‘Man of Steel’: Zack Snyder tries reconstruction for Superman

June 13, 2013 | 4:55 p.m.
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"Man of Steel" director Zack Snyder in New York on June 10, 2013. (Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

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"Man of Steel" director Zack Snyder in New York on June 10, 2013. (Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

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Henry Cavill, left, Zack Snyder and Kevin Costner on the set of "Man of Steel." (Clay Enos / Warner Bros.)

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Zack Snyder, left, and Amy Adams on the set of "Man of Steel." (Clay Enos / Warner Bros.)

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Kevin Costner, left, and Zack Snyder on the set of "Man of Steel." (Clay Enos / Warner Bros.)

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Henry Cavill, left, and Zack Snyder on the set of "Man of Steel." (Clay Enos / Warner Bros.)

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Producer Christopher Nolan, left, and director Zack Snyder on the set of "Man of Steel." (Clay Enos / Warner Bros.)

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Director Zack Snyder, left, and producers Charles Roven and Deborah Snyder on the set of "Man of Steel." (Clay Enos / Warner Bros.)

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"Man of Steel" director Zack Snyder in New York on June 10, 2013. (Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

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"Man of Steel" director Zack Snyder in New York on June 10, 2013. (Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

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"Man of Steel" director Zack Snyder in New York on June 10, 2013. (Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

“Man of Steel” began its ascent toward pop-culture immortality during fall 2010 inside a pressurized cabin in the skies between Los Angeles and Las Vegas. A fitting start for the relaunch of a comic book property inextricably linked with the exclamations “It’s a bird! It’s a plane!”

Christopher Nolan, the force behind the multibillion-dollar “Dark Knight” movie franchise, and his producing partner wife, Emma Thomas, were sharing a corporate jet with Zack Snyder, the action stylist behind the 2009 sci-fi superhero drama “Watchmen,” and his producer wife, Deborah Snyder. Both couples were on the way back to L.A. from Las Vegas’ CinemaCon, where they had previewed new films.

[FOR THE RECORD,  10:06 a.m. PDT June 19: An article in the June 16 Calendar section about Zack Snyder, director of the movie “Man of Steel,” said a conversation between Snyder and producer-director Christopher Nolan took place in fall 2010 on the way back from Las Vegas’ CinemaCon. The conversation took place that spring. In 2010, CinemaCon was known as ShoWest; the convention did not change its name to CinemaCon until 2011.]

Left unspoken during the getting-to-know-you rap session at 30,000 feet: Nolan had just taken charge as producer of Warner Bros.’ splashy Superman reboot. It was his first time godfathering someone else’s movie into production.

"Man of Steel" director Zack Snyder in New York on June 10, 2013. (Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

Zack Snyder says he was “scared” when asked to direct “Man of Steel.” (Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

Days after landing, the three-time Oscar nominee made Snyder an offer almost too good to refuse. Would he consider directing “Man of Steel”?

Initially, he blanched. “I was scared,” Snyder admitted recently in his office on the Warner Bros. lot.

PHOTOS: 50 ‘Man of Steel’ images

Scattered around the room, movie props from his films including a pile of human skulls, a stuffed beaver and a Spartan helmet from the director’s breakthrough swords-and-sandals epic “300” provided silent testimonial to his institutional familiarity with fantasy and mayhem.

“Can I honor this guy correctly?” he recalled wondering of Superman. “Am I going to tear him apart because I can’t help myself?”

Snyder, after all, is the alt-action ace who intended “Watchmen” as a “deconstruction of the mythology” of comic books. That film skewered tropes of superheroism through a cadre of masked marvels who variously suffer from god complexes, alcoholism, even erectile dysfunction.

On the set of “Watchmen,” Snyder infamously told this paper: “We’re killing the comic-book movie, ending it. This is the last comic-book movie, for good or bad.”

But after a bumpy career patch, with his animated thriller “Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole” and his 2011 anime-inspired action fantasy “Sucker Punch” indifferently received by fans domestically and mauled by critics, “Man of Steel” arrived in theaters this weekend as one of the popcorn movie season’s hottest tickets. It is 2013’s most-storied intellectual property outside “The Great Gatsby.”

On track to earn around $90 million over the course of its opening three days, according to pre-release tracking surveys, the $225-million superhero creation myth — written by “Dark Knight” screenwriter David S. Goyer, who shares a “story by” credit with Nolan — treats the Last Son of Krypton with a seriousness of intent and cinematic grandeur not unlike the Nolan-ified Batman films.

Moreover, with its darkly beautiful depictions of chaos and overall epic quality, early reviews have noted that “Man of Steel” could likely restore credibility to Superman (on the heels of director Bryan Singer’s nostalgic, overly talk-y 2006 “Superman Returns”) in much the same way Nolan’s “Dark Knight” trilogy fundamentally shifted the paradigm for Batman after an era when George Clooney’s nippled Batsuit turned the franchise into a laughingstock.

Amy Adams as Lois Lane, left, and Henry Cavill as Superman in "Man of Steel." (Clay Enos / Warner Bros.)

Amy Adams as Lois Lane, left, and Henry Cavill as Superman in “Man of Steel.” (Clay Enos / Warner Bros.)

Starring British heartthrob Henry Cavill (of the 2011 mythical action romp “Immortals” and Showtime’s “The Tudors”) as Clark Kent and featuring a cast of dramatic heavy hitters (including Russell Crowe as Superman’s birth father, Jor-El, Amy Adams as Lois Lane and Michael Shannon as super-nemesis General Zod), the movie modernizes Superman, showing the corollary conflict between great power, great responsibility and what it will take to one day “stand proud in front of the human race” as ingrained in young Clark by his adoptive Kansan dad (Kevin Costner).

And in addition to providing a lucrative new franchise at a time when Warner Bros. is suffering from empty-nest syndrome — Nolan concluded his Batman trilogy last year and the “Harry Potter” film series ran out of J.K. Rowling books to adapt — “Man of Steel” appears set to restore Snyder, 47, as an A-list director.

But to accomplish that feat, he first had to learn to stop worrying and love the comic book movie again.

PHOTOS: 75 images of Superman

“You want to justify it with all this stuff: ‘Oh, he represents mythology.’ Or, ‘There are Christ-like influences.’ All that is in there,” the laid-back director said, breaking into a smile. “But I guess when you lay it bare, you go, ‘I do love that thing! I don’t want to see it destroyed.’ The truth is, it’s OK to want Superman to be awesome. That answer — I just like Superman — is enough.”

To hear it from Nolan, Snyder’s efforts at genre sabotage were hardly a liability. When it came to resurrecting the granddaddy of all comic book heroes, the “Dark Knight” filmmaker saw Snyder’s track record of punking caped crusaders as a professional asset rather than a drawback.

“Somebody who had put so much time and effort into deconstructing the superhero mythology in a way is ideally positioned to reconstruct it,” said Nolan. “Zack being able to see through the iconography to the human being underneath — or, in this case, to the alien underneath — he’s able to really be faithful to the spirit of David’s original pitch: Let’s understand this guy. Letting the audience access his personality, his psychology, his struggles.”

Producer Christopher Nolan, left, and director Zack Snyder on the set of "Man of Steel." (Clay Enos / Warner Bros.)

Producer Christopher Nolan, left, says Snyder was “ideally positioned” to direct “Man of Steel.” (Clay Enos / Warner Bros.)

But first, Zack and Deborah Snyder had to be persuaded the project was a good match. Nothing in the director’s edgy filmography — filled, as it is, with schoolgirl ninja assassins (in “Sucker Punch”), a bloodthirsty, possibly gay god-king (in “300”) and, in “Watchmen’s” case, a giant radioactive super-being with a free-swinging phallus — suggests that it’s simpatico with a comic book lodestar associated closely with “truth, justice and the American way.”

“It was the goody-two-shoes-ness of it all,” explained Deborah, who has produced or executive produced all of her husband’s movies. “[Superman] has this squeaky image. And you couldn’t relate to his super side either. So there was nothing to grab onto.”

An emissary from Nolan’s Syncopy Inc. was dispatched to the Snyder household at 7 a.m. one morning, where he sat in the driveway while the couple pored over Goyer and Nolan’s screenplay.

"Man of Steel" director Zack Snyder in New York on June 10, 2013. (Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

“Man of Steel” director Zack Snyder says he saw his breakthrough hit, “300,” as “slightly ironic.” (Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

The director considered his past hits and misses adapting comic book fare: his $65-million “300” was blown up for the big screen from Frank Miller’s 1998 limited series and went on to earn $456 million globally, spawning a Snyder-produced sequel, “300: Rise of an Empire,” due out next year.

QUIZ: How well do you know the Man of Steel?

“I always thought ‘300’ was a slightly ironic movie,” Snyder said. “Even though people don’t view it that way, it’s ridiculous. I enjoyed the ridiculousness of it. I embraced it.”

“Watchmen,” based on Alan Moore’s epochal serialized comic series of the same name, stands as a continuation of Snyder’s efforts to deconstruct the comic-book genre; it grossed $185 million in worldwide box office. But with a $130-million production budget and costing tens of millions more to advertise and distribute, the moody sci-fi drama divided critics and was considered a misfire for Warner Bros.

Arising out of an original concept by Snyder and co-writer Steve Shibuya, meanwhile, “Sucker Punch” wears its steampunk, anime and chopsocky movie influences on its sleeve but fizzled at the multiplex and represents Snyder’s most outright flop.

“‘Sucker Punch’ was the last chapter in that self-reflexive deconstruction of all the genres that I loved,” the director said. “It was misunderstood to where I was like, ‘OK, am I just doing this wrong?’”

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He recalled the inner conversation that had governed his movie choices up until “Man of Steel”: “I’m fighting those things that I’m naturally good at. ‘Don’t make a summer blockbuster. The cool kid doesn’t want to be good at that stuff! I want to tear it all apart!’”

Nolan’s overture happened to arrive at a come-to-Jesus moment for Snyder. “When I got my teeth into it, this was the perfect thing right now,” he said. “After deconstructing the mythology, I started to fall back in love with it.”

Henry Cavill, left, and Zack Snyder on the set of "Man of Steel." (Clay Enos / Warner Bros.)

Henry Cavill, left, says Snyder’s “peppy energy” helped during the “grueling” shoot. (Clay Enos / Warner Bros.)

After eight months of script development — during which Cavill’s musculature was chiseled into Superman-worthy proportions via 20 weeks of killer workouts and the “S” on his chest was updated from a recent comic-book story line as an extraterrestrial glyph meaning “hope” — Snyder spent 125 days shooting “Man of Steel” and 16 more months fine-tuning the movie in post-production.

Deborah Snyder proudly points out that “Man of Steel” required no reshoots or additional photography, thanks largely to her husband’s pre-production ritual of sketching every shot of the movie in notebooks before the cameras roll.

“It’s all-consuming, exhausting,” she said. “It takes months. That’s when he’s really making the movie.”

Putting in 15 hours a day for more than 10 months on set took its toll on Cavill, who recalls the production as “exhausting.” But the British actor credits Snyder’s playfulness and singularity of focus with helping maintain his stamina even in moments of doubt or fatigue.

“This was a rather grueling shoot,” Cavill said. “So when you’re thinking, ‘Do I really have to do this? I don’t see the point,’ [Snyder’s] peppy energy will remind you that you do, absolutely, and you’re here to work. And if he’s working as many hours as the rest of us, if not more, then so can we.”

Henry Cavill, left, Zack Snyder and Kevin Costner on the set of "Man of Steel." (Clay Enos / Warner Bros.)

Henry Cavill, left, Zack Snyder and Kevin Costner on the set of “Man of Steel.” (Clay Enos / Warner Bros.)

Although speculation has ranged across social media and the blogosphere that Nolan may have back-seat-directed “Man of Steel,” the British filmmaker denies micro-managing Snyder in any way, describing his primary role as a creative enabler.

“I know as a director on a huge movie, you don’t always see the wood for the trees,” Nolan said. “I tried to be a voice of objectivity for Zack because I couldn’t be with him there on set. I was shooting ‘Dark Knight Rises’ at the same time. And I wouldn’t have wanted to be on his set anyways. He knows how to direct his movie. I was the guardian of the story, keeping it to the original conception of how we saw it.”

Days before the movie’s release on more than 4,200 screens — with reports circulating that Warner Bros. has already reupped Goyer and Snyder and fast-tracked a “Man of Steel” sequel — the director paused to consider his own hero’s journey.

“Chris making the decision to hire me, us making this giant movie, him away on ‘Dark Knight Rises’ — he bore a lot of the responsibility,” Snyder said. “And, in a weird way, I had a lot of the fun.”

— Chris Lee | Follow us on Twitter: @LATHeroComplex

Nicole Sperling contributed to this report.


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20 Responses to ‘Man of Steel’: Zack Snyder tries reconstruction for Superman

  1. Mike Paul says:

    You know, I watch Superman Returns occasionally, especially for the 6-minute airplane rescue that I thought was the highlight of the movie, and I look at the acting and everything and STILL can't see anything that required a 'reboot', just a villain more Brainiac-like. An "overly talky" Superman movie might have been the result of budget constraints. Now we get ANOTHER General Zod story, like this guy is somebody I can recall from my days reading the 12 cent comic books. If an "underly talky" movie does better, and we do finally get Brainiac, or even Darkseid, then I guess things will have worked out OK. Still think Brandon Routh got the short end…

    • Ryan says:

      You're right, we needed another Lex Luthor story.

    • @dnwilliams says:

      I strongly agree with you, Mike. That movie was favourably reviewed, made Batman Begins money, and Bryan Singer's sequel plans were tantalizing: http://screenrant.com/bryan-singer-superman-man-s

    • Kenny says:

      I just watched it on FX or something Wednesday night…I loved that movie. I don't get at all why people are so down on it! I wasn't a fan of Kate Bosworth as Lois Lane (seemed like a high school girl in a school play…), but overall, it was a well-made film. The series did NOT need a reboot, any more than Spider-Man did. Newer is not always better. I wish people would get that. I saw a quote about something else the other day, maybe another film, that said something to the effect of, "Updating it for today's audience, a new modern take…" What a waste! Make a good movie, and you won't have that problem.

    • christopher says:

      i agree. the Routh reboot was a classic tip of the hat to the original movie series, and had all the makings for a great series.

  2. ksbeth says:

    great post, what an in depth behind the scenes look at man of steel )

  3. B. Levrenz says:

    I just saw the Walmart pre-premiere. I thought the movie was awesome! I'm not a teen or tween, I read my first Superman comic book back in 1961. I've read almost every one since, and I've seen all of the movies presented. I got home tonight and read reviews of this movie for the first time…I like to go to movies "clean" and form my own opinions of them. I'm glad I did! The reviews that panned almost every aspect of this movie made me wonder if the writers had seen the same movie I did! Or maybe they are enamored of their own rhetoric, or possibly they just don't "get" Superman. If you haven't read every mag, and haven't seen every transition of the character, from the boyscout version of the 50s and 60s, to the tortured, and angry man of the 90s, don't spout that this "new" superman is too big a "deviation". I think the makers of this movie achieved exactly what they were aiming to; they gave us a glimpse of the struggle of an alien being to come to grips with being alone and unique on a planet far from his own, with no insight, throughout his formative years and early adulthood as to where that might be, who his people were or why he was "cast out". Yes, Superman's Human upbringing by Kansas farmers was the cornerstone of why he was an upstanding American and all round nice guy, but he was still an alien and an outsider, and had to come to grips with that during his life at some time, and this movie shows us that journey that has been so overlooked. Don't sell it short because of bad reviews, see it with open and wondering eyes and let your feelings for this man's struggle have free reign and you will get a thrill from this movie too!

    • Jor el says:

      if u are a true superman fan, u should know he doesn't killlll. my kids just saw their comic book hero kill. he stands for an idea of peace and justice and the american way. he doesn't judge criminals he catches them. he doesn't kill.

      • Wait what did he do to Doomsday then?

      • joe says:

        Superman, didn't want to kill him. Did you not see that? This movie tries its base itself as much as it can in reality. There is sometimes opportunities in our lives where have to make choices that we never would have considering the circumstances. If you were a true superhero fan, you WOULD have loved this move.

    • B. Levrenz says:

      You are all right, and yes I understand that superman does not Kill. That said, The character has been re-designed SEVERAL times over the decades he has been around. They gave him long hair to make him cool, they made him more conflicted and many other things, I don't agree with the decision to have him kill Zod, but they made it clear that it was a terrible decision for him with a terrible price for the protection of his new home and people. I still don't agree with it, BUT. Many decisions are made now to keep these characters viable. We all would like to keep our innocence, and the innocence of the characters we found dear to us as children, but Superman almost went out of print once, and re-designing him saved the mag. Now, children are inundated by extreme action/extreme violence video games daily. Parents of 6 to 8-year-olds are buying them R and Mature rated games just to keep them from being bored. If Superman walked out onto the big screen now and said, "Golly gee, Miss Lane" what do you think would happen to that movie? It's sad, and it's the end of an era for all of us long term fans, but at least there are new fans out there to take the character on through more decades. Hey, I didn't like "Leave it to Beaver" transitioning into "One day at a time" with smart mouthed kids showing no respect, but it happened and I just started turning off the TV. Lot of good that did, huh? It was inevitable that someone was going to go into this territory with this character, it just happened now, and at least it wasn't egregious. That's all the time I'm devoting to something that in the big picture doesn't rock my life. Hope you all enjoy future movies if you can, and remember that, sadly, the word moves on.

    • Lillian Luthor says:

      B. Levernz,

      You could not have said it any better. I was totally bored with Superman Returns. I went to the theater to see it and it did nothing for me. I felt nothing for Clark/Kal-el/Superman. It was not good to me. This new incarnation was perfect. I totally got the point and why everyone is down on it is beyond me. I just don't get it. It has always been about his journey. And besides, aren't we in the age of looking at a character's beginning. There is the new "Bates Motel', exploring Norman Bates. don't tell me that that's crap. It's not by the way. Snyder, Nolan, WB and Cavill did a fantastic job! The numbers speak for itself. What movie can do so well on Word of Mouth?

      Can't wait for the sequel. This was so good, that at 48 years old and female, I am on her talking about it,

  4. Jman says:

    Superman does not kill sorry.. wayyyy too much action and a plot a 5 year old wrote..wait for the dvd..

    • campbell says:

      hell no go to the movies and watch it great movie one of the best superhero movies plot was great action was intense not the old regular superman movie this is a new age all characters have to be revamped or movies would not make any money! He had to kill, a hard choice to make, sorry you are stuck in the 70's 1978 to be exact. hopefully you get it 1978.

    • DJdude says:

      No. Superman does not kill. HOWEVER…

      Up until this point in his life, there has been no one alive who could stop Clark. He was too strong, too fast, too tough. If he wanted to push you aside, you were pushed aside. General Zod, however, is quite another thing altogether. He is Kryptonian, just like Clark is. He cannot simply be pushed aside, Clark has to exert as much effort to push him aside as one human being would have to exert to push another aside. And with all of General Zod's newly trained senses focused entirely on attempting to brutally engulf a family in flames, he was a serious fight for Clark.

      Remember this, Jor-El said that his son had become much stronger than he ever could have thought possible, and the only way to know how strong was to keep testing his limits. If Superman has no limits, if the more he tests them, the more he rises above them, then the same could hold true for any other Kryptonian (General Zod).

      Remember this, General Zod said that he was born to be soldier, he spent his whole life training to master his senses, and over the course of at most a few hours, General Zod had tested himself, using the techniques and tactics he had learned as a soldier to strengthen himself and master the powers it took Clark his whole life to.

      By the end of the movie, General Zod may well have been stronger than Superman was, which was why try as he might, Superman could not push General Zod away. Could only slow him from the inevitable incineration of that family.

      General Zod (in my opinion) sealed his own fate. Superman was begging him to stop because he could not force Zod to stop. Zod was too strong. Begging the man, pleading with him to stop. And the general said, "Never."

      If Superman didn't stop him right then, it is conceivable that General Zod would have kept testing himself using all of his military techniques much the same way Superman would have kept testing himself, but Zod would have had the advantage, and I believe eventually, Superman would not have been able to stop Zod at all. Would have been a joke to Zod.

      What do you do when you have one chance and one chance only to stop a monster from destroying everything and everyone you love?

      I cried in the theater. Cried along with Kal-El. Cried for the loss of innocence. For the one action he could never take back. But he picked himself back up and continued on. No, Superman does not kill. Just like I don't kill. I just don't. It's not fun, it's not the solution to every problem. It just isn't. But when the people I love are in danger of losing their lives….I don't think I would bat an eyelash at ending the danger.

      Maybe that's just me, maybe that's not everybody. Maybe you are okay with sitting back and letting some psycho kill off your spouse and kids or dearest friends and watching it all happen and not doing anything about it. But not me.

  5. Samir Tikaram says:

    This is a superhero movie for the ages.

    Not only is it a fresh take on 75 year old icon, but it wholly satisfies as a film on its own merits. The story is a well crafted tale, brilliantly realised on screen. It is wholly cohesive and emotional at its core, never forgetting the expectations to which it needs to live up.

    This is after all SUPERMAN!

    Having said that, the script completely pays off everything it sets up. It has absolutely no fat on it at all. Every scene and sequence is completely germane to the plot. The characters are well fleshed out and the conflict is borne out of their characterisations rather than a tacked on 'third act'. Every decision (some quite admirable in their boldness) that pushes the boundaries of established 'canon' stays true to the core of the characters. It never once feels like something created out of wholly new cloth masquerading as a Superman story.

    So when Kal-El is faced with no choice but to kill his opponent in order to save innocents, he does the needful. And pays a heavy cost in doing so.

    I can’t see how anyone could think this was sub-par in any way. It delivers in spades right from the script, to the direction, to the production design and visual effects, to the acting and the musical score.

    In this viewer’s opinion, Man of Steel is an absolute triumph!

    May it soar high.

    • G says:

      I was anticipating this movie for over a year. After reading bad user reviews and critics throwing the man of steel down, I have to say, I have no idea what movie they watched. It was absolutely epic. Groundbreaking film. Will watch it again in 2D, then in 3D and then IMAX 3D.

  6. Dennis says:

    I thought the level of violence and destruction was unprecidented but the overall effect was a little convoluted and backwards after seeing the originals with Christopher Reed in them. I mean flying dragons on Krypton at the beginning and the evilness of General Zod was a way bit overblown as if he wanted to create a whole new race of people that really weren't able to live even amongst themselves because of thier evilness. That would be disasterous so I can understand as to why Superman wanted to break his neck at the end. He was way too out of control. I thought that part about the drone at the end was pretty funny. I guess it was meant to be very dark and mysterious.

  7. campbell says:

    great movie for those who did not like it please get out of the 70's GREAT MOVIE action plot all of it was great from start to finish.

  8. Candleman says:

    "Superman doesn't kill.." If he is battling Lex then no… But here he is faced with a singular will in person that WILL kill everyone, the entire world Clark/Supes has ever known and he doesn't have the ability to simply contain Zod. And it is not made light of as you can clearly see when he is begging Zod to not kill the people in the museum with Zod's death-ray blazing, even though Kal-El has Zod in a death grip Zod says "I will not stop"…. Superman does what he has to and it isn't done lightly as you should clearly have noticed, Kal-El screams in anguish after killing the last of his kind. He knows what he has done. He knows there was no other choice open to him. And BTW in Superman II (1979?) Suppes kills all 3 of the Kryptonians in the fortress of solitude. They don't fall into the chasm into another Phantom Zone, they fall powerless to their deaths. Where the hell are you people making your arguments from, saying Donners Superman didn't kill and this new Superman just kills Zod flippantly… It's he other way around. Donners Superman killed them flippantly, Snyders Superman practically breaks himself doing it.

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