Superman, Henry Cavill, and an era that never really got a chance

Man Of Steel
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Despite recent announcements stating his return, Henry Cavill’s time as Superman is apparently up. Why did he get such a raw deal?


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Contains spoilers for Man of Steel and Black Adam

What did Henry Cavill ever do to Warner Bros?

Only a few weeks ago, things were finally looking up for the DC Universe’s incumbent Superman, following almost a decade without a solo sequel to 2013’s Man Of Steel. Cavill then turned up in a Black Adam post-credit stinger, giving us our first proper glimpse of his canonic Superman since 2017’s Justice League.

Cavill himself took to social media to announce his return as Superman, stating that the post-credit tease was “just a small taste of what’s to come.” News outlets were abuzz were with stories that Warner Bros were actively developing a Superman film that would see Cavill finally don the blue and red outfit once more. 

In Hollywood, fortune is a fickle friend though and just a few weeks later it seems that everything may well have turned upside down once more. The new co-heads of DC Studios, James Gunn and Peter Safran won’t be moving ahead with the planned Wonder Woman 3, throwing into jeopardy the future of all of the legacy characters from Zack Snyder’s original take on the DC universe, including Cavill’s Superman.

Whilst the particulars of this path have yet to be confirmed and although James Gunn took to Twitter this week to assert  that the character remains the DCU’s ‘biggest priority’, it won’t be surprising to anybody that Cavill has now apparently lost the role, weeks after he seemed to regain it.

Since making his debut in the newly-christened DCU almost ten years ago, Cavill’s stock has never seemed particularly high with those in charge of what is now called DC Studios. That’s even though the actor inhabits the role of its most high-profile character this side of Gotham City, and dare we say it, he seems like a decent fellow too. He’s also been very clear that he actually wants to play the character.

Compare him with the public relations nightmare that for a while followed Ben Affleck’s attitude to playing Batman for example: much like his unhinged and death-dealing take on the Dark Knight, Affleck seems to have gotten away with a fair amount, saying all sorts of uncomplimentary things about playing Batman that must have made Warner Bros’ PR department fear his outbursts like criminals fear the Bat-signal.

Remember back in 2020 when he stated he’d lost his “passion for it” [the role of Batman] whilst also claiming that he was afraid continuing in the role would cause him to “drink himself to death” (Affleck has been open too about his demons when it comes to drink)? 

If you had forgotten, you’re not alone it seems. As it stands, the DC top brass seem to have forgiven Affleck’s outbursts, with the star currently reported to appear as Batman in at least two more upcoming DC films whilst in contrast, Cavill (who has never been less than courteous about his experiences playing Kal-El,) hasn’t yet been announced as returning in any official capacity. And now likely won’t ever get the call again.

Moustachioed Kryptonite

How did we even get to this point? It’s a long story but the upshot is poor management, the same brand of weak leadership that allowed Ray Fisher’s protracted condemnation of Warner Bros to do so much damage to the company’s reputation throughout much of 2021. It would be charitable in the extreme to say that DC films have not lived up to their potential over the last decade, but the studio’s middling cinematic output is merely an outward symptom of the rot which slowly set in over the course of a decade.

Cavill too, has suffered at the hands of that weak leadership. Go back a decade to the infamous neck snap moment in Man Of Steel and an irreversible path was forged for the actor’s take on Superman. Rather than protect the integrity of the character, producer Christopher Nolan allowed himself to be persuaded that Superman should kill his nemesis Zod and thus, Cavill’s take on the character found itself already being compared unfavourably with previous incarnations of Superman, all before he’d got to the closing credits of his first film. 

It’s the way the scene in question is executed rather than the neck snap itself which is the problem. Given that Nolan had just injected an unparalleled sense of verité into his own Dark Knight trilogy, which concluded just a year prior, you think that he’d have been able to work with director Zack Snyder and screenwriter, David S Goyer to make the scene work within the parameters of a post-9/11 ‘real-world’ take on Superman. 

Still, Nolan is hardly the biggest culprit when it comes to poor stewardship of the character. Since 2013, the DC top brass have systematically dismissed or slighted Cavill, refusing to put a direct sequel to Man Of Steel into development, despite other lesser DC characters such as Aquaman getting two solo movies in the same timeframe (although the $1bn gross of the first Aquaman film greased the wheels there). Despite it being out of his hands, the infamous Justice League reshoot moustache saga frustrated Warner Bros executives. Then, there was actor’s reported insistence that a planned Shazam! cameo be counted as his final contractual appearance as Superman. That reportedly went down like a lead balloon (or if you prefer, like Superman in a pool wearing a Kryptonite necklace). Former Warner Bros. Chairman Toby Emmerich is widely credited with saying that ‘Henry Cavill is now persona non grata, he’s not gonna play ball with the studio? He will never be Superman again.’

Justice League

Justice League

Once again, it’s difficult not to feel that Cavill is being hard done by here (although when we start talking about contracts, it’s important to note that we move firmly into the realm of rumour). Still, with reports that Ben Affleck has either signed or been offered several huge contracts down the years to reprise his role as Batman, the story is not the same for Cavill. That’s in spite of the fact that his star has risen considerably since first playing The Last Son of Krypton almost a decade ago and yet he doesn’t seem to have been offered any kind of improvement on his original deal.

After being messed around for so long, you can hardly blame the actor for using the little power he has. It was thus reported back in 2021 that he was using a soon-to-expire contract to try and leverage a better position (privately too, we might add). If nothing else, that seems like a smart opening gambit on the part of any star’s agent. To be then named ‘persona non grata’ as he was rumoured to be declared by Warner Bros brass (like he’s John Wick about to be hunted and beaten up by a city of contract killers) seems more than a little unfair.

Further to this point, despite how angry he may have privately been, look at Cavill’s comments when it emerged that the studio were finally going to put a Superman movie into development, only one that wouldn’t feature him. This would be the JJ Abrams and Ta-Nehisi Coates project that was rumoured to feature a Black Superman.

Cavill’s take? “Superman’s far more than skin colour. Superman is an ideal. Superman’s an extraordinary thing that lives within our hearts,” said Cavill. “Why not have multiple Supermen going on? Joaquin Phoenix did a wonderful Joker movie; so what if it’s not tied to the rest of [the franchise]? They have multiple Superman comic book storylines happening at the same time.” 

See what we mean? Dignified and classy, just like the character he inhabits and worth far more than the shabby treatment he’s received at the hands of Warner Bros.

Rock takes pawn

Which brings us right up to the present then.

We now get to the point where an ongoing irony becomes impossible to ignore. Superman, DC’s most powerful character (and Cavill as the actor that plays him) has become a measly pawn in the protracted power battle between those who desire control of the DCU. When JJ Abrams wanted to leverage his production deal with Warner Bros to make an incursion into the DCU, which character did he pick? Superman, of course. 

Likewise, when Dwayne Johnson wanted to stoke hype for his long-gestating Black Adam project, he’d just keep invoking the Man of Steel.

Johnson has been open about having to break the DC Studios chain of command to get Cavill’s Superman into the end of Black Adam, saying “man, it was years…this was six years to get that done. I’m gonna say that again – six years, we first started talking about this, and they kept saying no. Now that leadership isn’t there anymore, because we usher in a new era in the DC Universe, and we usher out an old era.”

Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice

Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice

Johnson is a savvy enough self-promoter to know that the Black Adam end credits scene at least gets him a shot at a Black Adam/Superman fight scene somewhere down the line. If you recall the details of his The Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw contract, we doubt that The Rock will come off worst, embellishing his reputation as the only modern action star to beat up a Superman. 

The same is now true of James Gunn, who used the Superman rumours as a means to assert his authority over the DCU in one of his first public statements, taking to Twitter to debunk reports that Cavill had signed a new contract, saying: “I’m not sure if you’re purposely lying or being taken advantage of by someone lying to you, but, as I’ve stated on here before, NO ONE knows what’s happening at DC Studios right now other than me & Peter. That would include writing up any new contracts for anyone at this point.”

Now he’s gone further than that, and effectively confirmed Cavill’s departure. And whilst there’s perhaps the slightest olive branch in James Gunn’s words that suggests future projects with Cavill, future outings for his Man Of Steel are extremely unlikely.

Which leaves Cavill as an actor who played a role really well, was keen to return, but seemed to land the right part at the wrong time. The future of Metropolis is somebody else’s now, but it still feels very much like a huge opportunity was missed in all of this…

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