For a brief period, Henry Cavill was considered the unluckiest man in Hollywood.
The English actor seemingly had everything that the film industry was looking for in a future A-Lister: dazzling good looks, a plummy accent, endless sex appeal, a brand of charm that could easily swing between dapper and dorky, and, as is required of all British thespians, the ability to look good in a cravat. Things seemed to be heading his way in the early 2000s and his name was on the top of a lot of powerful people's tongues. He had been set to play Superman in McG's 2004 film Superman: Flyby but was then replaced by Brandon Routh for Superman Returns. Some eager Harry Potter fans tried a write-in campaign to have him cast as Cedric Diggory while Stephenie Meyer repeatedly called Cavill her top choice to play Edward Cullen in the Twilight series; both times, some dude named RPattz won. And in 2005, he came achingly close to being cast as James Bond in Casino Royale and rumors swirled that he was offered or auditioned for the role of Batman in Christopher Nolan's reboot of the franchise.
After a while, it seemed like Cavill would never get that big break he seemed destined for, but then the stars aligned and he was finally cast as Superman in Zack Snyder's Man of Steel. Fans seemed delighted with the news. Snyder called the actor "the perfect choice to don the cape and S shield." From a purely aesthetic point-of-view, he was certainly ideal, from the broad shoulders to the charismatic smile to the perfectly coiffed dark hair. You could not have crafted a better looking Clark Kent from clay and magic.
We needed a new Superman in 2013. It had been seven years since he’d graced the big screen and he remains one of the most iconic creations in pop culture history, one who Hollywood has struggled to perfect for the adaptation process. Surely there was much ground to be mined with this character, especially in the brand new era of superhero cinema and with VFX so sophisticated that we could finally truly believe that a man could fly?
Sadly, it didn’t entirely work out that way.
The Zack Snyder-dominated era of the DC cinematic universe remains divisive, to put it mildly. Take a browse across the internet and it will take you no time at all to find highly heated debates about the franchise's merits. Warner Bros. wanted to keep up with the flourishing success of Marvel Studios and its grandly intertwining multi-film narratives, but they planned to give it the sheen of auteur prestige by letting Snyder wholly define the thematic and stylistic approach to the franchise. What he wanted to do was take the boy scout hopefulness of Clark Kent and bring it under the harsh spotlight of realism in a post-9/11 age of American foreign policy. It wasn't a bad idea, but from the offset, it posed many problems, not least in the portrayal of Superman given to Cavill to convey.
Snyder's Superman is bleak, both visually and emotionally. His Metropolis is a world in fear of an alien force that claims to be benevolent in its intent but seems constantly mired in violence and destruction. It's not hard to see why such a narrative would appeal to audiences in the 2010s but Man of Steel’s nihilism felt especially taxing to many Superman fans. The entire affair seemed seeped of hope and vibrancy, from the gray-dominated color palate to Clark's own childhood demons. Poor Henry Cavill seemed weighed down by the negativism of this role, especially in those moments where Clark has to do the most awful things.
Things didn't improve much for Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, a movie that also did few favors for the brand-new Batman as played by Ben Affleck. Both Affleck and Cavill are traditionally handsome men who fit that classic leading man mold, but the DCEU's uber-masculine approach felt like an ill fit for them, even though Cavill was able to pack on those pounds of muscle in a way that seemed somewhat natural to his body (poor Affleck never could and he looks exhausted by his own weight throughout much of the movie). The overtly-macho grandeur of the film robbed it of much-needed warmth and humor and left Cavill with little to do beyond scowling and punching.
It does not help Cavill or the film's immensely talented cast that the story is so incoherent, almost as much as the characterization. By the time we got to Justice League, a mess of a production that went through two directors, a round of reshoots, and a whole host of behind-the-scenes drama, it seemed that the nail was in the coffin of Cavill’s tenure as Superman before it ever really began. Remember the CGI chin? We’ll never forget it.
No version of Superman is invalid. As with all comic book characters, there are countless iterations available for readers and viewers to enjoy, each with their own merits and each a reflection of the times in some manner. Henry Cavill was a perfect Superman casting choice but not for the story that Zack Snyder and his team wanted to tell. There was a logic behind taking this all-American handsome figure of truth and goodness (ironically from the Isle of Jersey) and revealing the rot that has destroyed such optimism in the world at large. The issue here was that it reduced Cavill to a mere vessel for ideas and not an actor capable of giving a layered performance. It makes for great iconography, something the DCEU is full of, but not so much in terms of story or people.
The Superman that Cavill should have been playing was one more in line with that traditional idea of Clark Kent we have as the caring Kansas boy who is as dedicated to saving little old ladies' cats from trees as he is from stopping Lex Luthor's latest scheme for world domination. Cavill needed to play a Superman for whom being positive and believing in the inherent goodness of people wasn't considered laughable or a sign of weakness.
The best moments Cavill has as Superman in those three films are when he gets to slow down and spend time with Lois Lane, as played by Amy Adams. The pair had easy-going chemistry that the franchise never fully took advantage of. Let's see them together in their own rom-com, or even better, a reboot of Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman that plays up the His Girl Friday-style screwball dynamic of their relationship. Henry Cavill as Cary Grant and Amy Adams as Rosalind Russell is the story we need.
Indeed, Cavill has already done a kick-ass Grant impression in The Man From U.N.C.L.E., an action film that fully put his charisma to good use in a way that he never got to display as Superman. Oddly, Cavill seems to have found his most comfortable niche in the world of high fantasy thanks to his passion project, Netflix's The Witcher. He managed to find the right balance between brawny seriousness and schlocky fun as Geralt of Rivia, and he shines when he's allowed to flex those comic chops, something denied of him by the DCEU.
According to Cavill himself, he has one film left on his Superman contract before he's done with the role, but Warner Bros. and the fandom at large seem to be acting as though he's already hung up his cape. Ben Affleck has already bowed out of the franchise and the DCEU as we knew it seems to have been put out to pasture, so it sadly wouldn't be a surprise if Cavill was indeed retiring from Superman duties. It's a shame that he never got to show his full potential in the role, but at least he has that sweet Netflix money in his corner now.