Last week, a small group of writers for a series of influential film websites—Vulture, Slashfilm, io9, Collider, UPROXX, et al.—were invited to fly out to London to visit the set of Justice League. Their reports started popping up left and right yesterday, and if you’re interested in some previously undisclosed nuggets about the Batman v Superman sequel —William Dafoe is playing Vulko!—you’ll find that, and plenty more, scattered around the internet.
But more revealing than the Justice League reports themselves is the fact that this trip happened at all. Remember: Justice League doesn’t hit theaters until November of 2017. Forget a trailer—there’s barely even a poster. The main villain, Steppenwolf, hasn’t even been cast yet. Nevertheless, Zack Snyder invited a group of Batman v. Superman’s biggest and most public detractors to fly all the way to London, on Warner Bros.’ dime, to plant seeds for a kudzu vine of a message they clearly hope will spread across the rest of the internet: Justice League will not be Batman v. Superman.
This junket-as-apology-tour was arranged, per Slashfilm, at the behest of director Zack Snyder, who specifically targeted writers who he felt were "fair" and "thoughtful" in their pans of Batman v. Superman. This could be a bit of PR spin, but it strikes me as the truth; whatever you think of his work, Snyder has always been an unusually focused, personal, and engaged filmmaker, eager to share his vision with critics and fans. And, on a more practical level, Snyder is smart enough to recognize what the stakes are. After a misfire as big as Batman v Superman, Justice League—which was already in production before the previous film hit theaters—may be the last time a Hollywood studio trusts him with a potentially top-tier franchise and hundreds of millions dollars. If he can’t get it right this time, it may never happen again—and if he can win over this group of skeptical bloggers, who’s to say he can’t win over everybody else?
In the Justice League set interviews published yesterday, Snyder walks a careful line; he avoids criticizing his own work on Batman v Superman, while still managing to imply that Justice League will be the DC Comics movie everybody wanted Batman v Superman to be in the first place. But when pressed, his defense of Batman v Superman can be summed up in a single sentence: "For me, it is a really personal movie."
There’s more truth in the idea of a “personal” superhero movie than skeptics might imagine from a movie with a title like Batman v Superman. Auteurism is generally regarded as a cinephile-friendly concept, because it’s generally associated with directors like Truffaut, Godard, Fellini or even Tarantino. But as long as a director has a distinctive and personal vision that’s recognizable on-screen, they’ve earned the label auteur, regardless of the actual quality of their work. (Take, for one extreme example, auteur Michael Bay.)
When it comes to modern superhero blockbusters, Zack Snyder is as close to an auteur as we have, and throughout his career, he has proven to be a genuinely uncompromising filmmaker. Movies like Dawn of the Dead, 300, and Man of Steel bear his unmistakable stamp, and whenever possible, he finds ways to push his movies even further toward his personal vision. The director’s cut of his much-maligned passion project Sucker Punch, which has since been deemed a misunderstood masterpiece by an increasingly large group of defenders, is a full 17 minutes longer than the original cut. His director’s cut of Watchmen added another 23 minutes, but even that wasn’t enough; the Ultimate Cut, which splices in the animated "Tales of the Black Freighter" sequences that were originally released on a separate DVD, takes the film to a whopping three and a half hours. And when Batman v Superman arrives with its own Ultimate Edition in July, it will add 30 more minutes to a film many already complained was too overstuffed and bloated. Those minutes are also, apparently, even more violent than the grim Batman v Superman that arrived in theaters; the Ultimate Edition has been rerated "R."
In the full context of his career, what Zack Snyder is really promising to do is make Justice League less like the movie he would want it to be, and more like the movie everybody else seems to want it to be. Batman v Superman is a bad movie, but it’s unmistakably a Zack Snyder movie; Justice League, by contrast, sounds like the kind of movie-by-committee that has made the Marvel Cinematic Universe such a runaway success at the box office.
Which leads to the other big dangling question about Justice League: Did the one-two punch of Man of Steel and Batman v Superman take the DC Cinematic Universe so far down Zack Snyder’s personal rabbit hole that it’s too late to pivot toward something a little more mainstream-friendly? To a degree (and barring a total reboot), a lot of this is already set in stone—like, say, that dumb non-cliffhanger about Superman being dead. But there are some clear attempts to reinvent the house style previously established by Snyder. Suicide Squad—directed by David Ayer, but clearly cut from the overarching template Snyder established—has already gone through extensive reshoots, purportedly to make the whole thing funnier. And on the Justice League set visit, the visiting bloggers were pointedly shown two scenes involving Ezra Miller’s Flash, whose character has clearly been engineered to offer plenty of comic relief.
Maybe this was Snyder’s plan all along. "I really wanted the tone of the three movies [Man of Steel, Batman v Superman, and Justice League] to be different chapters," he told Birth.Movies.Death, with Justice League intended as a "hopeful" epilogue from which countless other stories could spring. Will that make the movie worth seeing? For fans who have dreamed about seeing these characters interacting on the big screen for decades, it’ll certainly be hard to turn down.
But to borrow a comic book term, Zack Snyder’s description of an overaching plan for the trilogy feels like a retcon—a compromise made in spite of his own instincts as a director, not because this was what he wanted all along. To put it simply: If Batman v Superman had been a smash, Justice League would probably look a lot like more like Batman v Superman. But the film industry has a way of self-correcting when this much money is involved. Justice League may, indeed, turn out to be the DC Comics movie fans wanted all along—but it probably won’t be the Justice League Zack Snyder wanted.