Although his iteration of the character has been the subject of heavy criticisms, Henry Cavill’s portrayal of Superman is more than ideal – the real problem comes from the messy execution of the DC Extended Universe. This darker version of the most prototypical superhero in history was introduced in 2013’s Man of Steel as the foundation for Zack Snyder’s Superman-focused 5-movie DCEU plan, intended to involve several DC heroes in a life-or-death quest to defeat the cosmic villain Darkseid and bring back the son of Krypton from his twisted manipulation. Unfortunately, the reception to each of his appearances became increasingly unfavorable, and Justice League dissolved all future hopes of fulfilling that original idea.
The live-action adaptations of the character started way back in 1948 with the black-and-white Superman movie serial, starring Kirk Alyn, followed by the famous 1950s The Adventures of Superman TV show led by George Reeves. From then on, Superman enjoyed diverse portrayals from talented actors in all kinds of media, including the iconic Christopher Reeve in Richard Donner’s 1978 Superman film, Dean Cain in the ABC show Lois & Clark, Tom Welling in the Smallville TV series, Brandon Routh in Superman Returns – a sequel to 1980’s Superman II – and Tyler Hoechlin in the current CW Arrowverse. However, all eyes have been on Henry Cavill since Man of Steel, expecting his portrayal to become the definitive translation of the icon to the silver screen and launch a shared cinematic universe that brings all of the beloved DC characters together for the first time.
The chances of accomplishing that idea flawlessly are long gone, but at least, Henry Cavill returning is not as unlikely as Ben Affleck’s Batman donning the cape and cowl once again. Time and time again, the many issues of the DCEU have been linked to Cavill’s portrayal of Superman, but in reality, he’s not the one to blame. Given other circumstances, he could become what Robert Downey Jr. is to Iron Man and what Hugh Jackman is to Wolverine: the indisputable face of his character.
Starting with the obvious, Henry Cavill would need to try really hard in order to stop looking like a Superman ripped straight out the comic book pages. His serene demeanor nicely contrasts with his robust frame, with an imposing style that slightly diverges from the “playboy” kind of charm and leans toward a more gentle brand of charisma – a quality that makes him stand out from all of the other actors that almost played Zack Snyder’s Superman. Cavill has boosted his naturally strong physique to the max for the role since Man of Steel, achieving a powerful presence onscreen without tipping over to the bodybuilder side. This way, he accurately depicts the balance between what a superpowered alien god would look like and what a modest farmer from Kansas could achieve. He even refused to shave his body hair for the shirtless oil rig sequence in Man of Steel, arguing that the character kept it in The Death of Superman – one of Superman’s most important stories.
That is only one of the signs that point out Henry Cavill’s intention to create a performance that’s true to the character that the fans know and love. Even with all of the DCEU’s blunders, his internalized vision of the classic superhero icon has surfaced in various moments throughout his three appearances, the most striking of which have been Superman’s first flight in Man of Steel and Lex Luthor’s (Jesse Eisenberg) terrorist attack on the Capitol building. He manages to capture all the nuances of genuine joy that an insecure ordinary man feels when meeting his higher purpose in the former, and the impotence of surviving a nefarious attack without a scratch while hundreds of victims disintegrate in a ball of fire in the latter. Where most other candidates would see a perfect god-figure trying to pass as an ordinary man, Cavill sees an ordinary man trying to catch up with the moral duties of a god.
Neither Warner Bros.’ argument that Henry Cavill’s Superman cannot lead a movie nor the age-old criticism that Superman is inherently boring as a character hold up against Cavill’s performance as the Man of Tomorrow. Regardless of what the writers, the directors, and the studio intended for moments like the Man of Steel scene where Superman snaps Zod’s neck or the infamous Martha line in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, Henry Cavill clearly put his soul into the performance and brought all of the emotions that these moments required. Unfortunately, he can only do so much against the bumpy development of the DCEU and its lack of focus on its most important character.
The decision to make a gritty Superman film was a divisive one since the very start of the DCEU. Man of Steel presented a Kal-El who lives in a dark world, with no underwear over his famous costume and one kill to his name by the end of his origin story. Still, this could have been the beginning of an unprecedented take on Superman on the big screen. However, further creative decisions failed to do him justice – the most evident example being his death at the hands of Doomsday barely at the end of his second appearance in the DCEU with the aim to introduce the heroes of the Justice League and expand the universe in the span of two movies. Instead, what his death accomplished was undermining all of the impact it could have made on the audience if he had the chance to develop a little longer. Along with Warner Bros.’ infamous attempt to remove Henry Cavill’s mustache with CGI that derived from the disastrous production of Justice League, the direction Superman ended up taking in the franchise became wildly inconsistent.
Besides his premature death, Superman’s arc in most of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice was still compatible with what had been established up to that point: a near-invincible hero who struggled to be accepted by humanity. But after showing signs of dormant evil when he’s resurrected in Justice League, he disappears for a while and suddenly arrives at the tail end of the final battle being more optimistic than he’s ever been – only to turn into a ruthless dictator in Zack Snyder’s Knightmare idea of the future later down the line. These pitfalls triggered a flood of criticisms that were later wrongly attributed to Henry Cavill’s portrayal. A layer of rushed CGI makes it harder to identify an actor’s performance, but in fact, his acting kept the same level of quality – it was the rest of the DCEU that failed to delineate a clear path for his character.
Moreover, there have been various direct attacks on his mythos. Dawn of Justice killed off Superman’s pal, Jimmy Olsen, in the same scene it introduced him – many fans even doubted he was the same James Olsen from the comics until Snyder confirmed it. Clark Kent was also almost nonexistent in the DCEU, despite being the identity that anchors Superman to the real world, linking the man and the myth for the audience to relate to. Jesse Eisenberg’s portrayal of Lex Luthor went against everything the iconic villain has ever been known for, replacing the original’s stoic intellect with a neurotic personality that would drive any Arkham Asylum prisoner even crazier. These inaccurate adjustments didn’t fail because of their execution, they failed because they contradict what the general audience expects from an adaptation of almost a century’s worth of beloved stories.
For now, Henry Cavill isn’t starring in a Superman film. His status in the DCEU remained in limbo for quite some time after the release of Justice League, but luckily, his return is likely. Still, Warner Bros. currently wants to turn Superman into a cameo character, with only brief appearances in other titles like Shazam 2 or Aquaman 2. His intended presence in the DCEU going forward seems to accentuate the issues that have afflicted his movies in the past, however, and the idea of having a well-developed, comic-accurate Superman leading the revival of Warner Bros’ most promising shared universe continues to be a distant dream many fans keep craving for. The plan to have the embodiment of the comic book superhero archetype as a background figure just doesn’t fit with any successful outcome in an era when Rocket Raccoon is about to complete his fully-coherent 5-movie arc without a single setback.
While the Snyder Cut’s biggest improvement will be Cyborg, not Superman, some justice could still be coming for the Man of Steel. Zack Snyder’s constant teasing of his original ideas suggests Superman will be more consistent this time around, since his return from the dead won’t suffer from the same hurry as the theatrical version of Justice League. Even if he never comes back to the DCEU afterward, this tweak makes his evolution from a humble country kid into the key to the fate of the universe slightly more in line with Henry Cavill’s work in the three movies he has appeared in. On the other hand, Snyder’s promise of Superman’s black suit goes hand in hand with the source material and his dark interpretation of the character, which will be more evident in the Snyder Cut. At the very least, this could signify a further development of the hero and the shared universe as a whole into the Knightmare scenario – the storyline that was supposed to become the biggest event in the history of DC movies.
Man of Steel 2 is still not a priority at Warner Bros., but Henry Cavill is far past the need to prove his worth to the DCEU. His performances outside the DC movies as August Walker in Mission Impossible: Fallout and Geralt of Rivia in The Witcher are more than enough proof that the man has range and leading potential. It’s the DCEU who has to get back on track and stop wasting his talent while there’s still time. Warner Bros.’ already lost the Caped Crusader, they can’t afford to lose their Man of Steel.
The DC Extended Universe owes its existence to Superman, not only because he was the one to set the ball in motion with Man of Steel, but also because – as the character has done inside and outside the comic books for decades – he’s the one that personifies everything a hero stands for. Already having Henry Cavill’s perfect potential to embody hope and justice, it’s still unreasonable for the DCEU not to harness it.
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