snyder’s Justice League, the fifth film in the burgeoning DCEU (that’s DC Extended Universe for those of you who slept through Acronyms in school), Warner Bros.’ all-star answer to Marvel Studios and their Marvel Cinematic Universe. On paper, it’s comfortably the biggest DC adaptation to date, the film that will really tie the room together and unite the company’s heaviest and most heroic hitters.
It’s also, though, the sequel to Snyder’s previous entries in the DCEU, 2013’s Man Of Steel and 2016’s Batman v Superman: Dawn Of Justice. Both movies that, for all their collective merits (stunning visuals, great Hans Zimmer soundtracks, Russell Crowe on a giant space dragon), were fairly intense and even dour experiences, the kind of films that wouldn’t have recognised a gag had it been delivered by the Joker himself. Fun was a four-letter word.
To be frank, we expected more of the same from Justice League. And today’s setting would seem to reinforce that notion. We’re in the Batcave — or part of the Batcave — and everything’s suitably bleak and rocky. The specially modified Batsuit that was Batbattered by Superman towards the end of Dawn Of Justice is on display, a permanent reminder to Bruce Wayne of the dangers of hubris. And here’s Jeremy Irons as Batman’s faithful butler, Alfred, in a specially unmodified Barbour jacket, waiting to greet his employer and some new special friends.
For the Justice League are here. All of them — Batman (Ben Affleck), Wonder Woman (Gal
Gadot), Aquaman (Jason Momoa), the
Flash (Ezra Miller) and Cyborg (Ray Fisher). Well, almost all of them. No sign of Superman, but we’ll get to him later. They’ve returned from an outing battling evil and they’ve had a setback. The mood should be sombre. Yet that’s far from the case. “Oh yeah, oh gosh,” exclaims Miller’s crimson-clad Flash as the League descends into the Batcave on a Batlift. “YES!” Clearly giddy to be in the lair of the Caped Crusader, the Flash waves merrily at Alfred, who wasn’t quite expecting this many metahumans to be clogging up his gaff. And, over the course of several takes, that merriment expands until Aquaman is calling Alfred a “badass” and Irons deadpanning a series of responses to his boss. “If you’d warned me, I would have baked a cake”, “I’ll break open the party hats and the piñata”, and our favourite, “I’ll make some tea. Don’t know where I’ll find the cups.”
The emphasis here is on the comedic.
The actually comedic, not the accidental. And there’s a sense of ebullience all round. After one take, Gadot walks past singing You Are My Sunshine. Miller, a ball of energy, bounces around in a dressing robe. “My best friend got this for me!” he yells. “His name’s Jason Momoa and he got me this robe!” Even the man famously dubbed Sad Affleck by the internet ain’t so sad anymore.
“You get to see Batman smile,” promises Affleck. “For the first time!”
Flashing the old Batgnashers? Now there’s a thing. So, what is happening exactly? Who are these people and what have they done to the Justice League?
Zack wanted to make a movie that was more fun, that was a little bit lighter, that wasn’t so encumbered with heavy melodrama,” explains Affleck to Empire in September 2017, just a couple of months before
Justice League is finally introduced to the world. In the year that’s passed since we were on set, much has changed — Wonder Woman wowed critics, bossed the box office with an $816 million take, and proved that the DCEU can do light, funny and inspirational. And on a much more serious and sombre note, Snyder has stepped away from the film following a family tragedy, with Joss Whedon drafted in as his custodian. But one thing that doesn’t seem to have changed despite this heart-rending development is the focus on unlocking that friendlier, warmer tone. “Justice League is not a dark or heavy movie,” says Gal Gadot. “It doesn’t have the weight that Batman v Superman had.”
It would be easy and cynical to write off this apparent sea change as something of a course correction, a response to the backlashers who were unhappy with Batman v Superman’s stern face and jars of piss. It would also be wrong. “I can understand people saying [ Batman v Superman] was too dark, or this was outside the tone of what I’m used to seeing with a Batman story, and I think that’s a fair criticism,” concedes Affleck. “But this was all scripted and set up before that movie came out. The approach was changed anyway for the second one. It was a natural progression.”
Apparently Snyder has been playing the kind of long game that would impress Lex Luthor. “The first time I ever sat in Zack’s office, he told me people were mad at him for making things too dark,” recalls Miller, who first met to discuss playing Barry Allen, aka the Flash, sometime in 2014. “He said something that I thought was really true and undeniable, that the world of DC is the world of Batman and everything, including Superman, has to come into the darkness of the world where Gotham exists. From there, Zack always intended for the Justice League to rise out of the darkness, and maybe even bring Batman with them. Maybe an inch.”
It’s not the first time Warner Bros. had tried to make the finest League this side of Royston Vasey rise out of the darkness. And no wonder. When it comes to superhero team-up comics, Justice
League Of America (the ‘Of America’ part has somewhat fallen by the wayside) is up there with Avengers and X-men in popularity and, having made its debut in 1960 with issue #28 of The Brave And The Bold, predates both by around three years. As such, a movie version is long overdue.
George Miller tried to make a Justice League movie around 10 years ago. Entitled Justice League: Mortal, it was intended to shoot in 2008, and be in cinemas in 2009. In fact, Miller had not only cast his movie (see sidebar), but got as far as building sets before the plug was pulled just weeks before cameras rolled, largely due to the writers’ strike of ’07-’08. Having another Batman run around at the same time as Christian Bale might have confused the heck out of audiences, but
it’s easy to file Miller’s Mortal in the folder marked ‘Regrets’.
That iteration of Justice League would have beaten Avengers into cinemas by a good three years. As it was, by the time Man Of Steel, the tentative toe-in-the-water of a cinematic universe, was released, Marvel Studios didn’t need Thor to steal DC’S thunder. They were already seven films down, owned by Disney, and had assembled the Avengers. And by the time Justice League comes out in November, Marvel will be on its 17th film, with its third Avengers movie, Infinity War, due next April. WB and DC are still playing catch-up. The wondrous reception afforded Wonder
Woman has created a swell of goodwill, and a hope that Justice League might continue that upward trajectory. “It maybe takes a bit of pressure off of this movie in terms of needing to define the DC Universe,” admits Affleck of his castmate’s success. “It doesn’t feel like the whole world is riding on our shoulders so much.”
The comparisons to the Avengers movies are possibly reductive, but unavoidable. There’s the obvious — both are superhero team-up films based on popular comic books. Then the less obvious — whether by sheer bad luck or, perhaps, because this kind of movie can only really sustain so many stories, the plots of Justice League and Avengers: Infinity War are essentially the same. Here, Steppenwolf — emissary of Darkseid, an all-powerful alien who may ultimately be revealed as the movie’s true villain — decides it would be a simply capital time to pop down to Earth in pursuit of three Mother Boxes. Those are technologically advanced cubes from the planet Apokolips (Darkseid’s home) that were given to three factions (the Atlanteans of Aquaman, Wonder Woman’s Themyscirans, plain old humans) in ancient times for safekeeping. “They can be destructive,” says Momoa, choosing his syllables carefully. “And when the three boxes get together, it’s bad news.” Recognising this, billionaire genius playboy philanthropist Bruce Wayne teams up with some superfolk to stop Steppenwolf from Macguffining the world to smithereens. Change Steppenwolf to Thanos, Mother Boxes to Infinity Stones, Wayne to Stark, and the two aren’t a million miles away.
And, last but by no means least, there’s
Whedon is the man who cracked the ensemble superhero film code not once, but twice, with 2012’s Avengers
Assemble and its sequel, 2015’s Avengers: Age Of Ultron. Both times to billiondollar effect. One of the best dialogue guys in the business, he’s a dab hand at giving characters room to breathe in a setting that could easily get overstuffed, whilst writing them zingers aplenty. So when Snyder announced in May that he and his producer wife, Deborah, were leaving Justice League, Whedon was their choice to step in to complete the film — polishing the screenplay, for which he has been given an official writing credit, and overseeing additional photography and post-production. It made sense. Track record aside, he was already ensconced at the DCEU, where he was developing a Batgirl movie. The general assumption was that he had been tasked with Avengerising the movie, with giving Bruce Wayne plenty of Batzingers. But you know what they say about assumptions. “I didn’t sense that we were moving towards something that felt like The Avengers,” says Affleck. “Joss is more than just an Avengers director. He’s a good storyteller, full stop. In mid-stream Joss got on and part of what interested him was the puzzle aspect of it, fitting in pieces that weren’t there yet. He put the rest of the pieces in and gave it his own imprimatur.”
Gadot is keen to stress that “this is Zack Snyder’s movie. Joss only did a few weeks of reshoots. He was Zack’s guy and knew exactly what he wanted to get.” That feeling, that this remains Snyder’s vision with maybe just a touch of Whedon, is supported by the rest of the cast. “Joss came in and walked a very fine line between Zack’s sensibility, tone and direction, and his own tone and direction,” says Affleck. “We found a really fun and inspiring synthesis of their two forms of storytelling. I was so glad everyone showed up to work for Zack.”
It’s clear that Snyder means the world to his cast, and that the tragedy that befell him and his family has also cut them deeply. The connection is genuine and meaningful. “I fucking love Zack, man,” says Momoa. “I’d do anything for him.” Adds Gadot: “He has a beautiful vision.” Miller is audibly moved by both Snyder’s personal situation and by the presence of mind the
director showed in recognising he would be unable to finish the movie to the best of his ability. “It’s a heroic act at its root,” he says.
“He called each and every one of us and took the time to explain something that defies, in many ways, explanation. He told us exactly how it was going to go down, which was true to course. He fascinates and amazes and staggers me. Zack Snyder, ultimate fucking legend. Forever.”
Whatever form Justice League finally takes, it will deliver in terms of spectacle. That’s a given in a Zack Snyder film. “The movie’s bigger in scale than any movie I’ve been involved with in my career,” says Affleck, a man who knows scale, having been involved in the likes of Armageddon, Pearl Harbor and Clerks II. “It feels massive in terms of the visual elements. That’s something that Zack is really good at. That will be admired.”
But there are other elements that will help set it apart in a marketplace that’s coming dangerously close to crowded. “DC’S going to be changing the name to Diversity Comics pretty soon,” laughs Fisher. He’s right — this Justice League line-up is refreshingly representative, with only Affleck’s Batman being the standard- issue ultra-ripped white guy. Of all the characters on the team, Cyborg may be the biggest unknown quantity. He’s a popular character in the comic books and on various versions of the Teen Titans animated series, but for Joe Public he’s this movie’s equivalent of Hawkeye in an Avengers movie — the guy you’re most likely to forget in a pub quiz. But Fisher, an endearingly earnest actor who has seen Batman v Superman so many times he can quote it chapter and verse, is determined that will change, and sees Cyborg as a role model. “You’re dealing with the only member of the Justice League who is AfricanAmerican. You’re dealing with the only member of the Justice League who is in some ways what some would consider disabled,” he says. “You don’t want to end up telling a story that isn’t respectful of those factors. But he’s going to be cool as hell.”
Then there’s Momoa’s Aquaman, a drastic departure from the comic book character. “He’s white with blond hair,” says Momoa, who was born in Hawaii of mixed heritage. “But Zack had a vision. The fact that Aquaman is a brownskinned superhero, I’m pretty stoked about
that. I love being able to set the tone.”
There’s been a feeling that the heavy lifting in Justice League would be handled, sometimes literally, by Batman and Wonder Woman, with rumours suggesting that the additional photography sessions would increase the size of Diana’s role, following the immense success of her own film. But rumours are just assumptions in a different coat, and we all know what assumptions make out of you and you-know-what. “I did one week,” says Gadot of the reshoots. “Diana serves as the glue of the team. She finds moments to support every one of the team and make them feel stronger or believe in themselves. But this is not a Wonder Woman movie.”
Instead, the movie will offer the chance to get fully acquainted with Cyborg, Flash and Aquaman, who made blink-and-you’llmiss-them cameos in Dawn Of Justice (Miller also showed up briefly in Suicide Squad), as they’re recruited to the team by Bruce and Diana. Cyborg is serious and reserved, Miller’s Barry Allen is a really fast-talking kid who can barely suppress his glee at getting to hang out with his heroes. Momoa’s Aquaman is gnarled and grizzly, the kind of guy who’d deck you for spilling his pint. If their on-screen chemistry is as potent as it is when the cameras aren’t rolling (at one point during our visit to the set, Miller started advising his co-stars to squeeze their buttocks before a shot as “that’ll be really sexy”), it’ll go a long way towards filling the hole left in the Justice League by the absence of a certain super man. et there might be one last surprise up Snyder and Whedon’s collective sleeve. A Kryptonian elephant in the room. The one-word answer to the question of who would win in a fight between the Avengers and the Justice League. There is, quite simply, no Justice League without the Man Of Steel.
Except for one small complication: he’s dead. Killed heroically at the end of Dawn Of Justice, giving his life so that the rampaging Doomsday could die, saving the world in the process. He was even given a lavish funeral, which took place at the same time as that of crusading reporter Clark Kent, who also died in the conflict. Strange.
So, Superman’s snuffed it. And his death is the catalyst for the events of Justice League. “It’s out of his memory that Bruce is trying to put this team together,” says Fisher. “The world is suffering
from the loss of Superman. And the ultimate sacrifice he made brings these people out.”
But when the supershit is hitting the superfan, not even the Justice League will be able to handle it. They need the Last Son Of Krypton. And they’ll get him. Batman v Superman ends with a shot of soil beginning to rise from Superman’s coffin, and it seems you just can’t keep a good Christ analogy down. Superman will fly again in Justice League. In which capacity remains to be seen — early rumours had it that he would return somewhat changed by his ordeal beyond the grave, and would end up fighting the League. But that’s too reminiscent of Dawn Of Justice. It’s much more likely that Superman is the cavalry, flying in to save the day. As usual with this sort of thing, nobody’s allowed to confirm anything. “Henry? Rest in piece,” straight-bats Momoa. “He’s working with Tom Cruise now. He’s doing alright.”
One thing cannot be denied: Henry Cavill’s presence on the film’s set. And when Cavill came back for the additional photography, he was sporting a moustache that he’d grown for Mission: Impossible 6 and which, legend has it, he was forbidden from shaving, forcing the CG guys to do their thing. “It was a full-on porn-star moustache,” says Affleck. “He looked like a porn star from the ’70s, just with a better body. It’s a different twist [on Superman].”
The Man Of Steel with a porn ’tache? Sounds like that newfangled fun this revamped, relaxed Justice League seems okay being in league with. Maybe we’ve figured out what makes Batman smile after all.
JUSTICE LEAGUE IS IN CINEMAS FROM 16 NOVEMBER
Clockwise from here: Trident and tested: Aquaman shows off his weapon; Wonder Woman leads an attack along with Cyborg and Aquaman; The Flash has a rare moment of being stationary.
Clockwise from here: Cyborg (Ray Fisher) has got his eye on you; Wonder Woman and Batman formulate a cunning plan in the Batcave; Aquaman (Jason Momoa) makes his point to a foe.
Clockwise from left: Charged up: The Flash (Ezra Miller) is ready to make a speedy exit; Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) gives the camera her best shot; Why so not so serious? Is Ben Affleck allowing a faint smile to appear on Batman’s face?