Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice links the DC Comics movie universe | EW.com
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How Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice
maps out DC's movie universe

We'll meet Wonder Woman, The Flash, Aquaman, & Cyborg. But what about about Green Lantern?

(Clay Enos)

Who wins in a fight – Batman or Superman?

That’s the ultimate question for DC Comics fans. It’s not: Who’s stronger? That’s easy – Superman. And it’s not: Who’s faster? Superman takes that one, too. The Man of Steel can also fly, blast heat rays from his eyes, see through walls, and has bulletproof skin. You name it, and Superman bests Batman in almost every capacity. He’s even nicer.

But those things aren’t the question. It’s who wins in a fight? And this is where the mortal man in a big black bat suit evens the score, because Batman thinks ahead. Batman isn’t necessarily smarter than Superman, he’s just more cunning, more manipulative. He doesn’t simply throw down and rely on his might. Batman shifts the odds in his favor by waiting, studying. He lays groundwork. He anticipates. He devises a plan.

Then he fights.

You don’t need X-ray vision to see the same Dark Knight-style strategizing throughout Batman v Superman, not just on screen as Ben Affleck’s Caped Crusader and Henry Cavill’s Son of Krypton go mano a mano in a clash orchestrated by Jesse Eisenberg’s Machiavellian Lex Luthor, but in the behind the scenes maneuvering as well. Warner Bros and DC Comics have crafted the March 25 movie as the foundation for a larger, interconnected cinematic universe: It’s not just one $250 million superhero epic, it’s also the set-up for 10 other DC movies – and, if all goes according to plan, many more after that.

Some are already finished or in the works: director David Ayer’s Suicide Squad, a bad-guys-go-good adventure with Will Smith as Deadshot, Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn, and Jared Leto as the Joker, comes out Aug. 5; Wonder Woman’s first stand-alone live-action film in her 75-year history is currently shooting with Gal Gadot as the Amazonian warrior princess; and Justice League - Part One, which unites all of DC’s top heroes – begins filming April 11. That means the box-office stakes for Batman v Superman are cosmic: If it doesn’t keep this world safe, it’ll be the apocalypse.

No pressure.

Zack Snyder, who also directed the BvS predecessor, 2013’s Man of Steel, has a bizarre attitude about it all. He appears to be having, like … fun. The 300 and Watchmen director is a key figure in this forthcoming slate of DC movies (referred to by many on the team as “the Snyderverse”). The ones he isn’t directing, he’s producing, along with his wife and production partner Deborah Snyder. It’s the family business, and just days after putting the finishing touches on BvS, he’s about to board a London-bound plane to prep Justice League. Still, the lean, tattooed 50-year-old filmmaker seems as buoyant as a birthday boy who has just ripped open a box full of his favorite action figures – and still has lots more to unwrap.

GALLERY: Inside the Superhero Grudge Match in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice

The director becomes animated as he reenacts their big knock-down, drag-out battle. “Superman doesn’t have to be as much of a chess player as Batman,” says Snyder. Superman has might on his side, but before the fists start flying, we see an armored Batman placing various traps in an abandoned stockyard, then walking along and driving a Kryptonite spear into the ground. “He paces it off,” Snyder says. “Then when he throws Superman, the spear is right there. So you’re like, wait a minute, did he [plan] every bit? He know every move?”

Knowing every move was also Synder’s job as he plotted the five year’s worth of DC movies that would expand from BvS. “I pitched it to the studio like, ‘Listen, the idea is that Batman exists within the universe of Superman.’ And I go, ‘Guys, here’s the headline: Not just if Batman exists, guess what? Wonder Woman, the whole group,” Snyder says. The Flash. Cyborg. Aquaman. He says the studio’s reaction was: “About time.”

Image Credit: Clay Enos

One reason the interlocked universe hasn’t happened already is – it’s hard as hell to pull off. “Once you you know what the next movie’s going to be, then it becomes about, ‘Okay, where are we going to go from there?’” says Greg Silverman, the president of creative development and worldwide production at Warner Bros. “What do [moviegoers] really want to see Wonder Woman and Superman talking about in movie four, and how do we get there?”

As one of the chief architects of the DC film universe, he said they started by building little pieces in Man of Steel. For instances, in the climax of that movie, there are pieces of a downed Wayne Enterprises satellite that crash down on Metropolis over a skyscraper with a LexCorp logo. As the movie slate moves forward, the audience has to be nudged along, too.

Now that Batman and Superman are meeting face to face, it’s no longer about teases and allusions. “You now have a world in which Metropolis and Gotham are geographically close by, and all these little details start becoming real,” Silverman says. “There’s a satellite falling from the sky in Man of Steel, and you realize that each of these movies is going to be a huge part of the movie that follows.”

RELATED: Details of the R-rated ‘Ultimate Edition’ of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice

INSIDE THE MULTIVERSE

DC exists in what is called “the multiverse” – its hit TV shows, such as Supergirl, Gotham, Arrow, and The Flash, are entirely separate from the movies, though some allow for crossover with one another. Until now, DC’s movies have never shared a single cinematic universe, like the one that longtime rival Marvel launched with 2008’s Iron Man, but there have been previous efforts to bring together certain characters on the big screen.

A Justice League movie, starring Armie Hammer as Batman, Megan Gale as Wonder Woman, and D.J. Cotrona as Superman, got as far as the casting stage with Mad Max: Fury Road filmmaker George Miller before falling apart amid the 2007-08 writers guild strike. Even further back, In the Line of Fire filmmaker Wolfgang Petersen was set to direct a Batman/Superman movie in 2003, but studio execs at the time decided it was safer to not mingle their heroes. Meanwhile, the most successful recent DC movies, Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, are considered sacrosanct – separate narrative dimensions that other superheroes and storylines can’t cross into.

Now the conventional wisdom flows the opposite direction. Everything from Star Wars to Ghostbusters is establishing a universe of spin-offs and stand-alones. The DC movie braintrust says they still had to be careful. They had to wait, they had to plan. They had to do some Batman-level strategizing.

“You have to get each individual movie right, and that’s been our focus. We pushed the release date of Batman v Superman to March. It was supposed to be out last year,” says Silverman. “The gift of time that [we gave it] allowed it to live up to its full potential, and for anybody else thinking of doing it, that’s the thing to do. Every movie has to be treated as if it’s the only movie — while you’re falling in love with how they’re all going to connect.”

How did BvS make use of that extra year? If they were going to introduce other “metahumans” for the future Justice League film, they’d need to cast them: Gadot as Wonder Woman, Ray Fisher as Cyborg, Ezra Miller as the Flash, Jason Momoa as Aquaman. But to cast these roles, they also wanted input from the directors of those individual spin-offs (Patty Jenkins for Wonder Woman, Seth Grahame-Smith for Flash, James Wan for Aquaman), which meant they’d need stories to recruit those filmmakers. Even Affleck is considering co-writing and directing a future stand-alone Batman film.

Not every piece had to be in position to start, but they had to begin setting up those other movies to make sure BvS could properly introduce as many of new characters from the DC universe as it could while still telling a story that stood on its own.

“I’ve made a lot of films, but I’ve never had to be part of trying to craft together where this many films are related,” says producer Charles Roven, who also produced Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy and is part of the braintrust overseeing the DC slate. “[Filmmakers] have to decide as part of their decision to join the team, are they happy with what’s come before? From the time they join, they’re involved in any major decisions.”

That’s how one movie quickly becomes like making 10 others.

Right now, here’s the list. (Dates and concepts get more fungible the further off we get):

• Suicide Squad – Aug. 5, 2016

• Wonder Woman – June 23, 2017

• Justice League - Part One – Nov. 17, 2017

• The Flash – March 16, 2018

• Aquaman – July 27, 2018

• Shazam! – April 5, 2019

• Justice League - Part Two – June 14, 2019

• Cyborg – April 3, 2020

• Green Lantern Corps – June 19, 2020

• Ben Affleck-directed Batman - Undated

But one major character is still stuck behind a red light….

IN BRIGHTEST DAY, IN BLACKEST NIGHT

Snyder’s office on the Warner Bros. lot looks like the lair of a super-thief who specializes in stealing treasures from all the other heroes and villains. He has armor, weapons, tools, and costumes on display. A giant painting of Bruce Wayne’s father leans against one wall. In one warehouse-sized room, he has a gym full of weight machines, and this is where the braintrust meets to break story.

The room used to be the place where large backdrops were handpainted for movie sets, but that kind of work is mainly done digitally now. The remnants of that bygone technique remain: there’s a giant retractable board that can rise out of the floor. Once, it was for hanging billboard-sized canvases. Now, it’s the outline for the DC universe. (It’s ability to sink into the floor was so painters working on the top didn’t have to stand on ladders. But now it’s just a cool security feature.)

EW didn’t see the timeline. To paraphrase Dr. Strangelove: Outsiders aren’t allowed to see the big board. But we did discover some of the things that are on it. And what’s not on it.

For instance, it’s not an accident that Warner Bros. hasn’t said much about Green Lantern besides the fact that they’re planning a 2020 reboot. The character is not referenced in BvS and Silverman acknowledges, he may not turn up onscreen for a while.

“[Green Lantern] is an incredible character. He’s actually multiple incredible characters,” Silverman says. “There’s real opportunity there. We didn’t do a great job on that first Green Lantern movie. This is a character who deserves to be treated in the same way that Batman and Superman and Wonder Woman are being treated now, which is with great reverence. I guess I can say to the Green Lantern fans: if they can be patient with us, I think they’ll be really happy.”

But how patient? Roven says we may not see Hal Jordan, John Stewart, or any incarnation of Green Lantern until Justice League – Part Two. Maybe. “Every beat of the movie is not yet worked out. So there’s the possibility that he may or may not be in Justice League 2,” the producer says. “For now, we felt that we were introducing enough characters that the best possible place we could put Green Lantern is some introduction in Justice League 2, or barring that, a movie after.”

Image Credit: Clay Enos

Another trick of assembling these films is to make sure casual moviegoers are kept oriented about the timeline. So on that secret board in Snyder’s office, it’s clear: Suicide Squad takes place after the events in BvS. And the Wonder Woman movie, while largely set in 1918 during World War I, will be framed by “present day” bookends that also take place after BvS. Meanwhile, BvS includes teases about what that upcoming movie will reveal about Wonder Woman’s past.

The timeline on that board goes backward and forward.

WORLD BUILDING, WORLD DESTROYING

If BvS sounds crowded, it actually got smaller as time went on. The PG-13 movie’s 2 hour 31 minute runtime will expand further with an R-rated “Ultimate Edition” on home video, featuring even more brutal fight scenes as well as additional hints at future films. There’ll also be some new characters, including a secret one played by Jena Malone, who was cut from the theatrical release. (More on the extended cut of BvS tomorrow at EW.com.)

The shared universe took so long to coordinate not just because of business machinations, but because the DC movie braintrust had to make sure that each character felt distinct and strong. Nobody wants their favorite comic book hero to become somebody else’s sidekick. And Warner Bros. executives learned from 2011’s Green Lantern that getting it wrong can set their movie plans back for many years.

Geoff Johns, chief creative officer at DC Entertainment and an executive producer of BvS, says the challenge is not just making the heroes fit together, but ensuring that they stand apart.

Image Credit: Warner Bros

“It’s all world-building as much as it is character-building,” he says. “Batman isn’t just a character. He’s a character within Gotham City, with all the iconography behind him and the emotional underpinning of Bruce Wayne and the fight for justice, which is a pretty dark fight when it comes to Batman. And then you have Superman, on the other hand, who has a very different world he lives in and a very different way he operates and in a very different methodology to how he protects people and why he does it. He doesn’t wear a mask. He really wants to be accepted because, quite honestly, I think as a kid he never felt accepted. He never felt like he was one of us.”

With that contrasting psychological dynamic, now try adding four more heroes to the mix. It’s not possible. Not all at once. Not if you want the characters to have any depth. That’s why the theatrical release focuses squarely on the two title heroes, with a secondary motive to leave fans wanting more of the newcomers.

STEP ASIDE, BOYS

Wonder Woman is the only other member of the future Justice League with a major role, and for most of the movie we see her as alter-ego Diana Prince – a glamorous covert agent, working only for herself, who runs afoul of Bruce Wayne as they engage in rival missions to steal some of Luthor’s most disconcerting secrets. She’s not like a Bond girl – more like James Bond himself.

“The hardest piece, and probably the most rewarding, was Wonder Woman,” Snyder says. “You have to establish her but don’t give it away; don’t cash it all in. She’s enough in the movie where you definitely feel her presence. And she makes a huge impact on the film. But there are giant mysteries still surrounding her at the end of the movie.”

Wonder Woman’s role also marks not just the expansion of the DC movie universe, but a recognition that the audience for these movies is growing, too. It can’t just be a boys’ club anymore. “I can’t get over the fact that she’s going to be 75 years old and this is the first time she’s gracing the silver screen,” says Deborah Snyder, who’s also producing the Wonder Woman stand-alone film. “I think all these things — truth and love and wanting peace and all the things that she represents – is something that we all look up to and would want. In order for women to believe that they can do this, they have to see it.”

Image Credit: Clay Enos

As the mother of a little girl, Gadot says she’s especially proud to bring Wonder Woman to life. “Most of the movies, the men are in charge, the men are the most powerful ones. You’ve had Superman and Batman and everyone, but Wonder Woman was never there,” says the actress, whose daughter is 4. That’s probably too young to see the film now. But someday… “I’m so happy when she grows up she’s going to see a female figure she can be inspired by,” Gadot says.

When she finally wields a sword and her golden lasso later in the film, Wonder Woman shows she not only deals out punishment – she can take it, even after lying low for many decades. (Maybe that’s an accidental metaphor, now that she’s finally being pulled off the shelf and put onscreen.)

Johns points to her climactic battle with Doomsday, a Kryptonian Frankenstein-monster created by Luthor from the remains of Michael Shannon’s General Zod, as one of his favorite character moments. “I love her in the movie. I love when she’s hit by Doomsday and she turns around and smiles, like she hasn’t been in a fight like this in a long, long time,” he says. “She clearly… she missed it.”

BATMAN’S (FUTURE) BACKSTORY

Fans should prepare to encounter the other Justice Leaguers only in cameos, as certain characters discover evidence of fellow “metahumans” who could either become powerful allies – or maybe foes. Batman isn’t sure, and his default setting is to perceive everyone stronger than him as an enemy. Snyder and co-writer Chris Terrio (who won an Oscar for Argo) cleverly jiu-jitsu a common complaint about Man of Steel to explain why Batman hates Superman so much: he blames him for the death and the destruction the hero unleashed on Metropolis in his battle with General Zod.

“The idea that there are more, that’s hopeful and also terrifying to him,” says Affleck. “Because then they could make humans even more powerless – or they could serve on our side.” This is a Batman who has been at it for nearly two decades, and he’s both tired and a little hopeless.

The trailer features a Robin uniform, covered with Joker graffiti, which implies the Boy Wonder has been killed in a previous story. He’s starting to wonder if he ever really saved anyone – or just made things worse. “He’s projecting his own sense of failure, his own sense of disillusionment, his own cynicism onto Superman,” Affleck says.

But the Robin suit is another example of groundwork BvS is laying for other movies. “We’ll be exploring that,” says Johns, who has consulted on the full slate. “No one says specifically the name of which Robin that is.”

Image Credit: Clay Enos

That suggests we may see a stand-alone Batman movie where Affleck doesn’t have all that gray in his temples. But… that movie is still in the talking phase. “It’s in development, and right now I’m really focused on finishing Live By Night,” says Affleck, an adaptation of the thriller by novel by Gone Baby Gone author Dennis Lehane. “That’s where my focus is, and I tend to be a one movie at a time guy. So, when I’m finished with this movie, I’ll then focus on my next movie and figure out what that will be.”

For now, Affleck is definitely signed on for Justice League, and when asked if we can count on his Batman turning up in this summer’s Suicide Squad, he just laughs: “I’ve seen stuff from Suicide Squad,* and I can tell you that movie really works. That movie is really, really cool and fun and awesome.”

Should we keep our eyes peeled for the Caped Crusader?

Affleck pauses. “You should keep your eyes peeled for sure,” he says.

DISTORTED REALITY

While trying to establish this new multi-hero reality, Batman v Superman also warps it a little to foreshadow some of the threats – and potential saviors – who could appear further down the line. Snyder says there’s a kind of A Christmas Carol aspect to these visions. Maybe they’re true glimpses of the future – or maybe they’re warnings.

The film is laced with dream sequences for both Batman and Superman that hint at dangers to come – including the possible appearance of DC’s galactic ultra-villain Darkseid. The Flash (played by Miller) appears in one such nightmare of Bruce Wayne’s, delivering a cryptic message to the Dark Knight.

Fans will have to debate whether it was really a dream, or maybe the kinetic hero breaking through time-space to deliver a warning. Synder calls this “a giant Easter egg” that he hopes will spawn plenty of online theories. “We had such a straightforward narrative, on one hand, I wanted this other layer of the movie to be complicated and bizarre,” he says.

That brings us to a figure who looms largest over all of this, one who’s never had to share his time onscreen with so many powerful rivals. Superman may be the strongest of all, but following on the story set forth in Man of Steel, this series of DC movies is trying to reveal the flaws that go far beyond Kryptonite.

This Superman is still a newbie, still trying to figure out what to do with his strengths. Still trying to avoid making mistakes. “His weakness is that he doesn’t want to hurt anyone. He doesn’t want to scare anyone, and in that you can take advantage of him,” Cavill says. “This is someone who is a complete amateur, and he’s facing up against someone who is very well versed in the arts of war.”

One thing’s for sure – Superman won’t feel so alone anymore.

But the Man of Steel may want to plan ahead more the next time he has to fight the Dark Knight.

If there is a next time.

*(This story has been corrected. Originally, it said Affleck had seen Suicide Squad, but after a closer listen to the audio, he says he’s only seen part of it.)

To continue reading more on Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, pick up the new issue of Entertainment Weekly – or buy the Batman and Superman covers here – and subscribe now for more exclusive interviews and photos, only in EW. For more DC movie news, follow @Breznican. Sound off in the comments about which films you’d like to see even further beyond Warner Bros. announced plans?