Why Superman deserves better
The issue isn’t Henry Cavill, it’s that Superman’s lost his way, says Empire’s Editor-atlarge Helen O’hara
WHEN THE HOLLYWOOD Reporter claimed that Henry Cavill was no longer going to be the Man Of Steel after ‘parting ways’ with Warner Bros. (in a statement, the studio said that no decision had been made regarding future films), the internet came alive. Some thought it a good move, others disagreed and a third group cried, “Who cares? Superman is boring anyway!” It’s true that Cavill’s performances, to date, have not always done the character justice. But perhaps he hasn’t been given the right chance. Perhaps it’s worth asking why. After all, Superman should never be dull.
Cavill’s first turn in Man Of Steel tried to force the Big Blue Boy Scout into a Dark Knight mould, and ended up with a dull, navy blue hybrid that underserved the character in fundamental ways (hardly any saving people in that finale, for one). Batman v Superman went darker yet, making both heroes vigilantes, and it wasn’t until the last half hour of Justice League that we saw what Cavill might be able to do with an optimistic, relatively unconflicted Superman. Even now, we’ve barely glimpsed his Clark Kent.
Perhaps that’s the missing element in Cavill’s films. Superman chooses to maintain a normal life, not to brood in the Fortress Of Solitude between rescues, because it’s important to him to be a man. Tarantino argued in Kill Bill that Clark is a satire on humanity, but it’s probably more accurate to say that Clark is the real persona, or at least, an equal one. Superman is the mantle he wears to do his duty as a son of Krypton and the son of two supremely decent humans.
The best scenes in Richard Donner’s adaptations portrayed the melancholy of that double life, the fact that he could be close to Lois in either guise but never truly be with her. Every stolen romantic moment would mean neglecting a house fire, or an earthquake. Superman’s existence must be a torment of never feeling he’s done as much as he could. Because if you can do anything, how do you stop? Cavill’s films never dealt with that dilemma. This incarnation allowed his father to die in order to keep his identity secret, rather than because he was busy saving others.
That choice misrepresents the character on a fundamental level and misses a chance to explore his dual identity.
Despite it all, Cavill himself isn’t bad in the role. Okay, he has an unfortunate tendency to sometimes look smug, an emotion that should never cross either Kal-el or Clark’s face. You sometimes get the impression that he feels constrained by the character’s goodness. But he’s a decent actor, he looks the part, and he appears to have affection for Superman.
But while Cavill has struggled, Superman’s close thematic cousins, Wonder Woman and Captain America, have shown the range of storytelling that’s possible with a truly good person at its heart. There’s compelling drama in trying to figure out what the right thing is in an imperfect world, far more than in brooding about some long-ago tragedy or your own inner demons. We all have our doubts and failings, even the Man Of Steel; it’s there waiting to be explored. Whoever wears the cape on his next outing needs to remind us what makes Superman great if they want to make a great film. Clue: it’s not his ability to super-punch bad guys.
Main: Not so Superman: Henry Cavill’s time in the cape may be up. Above: Flying high: Christopher Reeve in his most iconic role.