Posted on Tuesday, June 21st, 2016 by Peter Sciretta
Thunder crashes in the distance as lightning flashes on a gothic-looking rooftop. The iconic Bat Signal shoots a beam of light into the sky as Commissioner Gordon looks out over Gotham City. On the other side of the rooftop, Batman appears, flanked by Wonder Woman and the Flash.
“How many of you are there?” asks Gordon.
Batman dryly responds, “Not enough.”
I’m on the set of Justice League watching a scene be filmed for Zack Snyder’s follow-up to the divisive Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice.
Moments later, Cyborg walks out of the shadows to join the group. It’s not really Cyborg — he will created later in visual effects, but more on that later — it’s actor Ray Fisher in a performance capture suit and a rig that projects red lights from his head and chest. Ezra Miller, playing the Flash, comically overreacts at Cyborg’s appearance. This doesn’t feel like the previous Zack Snyder DC Extended Universe films.
Cyborg informs the group that “the head of Star Labs was taken tonight” and it’s now clear that while he may have been reluctant earlier, he is now willing to join up with this league of “meta humans” to fight a group of villains that Batman humorously refers to as “flying monkeys.”
Wonder Woman gives Cyborg a smile, and the camera moves in to capture this moment in closeup. It’s a moment of warmth and humanity, something that many fans and critics believed to be lacking from the two previous Superman films. After someone yells “cut,” one of my colleagues on set comments that this might be the first smile we’ve seen in Snyder’s DCU so far, or at very least, the most obvious.
I didn’t hate Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice as much as most of my movie reviewing colleagues, but my 6 out of 10 review was far from gushing. It was negative enough to earn me thousands of hate tweets and threatening emails from DC fanboys, something that persisted for weeks. So I was surprised to get a call from Zack Snyder’s personal publicist asking if I’d be interested in visiting his Avengers-style team-up film Justice League.
I’ve been invited to dozens of movie sets over the years and usually the offer comes from the movie studio in charge, or more rarely a filmmaker friend will send out the personal invite. But this is the first time I’ve had the filmmaker’s personal publicist has reached out.
I boarded a British Airways flight to London with a bunch of other movie bloggers and journalists, most of whom did not like Batman v Superman, and this seems completely by design. We were told that Zack Snyder had read our reviews, our coverage, and picked this particular batch of bloggers because while we weren’t fans of BvS, we were fair in our assessments and thoughtfully explained our issues with that film. It seems like Zack Snyder and Warner Bros. know they have something to prove, and are willing to open the curtain to try to change the perception of their big franchise series.
Batman v Superman was far from a disaster, but the film did not make the monstrous amount of money that Warner Bros. was probably hoping it would. Since the film’s release, we have seen a barrage of reports of a shakeup on both the executive and producing levels. There were rumors that producers Charles Roven and Deborah Snyder had been privately demoted. Batman actor Ben Affleck was given an increased creative presence on this film as well as an executive producer credit. And there are lots of additional rumblings in the inner circles that haven’t made the Internet.
We visited the Justice League set on June 17th, 2016, day 31 of a planned 111-day shoot, while they were filming an hour outside of London at Leavesden Studios. When I was last at this facility, it was when I was on the set of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. The movie studio has since turned into a tourist destination with the opening of the Warner Bros. Studio Tour in 2012. But films are still shot at this studio, including Edge of Tomorrow, 300: Rise of an Empire, Paddington, Jupiter Ascending, Kingsman, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., In the Heart of the Sea, Pan, Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation, Tarzan, Fantastic Beasts, Wonder Woman and King Arthur. In fact, some areas of the studio were under strict lockdown because Steven Spielberg is currently prepping Ready Player One.
Before I get into my thoughts on my visit, I should acknowledge that a set visit gives us a very limited and almost completely orchestrated look at the production. Everything we saw on set and everything that was said by the filmmakers is completely by design, to paint a particular picture.
With that bit of warning out of the way, I won’t bury my lede here: Even though Justice League may look much like the other Zack Snyder DCEU films, it feels like a much different film from Man of Steel or Batman v Superman. There are moments of humor, humanity, personality and color.
I encourage you to read the rest of my written coverage but if you purely want my reaction, feel free to watch this video blog I recorded after the set visit with Steve Weintraub from Collider and Devin Faraci from Birth.Movies.Death.:
Director Zack Snyder admits that he was not expecting the critical reaction to Batman v Superman:
You know, when Batman v Superman first came out, I was like, “Wow, okay, woof.” It did catch me off-guard. I kind of felt like — and I have had to, in my mind, make an adjustment, and maybe it is my hardcore take on characters as far as I love ’em, and I love the material. I do, I take it really deep. So I think 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, if that makes any sense.
And producer Deborah Snyder is very clear about it — Justice League is “a totally different movie than Batman v Superman.” From what I saw while visiting the set, this film seems to have more humor, more personalities, and a sense that the filmmakers have learned something from their mistakes.
Zack says that the characters in the Justice League are “inherently, sort of this larger-than-life, big, fun”:
Flash and with [Aquaman actor Jason] Momoa, when you see, I’ve been out with Jason and the way that he’s interacting with the group, even just in his Jason-ness, the contrast to Ben and to Gal [Gadot] is really interesting and fun.
Its these kind of personality contrasts that make the Marvel Universe team-up films so much fun, and it seems like Snyder and team are aiming for the same kind of delightful interplay. Wonder Woman actress Gal Gadot thinks they have found a very interesting dynamic in this film.
It’s fun, it’s funny. It’s different, each and every character brings their own flavor and color to the team. And for me, you know, personally it’s really fun to play with them. They’re great, they’re talented, and I’m having a great time.
But by far the biggest surprise for me was Ezra Miller as the Flash. Imagine going into Captain America: Civil War not looking forward to Spider-Man’s appearance and coming out totally blown away. This is how I felt leaving the Justice League set.
I’ve read runs of Superman and Batman but I’ve never regularly read any of the DC series. And I’ve never really been interested in the Flash. I tried watching the pilot of the CW show, and I know everyone says it’s great but it just didn’t hook me. I’m not sure if its just that Ezra Miller is that good (he is very good) or if it’s that the character is just written so well (it is written packed with personality and amusement) but after my trip to set, I found myself back at the hotel purchasing Flash comics on my iPad.