Searching for Superman: why Henry Cavill deserves another chance as the Man of Steel

<span>Photograph: Warner Bros Pictures</span>
Photograph: Warner Bros Pictures

Henry Cavill must sometimes wonder if his life might have turned out a little easier were it not for a certain illustrious forerunner in the role of Superman. Christopher Reeve nailed the dual roles of Kal-El and Clark Kent so splendidly in Richard Donner’s 1978 film that those who followed have often struggled to live up to the same standard. Superman is the film that all superhero films must compare themselves to if they are to aspire to greatness, the Citizen Kane of the genre. And Reeve could not have been more splendid in it.

The American actor had some advantages over his English counterpart, it must be admitted. Donner’s light-hearted approach to the scenes in which Superman appears in his Clark persona allowed the Juilliard graduate to playfully carve out distinct personae for the two sides of his alter ego. In Man of Steel, Zack Snyder’s 2013 reboot, there is so little obvious difference between Kent and Superman that the screenwriters chose to make Amy Adams’ Lois Lane aware from the very beginning that they are one and the same. Gone is the bumbling overgrown schoolboy reporter of the 1970s and 80s movies; instead we see a serious-minded Kent, taken seriously by those around him. The question of Superman’s true identity, often at the centre of the Reeve movies, is brushed under the carpet. This meant the Englishman, who has played the role with quiet charisma, had considerably less meat to chew on than his predecessor. It is a bit like being asked to play Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde as a single, fixed personality.

Why does any of this matter? Well, Deadline reports this week that Cavill is not yet done as the last son of Krypton, despite the critical struggles of Man of Steel’s sequels, Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice and Justice League. There are now suggestions that he could make a cameo in projects such as Shazam 2, Dwayne Johnson’s Black Adam and Aquaman 2. However, there are no plans for a second Man of Steel movie, which is a pity.

If Warner Bros truly wanted to give Cavill the chance to shine, and believed in his ability to do so, it would surely let him headline a film again. Perhaps the studio is hoping that the merest glimpse of the famous blue-and-red suit will inspire fans to begin clamouring for a new standalone Superman movie, in the same way Tom Holland’s cameo in Captain America: Civil War helped build hype for Marvels’ first Spider-Man movie, Homecoming. But it is harder to create buzz for an actor we have seen before, in movies that have largely been duds than it is for a bright young thing pulling on the suit for the first time. These will have to be some of the greatest cameos in comic-book movie history, cameos sent by the Kryptonian sun god Rao himself, for them to restore heat to Cavill’s version of Superman.

Might there be another way for Cavill to find his way back to the light? Last week it was confirmed that the long-awaited Snyder cut of 2017’s Justice Leaguewill finally be screened (albeit not until 2021), following a relentless fan campaign. With an additional $30m budget, the inclusion of new heroes and villains such as Darkseid, the Martian Manhunter and at least one member of the Green Lantern corps, as well as a rumoured four-hour length, the new edit is expected to be pretty different from the version overseen by Joss Whedon following Snyder’s departure for personal reasons.

A publicity shot featuring Darkseid that Snyder tweeted this week suggests the movie will still be played out largely against DC’s favoured scorched-battlefield backdrop, but one assumes the original movie’s Avengers-style, Whedon-esque wisecracking will be quashed by the po-faced Snyder. Verily, power chords will chug and musclebound CGI titans will clash, as we (presumably) return to the knuckle-headed, heavy-metal spirit of 2016’s Dawn of Justice.

Snyder will be working entirely with existing footage, so Cavill will still appear as Superman with that strange CGI-assisted upper lip – a result of the moustache he grew for Mission: Impossible – Fallout still being in place when Justice League reshoots took place. But perhaps the director will find a way to make Superman a little less anonymous and insipid than he ended up being in the theatrical cut.

After all, Snyder is the film-maker who brought us this version of Kal-El in the first place, and for at least 75% of Man of Steel (prior to the film’s final act CGI mega-carnage) he seemed to be doing a decent job of carving out an intriguing, hyper-modern take on the last son of Krypton as a shy extra-terrestrial interloper whose humanity never fails to shine through. If the expanded Snyder cut gives us even the merest glimpse of the Superman we once thought we were getting, there may be hope for Cavill and the famous cape yet.