On the set of Justice League: 21 things we learnt

Zack Snyder and Ben Affleck

by Alex Godfrey |
Published on

"Your drink has so much salad in it," says Zack Snyder. It’s 7pm in Leavesden, the director has just wrapped another day on Justice League, he’s tired, and he’s forgotten how mojitos work. Here at the bar, he requests a less-leafy concoction, then takes Empire into a room full of production art to show us footage and explain how Batman has learned to stop worrying and love ancient fish-men. We’ve spent an eye-opening, head-spinning day on set, shooting the breeze with a disparate gaggle of superheroes, gleaning much. Here are those gleans.

1. Who is in the Justice League?

With Superman having bitten the big one after wrestling the enormous, Mr. Hankey-esque Doomsday, it’s up to his former agitator, Batman, to ply a positive future as even darker forces emerge. Alongside Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), the Dark Knight scuttles off to find the other metahumans they learned of from Lex Luthor’s hard drive: The Flash (Ezra Miller), Aquaman (Jason Momoa) and Cyborg (Ray Fisher). "The film is about the purpose of being a superhero," says producer Deborah Snyder. "Superman's death had such a strong effect on Batman, and he really regains faith in humanity and everything that's good. This alien just gave his life for us. And it really changes who Batman is, and he also feels responsibility to honour him, because he didn't feel like he did it when he was living."

2. What happens in Justice League?

The gang get together, shoot the breeze and make plans for a caravanning holiday in Clacton-on-Sea. Okay, not so much. Let's allow the official synopsis to sketch the plot: "Fueled by his restored faith in humanity and inspired by Superman’s selfless act, Bruce Wayne enlists the help of his newfound ally, Diana Prince, to face an even greater enemy," it runs. "Together, Batman and Wonder Woman work quickly to find and recruit a team of metahumans to stand against this newly awakened threat. But despite the formation of this unprecedented league of heroes — Batman, Wonder Woman, Aquaman, Cyborg and The Flash — it may already be too late to save the planet from an assault of catastrophic proportions." So it is a vacation of sorts, it just happens to involve a likely apocalypse.

The Omega symbol

3. Who is the villain the Justice League will fight?

Thanks to seeds sown in Batman v Superman – particularly the dream sequence's Omega symbol – it’s assumed that Darkseid, the god of the planet Apokolips, who opposes any form of free will, is Justice League’s big bad. Darkseid is after the Anti-Life Equation, which will enable him to rule the universe, and the key to that equation exists in human subconscious, so here he comes. Possibly. Snyder and his team are keeping schtum about Darkseid’s potential involvement in this film, but production art shows his horned, immortal, super-strength, electro-axe-wielding cohort Steppenwolf, who leads the Apokolips army. Steppenwolf, says Deborah Snyder, will be performed via motion-capture, by an actor who hasn’t been 100 per cent cast yet ("We’re close"). Also along for the carnage are swarms of Parademons, Darkseid’s minions, the four-winged armoured irritants who also appeared in Batman v Superman’s dream sequence. In the Justice League rooftop scene Empire saw being filmed, Batman derisively dismissed them as "flying monkeys".

4. Is Batman still angry after Batman v Superman: Dawn Of Justice?

Not so relentlessly. "He was so solitary for so long, in the shadows, but he’s learning to trust people," says Deborah Snyder. On set, we watch a rainy rooftop scene in which, standing by the Bat Signal, Batman convenes with Commissioner Gordon (J.K. Simmons), Wonder Woman, The Flash and Cyborg; after the take, Ben Affleck strides over, cowl off, eyeliner around his eyes. "I know, I look like Alice Cooper," he says of his make-up, before outlining Batman’s new temperament. "He has a little bit more sardonic humour, a little more irony. He's a little bit more of a man on the mission this time. Last time he was so full of anger because of what happened at the Black Zero event, that rage coloured the whole character, it possessed him. He’s no longer extreme in that way. Now he's on a mission to get this group together, to constitute this League, and this wry ironic gallows humour comes out."

Ben Affleck as Batman

5. What kind of leader is Batman?

It doesn’t become him, but he’s trying. "On the one hand he's the ultimate loner, and on the other hand he's tasked with putting together this group," says Affleck. "Is this guy who broods in a cave all day the best person to put together a team of superheroes? He doesn't have huge success initially, people get rubbed up the wrong way. He barely knows how to play well with Alfred." With what he’s up against though, he needs help. "It's way out of his league, there's things from other planets, supervillains that are way more powerful than what a human being who's got a Batarang and a grappling hook is equipped to deal with. He's in the awkward position of being the guy out there with a cup in his hand, saying 'Listen, believe in this, this is a good idea.’"

The Mother Board

6. How are mother boxes involved in Justice League?

Bear with us here as we where we get into McGuffin territory, and DC’s equivalent of Marvel’s Infinity Stones. These magical cubes – think the Hellraiser box, but bigger and floatier – were teased in Batman v Superman’s Cyborg scene, in which one of them brought Victor Stone’s new metallic body to life, and in the film’s deleted Communion scene, where a being we believe to be Steppenwolf juggled three of them before evaporating. Mother boxes are Apokoliptan technology, alien supercomputers, and their story will be told in Justice League, drawing us into the backstories of the various folk we meet in the film. "The old gods came together," explains producer Charles Roven – indeed Zeus makes a brief appearance in this ancient history – "and decided that, based on an event that happened, these mother boxes would be placed in the care of the Amazonians, mankind and the Atlanteans."

7. Will Justice League be tonally similar to Batman v Superman?

Resolutely not. Everyone on set stressed how fun Justice League will be compared to the relentless gloom of its predecessor. This derives from the story, says director Zack Snyder. "The idea of bringing Superman and Batman into conflict meant that you really had to dig down on the darker parts of them to make them fight each other. This is about uniting the team, and that to me is a fun activity." The previous two Superman films were, says Deborah Snyder, "a celebration of the darker comics like Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns and the Death Of Superman," whereas Justice League is "akin to more traditional comics. It’s definitely lighter. The darkest we’d go is where we’ve been." Ben Affleck says the team-building, and all the problems that come with that, provide previously unmined humour. "People trying to accomplish goals together is the root of all great comedy, in my view. There's definitely some fun in it."

8. Has this tone been influenced by audience reaction to Batman v Superman?

To some extent, say the crew. Despite that film grossing a very healthy $872m on a $250m budget, vocal negative response from audiences and critics rocked DC’s boat. "I was like 'Wow, oof.' It did catch me off guard," says Zack Snyder. The nature of what Justice League is allows him to take things in another direction, he says, hinting at Kal-El’s return. "Not to give anything away, but death is darker than resurrection and team-building. It's a different energy. I really wanted the tone of the three movies to be three different chapters. I do think that because of what fans have said and how the movie was received by some, we have really put the screws to what we thought the tone would be and crushed it even that little bit further."

The Justice League

9. So is Superman in Justice League?

Uncertain. This film is a year and a half away, and the 'whens' and 'hows' and 'whys?' of Superman’s resurrection will not be answered for some time. "Obviously Superman is part of the Justice League," says Deborah Snyder. "There wouldn't be a Justice League without Superman, but his way back to us, we don't want to spoil that. But he's here."

10. Is Lex Luthor in Justice League?

We last saw Lex in prison, speaking of ringing bells, mocking Superman’s death, foaming at the mouth, snotting at the nose. Jesse Eisenberg recently said he thinks he’s in Justice League, and Zack Snyder hints further. "That's a little bit of a spoiler. But Jesse's amazing and hilarious and fun… He's in prison, but prisons in the comic-book world are pretty viscous places. Pretty porous."

Jesse Eisenberg as Lex Luthor

11. Does Batman have any new toys?

Batman always has new toys. One photo we saw featured Alfred (Jeremy Irons) in a boiler suit, so presumably we’ll get to see him wielding a wrench. "Alfred and Bruce are developing a lot of tech that helps the Justice League," confirms Deborah Snyder. This includes the Flying Fox, a jet which production designer Patrick Tatopoulos says is "like a Batmobile with wings. It’s not sleek. It’s a massive Batman plane." But let’s not get caught up in technical terminology.

12. What is the Crawler?

This time around Batman also has what we can only describe as a cockpit with legs. Four enormous steel legs. The Knightcrawler, although everyone seems to call it "The Crawler", was, we’re told, built by the military in the 1960s, and has ended up with Batman. It’s not the most delicate of vehicles, stomping about causing untold damage, with a flamethrower on the front and hooks on its limbs that grab onto surfaces, shoving it along. "It's robust, it can travel in places you can't really access," says Tatopoulos. "Places where cars and planes won't work. It's like a crab thing."


13. Is there a new Batmobile?

No, but it’s been modified to deal with Batman’s new alien threats. Empire had a good look at it on set, and it’s been liberally kitted out with more artillery. "It's becoming more and more like a tank," explains Tatopoulos. "It doesn't need more armour, what he needs is more weaponry, because he's gonna have to really compete seriously. Missile launchers. Cannons. Little missiles on the back. All integrated into the shape of the car."

14. Does Batman have a new Batsuit?

He does! He’s added some armour plates underneath the mesh, giving himself a healthy protective six-pack, and his cowl scowl is a little more aggressive, as are the blades on his gauntlets, for extra slicing and dicing. He also has a new "tactical" Batsuit, explains costume designer Michael Wilkinson. "In the final chapter of our film, Batman realises he has to step up his game and he and Alfred have been developing a suit that's even more protective." There is external armour plating, strapped over a layer of leather, and some stylish goggles which, above and beyond practical usage, serve to catch the light and give his eyes a flash of white because, well, it looks cool.

Gal Gadot and Ben Aflleck in Batman v Superman

15. How do Aquaman and Wonder Woman get around town without looking like, well, conspicious?

Well, Aquaman doesn't. This guy is a fish out of water, and Justice League embraces his Atlantean heritage, making no attempt to soften the water-breather’s edges. His costume mirrors his environment, all translucent scale fabric, and there are variations on that theme for his team: the more courtly Vulko, played by Willem Dafoe, and the tiara-clad warrior Mera, played by Amber Heard. Not in the slightest. And what of Diana Prince? Despite Batman’s ever-increasing protection, with only that sturdy chin and a pair of eyes unconcealed, she's still confident enough to go into battle in a glorified swimsuit. Every part of her costume is designed for practical purposes, assures Michael Wilkinson. We’re sure she has very practical reasons for bearing her thighs.

Suicide Squad

16. What does The Flash’s costume do?

It’s a work-in-progress, explains Wilkinson, referring to Barry Allen’s own experiments with oufitting. It’s an intricate piece of kit with, we’re told, 148 separate parts. An annotated diagram of said costume features a dazzling array of instructions, with notes that look like something Mark Zuckerberg might write on a window. "It’s a prototype suit," Wilkinson says of the shiny red costume, which features much wire criss-crossing. "He's discovering his powers, he's testing things. Some things work, some things don't. It's designed to protect him as he moves incredibly fast through space. We studied aerodynamics and vehicle design. There are materials that are great in high temperatures, that deflect electricity, because when he moves really fast he is able to generate electricity. He's like an electrical coil. There will be a digital effect where these wires flash and circle his body and he can really create a lot of energy." The Flash also, it must be said, rocks a very healthy codpiece, which makes sense, as The Flash is very cocky.

17. Should we discuss The Flash’s codpiece?

It is what it is – The Flash is practically flashing – although it’s worth mentioning that Aquaman has a similarly bulging codpiece. Presumably because he’s half-cod himself. Were these designs set in stone before casting, or are Jason Momoa and Ezra Miller waging their own war? Aquaman certainly has a very large trident. Empire grabbed it ourselves here in Leavesden’s costume department. Aquaman’s own costume notations, by the way, are rather casual, Empire noticed: as well as, yes, ‘aqua cod,’ there are his fabulously scaley ‘aqua bum sides'. Gluteus maximus! That Aquaman, always flaunting his curves.

18. Can we swap the codpieces for a setpiece?

The sets we saw were humongous, most notably an abandoned transit tunnel, which, in the film, covers the ten-mile stretch through the river from Gotham to Metropolis. Construction began in the 1920s, but was abandoned, and in Justice League plays host to a set-piece involving Batman in his Crawler, battling a slew of Parademons; production art showed him using the vehicle’s flamethrower to great effect. On the rooftop scene we watched being filmed, we learned that Parademons have been abducting scientists, carrying them off to some sort of nest, presumably in this tunnel. Two takes, though, were aborted because Gal Gadot kept laughing, until J.K. Simmons just gave up. "Nobody fuckin’ cares," he grunted.

19. What is J.K. Simmons bringing to the role of Commissioner Gordon?

Unless we see Gordon at home laying into a punchbag, those Instagram shots of Simmons’ own enviable guns may simply have been for the actor’s own personal fitness regime. The man we saw on set was classic comic-book Commissioner Gordon: fedora, glasses, moustache, trench coat... a gruff ol’ gumshoe. Deborah Snyder told us the characters we see in the film will be just like their most recognisable print counterparts, and on the basis of Gordon, that’s exactly the case.

Suicide Squad

20. Does Justice League tie in with Suicide Squad and Wonder Woman?

They’re all pretty much separate entities, says Deborah Snyder: "All the films fit in a timeline but they're independent. They all have their own tone, yet they're all in the same filmic universe. There will be little bits of crossovers." Affleck is executive producer on Justice League, as he’s developing his Batman film alongside it, although he doesn’t yet have a script he’s happy with for that standalone film, he says. He’s developing his take on the character as we speak: "The ‘world's greatest detective’ aspect of Batman is more present in this story than it was in the last one, and will probably be expanded further in the Batman movie that I'm doing. I think all Batman stories at their heart are detective stories, that's why they feel a little bit like noir movies. It could be The Maltese Falcon."

The Batsignal

21. How is the DC extended universe shaping up?

DC is still finding its feet on screen, and it seems this universe is more amorphous than Marvel’s, tone flitting wildly to suit story, character and, to some extent, audience response. Justice League’s japes certainly seem like a U-turn from Batman v Superman’s mirthless malaise. Both the rooftop scene we saw being filmed and the finished footage we watched – of Bruce Wayne breaking into Barry Allen’s apartment to enrol him for Justice League – had pronounced comical touches, mostly due to Ezra Miller’s wisecracking. That apartment scene, in fact, was spookily similar to Captain America: Civil War’s Peter Parker scene, in which Tony Stark similarly enrols a quippy kid to join his team. "I know you have abilities. I just don’t know what they are," says Bruce. "My special skills include viola, web design, fluent in sign language," says Barry, batting him off. "Gorilla sign language." Bruce quizzes him on the Flash suit by the wall. "Silicon based quartz fabric. Heat resistant," he says. "Yeah, counters Barry, "I do competitive ice dancing."

This set visit was undoubtedly a charm offensive, engineered to illustrate how much fun Justice League might be, and from what we saw, it should be. Despite all the talk of corporate shake-ups in the Batman v Superman ‘fallout’, despite the Sad Affleck memes, the Justice Leaguers look like they’re having a blast. It is, after all, a superhero film, and colourful one at that. After years of fans demanding darkness, Batman v Superman went so far it forgot to have any fun. Its own sequel is at pains to amend that.

The cast of Batman v Superman

Justice League is currently filming and will be out in the UK on November 17, 2017. Keep checking back for much, much more on it, as well as Suicide Squad and Wonder Woman.

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