To quote a pretty well-known comic book arc from 1993: “He first came to us in an hour of need, when society had grown dark and cynical and it seemed that greed had become the American Way.” That time, of course, was the year 2011; Transformers: Dark of the Moon was one of the biggest movies of the year, Game of Thrones was but a wee baby fantasy series debuting on HBO, and there hadn’t been a big-screen Kryptonian since 2006’s disastrously uninteresting Superman Returns. And then Warner Bros. announced British actor Henry Cavill would slap on the iconic reds-and-blues for Zack Snyder‘s upcoming Man of Steel. Said Snyder at the time: “He is the perfect choice to don the cape and S shield.”
Now, seven years, three lukewarm movies, two Marthas, and one horrendously fudged-up CGI face later and Cavill is reportedly out as Superman. This particular son Jor-El deserved better than what he got. We missed out on the next great Superman.
If you gave the wizard from Shazam! a few pieces of gold and told him to literally bring Superman to life, the result would probably look less like Superman than Henry Cavill looks like Superman. Look at that rock-jawed son-of-stockbroker bastard. Henry Cavill is the most Superman-looking human being since, well, Christopher Reeve, the GOAT. Part of the magic behind the original Superman‘s tagline—”You’ll believe a man can fly”—is that it was as due to Reeve’s presence as it was the at-the-time revolutionary special effects. Superman gets tagged “boring” a lot because he is, largely, a do-gooder granite slate. But it takes a special—some would say alien—type of outward charisma to make that interesting on a visual level like Reeve and Cavill, almost like imbuing a soul into a G.I. Joe figure.
But Cavill also had the chops to go with the face. I’m not calling him an Oscar-winner; Cavill is a limited actor, but every single one of those limits worked with an S on his chest. Peppered throughout Man of Steel, Batman vs. Superman, and Justice League are great, quiet moments bolstered by Cavill’s more subtle touches. Clark Kent unsteadily flying for the first time in the Canadian Arctic during Man of Steel, Cavill’s face slowly changing from “holy shit” to a downright gleeful “Holy. Shit.” Superman showing up at the climax of Justice League to say “I love truth, and I’m a big fan of justice”—a horrible line that is also 100% something Superman would say—only works because Cavill makes it clear that Clark knows it’s a dumb thing to say but says it anyway, the big lug. Even Superman snapping General Zod’s (Michael Shannon) damn neck is, at least, emotionally effective because Cavill’s face crumbles immediately afterward; Clark Kent knows he just leaped off a very dark cliff that even Superman can’t climb back from.
But these small moments are lost like tears in a Smallville rain among Warner Bros.’ overall handle on the Superman character, which ranged from confusing to downright batshit insane. With Man of Steel and BvS, Snyder and Co. quite literally burdened Superman—and Cavill—with his own heroism. The absolute worst shot of Superman in modern history comes during Batman vs. Superman when a montage of lifesaving finds the Man of Steel towing an ice-stuck ship to safety. He looks pissed. He looks like a dude trudging to his nine-to-five at an accounting firm. Superman should never look disappointed to be saving lives. What makes Superman Superman is the fact that he can’t save everyone in the world but, by golly, he is going to try.
It’s a general misunderstanding of the character that bled into everything Warner Bros. did with Cavill. The Zod kill works in a vacuum, but less so coming after the deaths of countless Metropolis lives. Cavill’s big-screen Superman was somehow, at times, a brute, a sulking teen, and an idiot who stands in the flames of a burning Capitol Building crying instead of looking to see if anyone is still alive. What he definitely wasn’t was Superman, an actual miracle considering the studio was gifted an actor who practically flew off the pages of Action Comics #1. Imagine not only missing a lay-up that wide open but then having the ball bounce off the backboard and horrifically fuck up one of the most perfectly symmetrical faces in the world.
Honestly, if you want the perfect example of the dropped Cavill-as-Superman ball, look to probably the most derided scene in the modern DCEU’s history: Batman sparing Superman’s life because their moms have the same name. This scene gets dunked on a lot, but I actually love the intention. I always read it not as Batman being surprised Superman’s mother was named Martha, but surprised that Superman had a mother in the first place. For the entirety of Batman vs Superman, Bruce Wayne sees his foe as an alien, a Kryptonian god who has no place in a world of human beings. In that Martha moment, Bruce finally sees Clark Kent, a normal dude from a small town in Kansas just doing his darndest, not an extraterrestrial threat.
A beautiful idea executed with all the subtly of a trombone noise. “You’re letting them kill Martha.” What an awkward, ass-backward thing for writers David S. Goyer and Chris Terrio to have Cavill say. Why would Superman call his own mother by her first name in such a desperate moment? But that’s just Cavill’s tenure as the Man of Steel in a nutshell. An endless amount of potential not even limited to the sky or the stars above it, squandered by writers, directors, and a studio much more interested in the Steel than the Man.