Warning: This story contains MAJOR SPOILERS for Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.
From the very start, director Zack Snyder knew that Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice — the long-anticipated sequel to his 2013 Superman reboot, Man of Steel — was going to end with the death of the most iconic superhero in all of superherodom: Superman.
"I felt it was inevitable," Snyder recently told BuzzFeed News. "Even when we were working on Man of Steel, I was like, Gosh, what are we going to do with this guy? He's a pretty tough cookie."
After all, Superman is a paragon for truth, justice, and the American way, on top of being a superhero whose powers seem limited only by the movie's visual-effects budget (which is to say, not limited much at all). Snyder felt that the Man of Steel did not allow much room for standard character development. "He's so mythic," the director said with a small sigh. "Superman takes cosmic shifts to get him to move emotionally [and] that reinforces his mythic nature."
That was the first storytelling hurdle in Batman v Superman that had Snyder mulling over the decision to kill the latter. But one of the biggest catalysts was right there in the title: Between the two superheroes, there would have to be a winner.
"The sketch of the movie was Batman hates Superman because he doesn't have the perspective of a god," Snyder explained. "So when Superman comes to Metropolis, [Bruce Wayne] just sees the destruction — he doesn't see the ‘why’ of [his battle with General Zod]. He doesn't realize its global consequences. Thousands to save billions, right? And Superman hates Batman because he believes in the rule of law, and is like, 'Bro, like, judge, jury, and executioner? That's not cool!'”
But Snyder also understood that his two marquee superheroes couldn’t actually destroy each other, and needed to set aside their differences in the film's final act. “In the sketch, I'm like, 'So they fight, and there has to be another thing that draws them together in the end,’” Snyder said. “And then that's the thing that kills Superman, eventually."
The second half of the film's title, Dawn of Justice, presages the two Justice League movies, part of Warner Bros.' betting-the-company slate of interconnected films based on DC Comics titles. As they began assembling the narrative threads that would bind those movies together, Snyder and his creative team — including his wife and producing partner Deborah Snyder, producer Charles Roven, and DC Entertainment guru Geoff Johns — decided that the person who unites the Justice League should not be the all-powerful Superman.
"I really felt like Bruce should be the one that puts the Justice League together," said Snyder. "He feels like the samurai who would do that, who gathers the others."
And, finally, Snyder also had to consider how Batman v Superman would set up the two-part Justice League. "The catalyst, the need for the Justice League, has to rise from something," he said. These powerful superheroes, in other words, couldn’t just get together for a picnic. So, as Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg) intones at the end of Batman v Superman, that "something" ended up being the death of Superman — a cosmic bell that cannot be unrung, and would signify that Earth was suddenly vulnerable.
"To me, [Superman's death] solved so many great problems," said Snyder.
After the filmmakers made the decision to kill Superman, then they had to figure out how to do it. "I didn't just want to put him in a volcano, or [have him] trapped by some, like, Promethean dilemma," Snyder said with a smile. He turned instead to the blockbuster 1992 comic series The Death of Superman, in which the Man of Steel perished battling a Kryptonian monstrosity named Doomsday. The comic broke sales records and made national headlines; for Snyder, there was really no other option. "I think it had to be Doomsday," he said matter-of-factly.
Doomsday is so tied to Superman's death in the minds of comic book fans, in fact, that the decision to simply reveal his existence in Batman v Superman in the movie's second full trailer had the filmmaking team worried their ending would be spoiled.
"We talked about it a lot," Deborah Snyder told BuzzFeed News. "It's a big deal. But we wanted to own it, quite honestly. We felt like at least we were going to get it out in a way that we wanted it to go out. Because I think in this day and age, you have to assume it's going to get out there."
After they released the trailer in December, Snyder said he spent the entire day "monitoring" the online response to see how many people would correctly guess that Doomsday = Superman’s death. And, to everyone's surprise, very few did. "I was shocked that people did not immediately jump to the conclusion," said Snyder. "I think they just felt like, 'That's impossible. They're not going to kill Superman.' I mean, a couple people did [figure it out], but then they were all yelled at. It was funny." (Snyder also believes the decision to end the trailer with an internet-melting shot of "the Trinity" — i.e., Superman, Wonder Woman, and Batman — threw fans off their scent.)
Even though they were resigned to the idea that Superman’s death could eventually leak, the filmmakers still went to enormous lengths to keep their film's biggest spoiler a secret. That included how Snyder shot the aftermath of Superman's death, especially Clark Kent's funeral. The sequence was code-named the "harvest festival" during production, and since Henry Cavill had to lie in an open casket, Clark Kent's mourners were made up entirely of the film's crew. "Literally the electricians, camera guys," Snyder said. "My script supervisor's child is the kid [in the scene]."
Even Deborah Snyder appeared on camera. "That's how crazy it was!" she said.
Superman's funeral was easier to pull off — it was a procession with an unmarked casket wrapped in an American flag. "We were very unclear as to what it was," she explained. "People thought maybe the president died.”
The shots of a candlelight vigil around Superman's new memorial — a simple seal with the words "If you seek his monument, look around you" — required a bit more sleight of hand: Cavill came to set to make it look like Clark Kent was covering the vigil as a journalist.
"I would tell [the extras] that there was a huge tragedy, and Superman saved the day," the director explained. "But there was a lot of emotion around what happened, and it's a sad day. Everyone worked it out in their own heads. There was one fireman who was really crying. I was like, Wow, that's great."
Of course, death is never final in comic books. Less than a year after The Death of Superman comic came out, the Man of Steel returned very much alive on the page. The final shot in Batman v Superman — specks of dirt rising up over Clark Kent's coffin — would seem to suggest that the last son of Krypton will have a similar resurrection in the Justice League movies. But Snyder almost didn't include the shot. "I went back and forth with it, to be honest," he said. "I do feel like it offers a teeny bit of hope for those people who need it. I feel like it's obvious that we have to figure out a way to get him back, but I don't know that everyone [knows that]. So I just wanted to give them that little jolt out of the theater, where they're like, Oh shit! What's going to happen?"
So, should fans not be freaked out that Superman is really, truly, irrevocably dead? "No, they probably don't have to be freaked out by that," Snyder said, before laughing. "But, we haven't filmed it yet, so…"