STORY WRITTEN BY BOB STRAUSS
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Expectations for “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” could not be higher.
For audiences that weren’t exactly bowled over by director Zack Snyder’s previous movie, “Man of Steel,” there’s hope that his Henry Cavill-played interpretation of the first comic book superhero will make the invincible character compelling on screen for a change.
Fans of previous Batman movies, especially Christopher Nolan’s “Dark Knight” trilogy starring Christian Bale, question whether Ben Affleck’s older, angrier take on the Caped Crusader and his traumatized alter ego Bruce Wayne will fly.
And for Warner Bros., this is the make-or-break launch of the studio’s DC Comics cinematic universe, already underway with an in-production “Wonder Woman” standalone feature and the Snyder-directed “The Justice League” that begins shooting in a few weeks.
Will “Batman v Superman,” which not only introduces Wonder Woman to the big screen but shows us other Justice League heroes to come, finally put DC’s intellectual properties in real, not just Bat-competition with Disney’s mighty Marvel box office Avengers?
With that and a lot more riding on this $250 million production, Snyder says that perhaps the best way for everyone to approach it is to curb your expectations.
Personality Quiz: Are you Batman or Superman?
“To me, it’s a bit of a deconstructivist film,” explains Snyder, whose 2009 “Watchmen” was the ultimate super-antihero movie — and not considered a great success. “In that, it’s subverting expectation in a lot of ways, but also fulfilling it in other ways that maybe you didn’t expect. Maybe you came into the movie thinking you want one thing, but hopefully you leave going maybe I was taken down another road that’s better.”
‘Man of Steel’ influence
Perhaps the most subversive thing about “Batman v Superman” is that it’s designed as an answer to a big complaint about “Man of Steel”: That film’s climactic battle between the Kryptonian aliens Superman and General Zod seemed to bear no concern for the human casualties that resulted.
Snyder claims that he intended to show that superfights could be deadly. He thinks comic book movies that don’t acknowledge that are irresponsible.
“I did always feel that consequence was part of the reality of ‘Man of Steel,’ “ the filmmaker reveals. “We started working on ‘Batman v Superman’ before that movie came out and I had this idea, but I wasn’t expecting the visceral reaction on that level because I felt that the why of it was clear. Suffice it to say that I really put a lot of emphasis on that area in this once I realized how people were reacting to the last one.”
The “Batman v Superman” action commences with Wayne driving into Metropolis — Batman’s Gotham City is located across a bay from Clark Kent’s town in this one — during the skyscraper-wrecking Zod battle. Appalled by the massive collateral damage, Wayne stews for the next 18 months in his Batcave while his faithful assistant Alfred (Jeremy Irons now) fears for his friend’s mental health.
Batman isn’t the only troubled hero. Both a Senate committee and Metropolis tech mogul Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg, with hair, mostly) are also concerned that the all-powerful Superman, despite consistently doing good since killing Zod, could be a potential threat to mankind’s safety.
Despite the loving support of Earth mom Martha Kent and girlfriend Lois Lane (“Man of Steel’s” Diane Lane and Amy Adams, respectively), Clark is wondering himself about who he should be on his adoptive world.
Then both Batman and Luthor come after him with all they’ve got.
“There’s an awful lot of psychology in Superman because it’s the one way you can find to crack the shell,” Cavill says of making his invulnerable, all-powerful being accessible. “When it comes to playing the character — especially in this movie where we still see the growth of Superman before seeing the finished product that we know and love of the character in the comic books — it was just delving into the psychology and the weaknesses therein. Then, of course, the conflicts he has when facing the likes of Batman.”
With a screenplay co-scripted by his Oscar-winning “Argo” writer Chris Terrio, Affleck had a lot of help developing a Wayne/Batman as dangerously obsessed as the one found in Frank Miller’s acclaimed “Dark Knight Returns” graphic novels — where, incidentally, he also fought Superman.
“There was plenty for me to grab onto and to help use my imagination to try to build this character,” notes Affleck, who had a bad superexperience starring in the 2003 “Daredevil” movie. “I liked the idea that both Bruce Wayne and Batman were sort of f—ed up, unhealthy people who were engaging in unhealthy behavior at night as a result of psychological scars they bore from childhood. That duality was interesting to explore.”
Enter Wonder Woman
While Amazon princess Wonder Woman (secret identity: Diana Prince) doesn’t deal with the levels of anxiety her male counterparts do in “Batman v Superman,” Israeli actress Gal Gadot bore the burden of being the first movie incarnation of the third longest-lived comic book crusader after Supes and Bats.
“I think that Lynda Carter was a magnificent Wonder Woman,” Gadot says of the actress who played the role on television before the younger actor was born. “They’re certainly big shoes to fit into, but when they cast me for this movie, Zack and everybody had a very clear vision of who Wonder Woman should be and how to tell her story.
“I have a 4-year-old daughter, and she adores princesses, but at the same time she will tell me, ‘The princess is so weak, she falls asleep, the prince will come and save her and kiss her and he’s the hero,’ “ Gadot continues. “So I’m so happy to be the one who’s going to tell the Wonder Woman story. It’s so important for girls and boys to have a strong, female superhero to look up to.”
Modern neurotic villain
Eisenberg brought even less personal angst to portraying Superman’s perennial foe. He didn’t read comics growing up and hasn’t seen any of the classic portrayals on film or TV by the likes of Gene Hackman and Kevin Spacey. However, Eisenberg’s Luthor may be the most neurotic of them all.
“Don’t look at him as an evil Mark Zuckerberg, or evil anybody,” laughs the actor who played the Facebook founder in “The Social Network” (2010). “He is kind of a petulant kid. In a way, Superman took his toy away so he wants to kill Superman. Lex is very powerful, but he’s really only the second most powerful person in Metropolis and that eats away at him.
“What we wanted to do with this was have somebody who is tormented in a modern way, who is really troubled,” Eisenberg adds. “Not a campy villain who is in control, but a troubled person who probably needs psychiatric help.”
Creating a universe
The “Batman v Superman” stars have all signed on to “Justice League” and, in many cases, beyond. While he’s not directing Gadot in “Wonder Woman” — “Monster’s” Patty Jenkins is — Snyder has some degree of creative oversight for Warner’s DC universe, which has nine more films scheduled through the end of the decade, starting with this summer’s villains romp “Suicide Squad.”
“The thing that’s been cool as we’ve come forward is that we’ve helped shape a world that informs the other movies, and actually get them to a place where they’re giving us information from what we gave them,” Snyder explains. “That’s the way that we’re working with all of the different movies, though ‘Justice League,’ in a lot of ways, is the head of the spear. It drives a lot of everything else.”
Does the responsibility for all of this ever get to Snyder?
“Sure, there are plenty of mornings when I wake up and go, ‘Are you kidding me? This is crazy!’ “ he admits. “But I do love the characters, so it’s an uptown problem in some ways. Oh, I’ve got to talk about Wonder Woman more — it’s not a thing I can really complain about too much.”
Much depends, of course, on “Dawn of Justice” doing what it’s supposed to at a time when a much more radical comic book movie, “Deadpool,” has just redefined the genre. And when we know Marvel’s May release, “Captain America: Civil War,” will cover similar hero vs. hero ground.
“I’m a fan, so I want to see it,” Snyder, who’s dissed Marvel in the past, says of “Civil War.” “I like those guys and I just think it’s cool. Cool possibilities there.”