The real trouble with Superman? He’s plain boring

Henry Cavill has reportedly lost the role, but the hero’s problems run deeper than casting

Superman: Henry Cavill’s reign has been a herculean snooze

Superman: Henry Cavill’s reign has been a herculean snooze

 

The most exciting moment in Henry Cavill’s tenure as Superman occurred several hours after it was reported that the British actor was to be relieved of his red cape. With rumours of his imminent exit from the DC Comics “Extended Universe” swirling last week, Cavill posted a video in which he poses in a Krypton Lifting Team T-shirt and slowly raises into focus a plastic Superman toy. The soundtrack is Strauss the Younger’s Blue Danube with dogs barking along. Check it out on Instagram if you’re bored/lacking for nightmare fuel.

Cavill’s intervention was cryptic and unnerving – and far more entertaining than the deafening mishmash that was last year’s Justice League. But what was the portent? Was this a show of defiance to the DC haters (whose numbers have multiplied in the wake of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and Justice League)? A coded farewell to the DC fans (whose numbers have shrunk in the wake of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and Justice League). Had the terrifying moustache Cavill cultivated for Mission: Impossible – Fallout seized temporary control of his higher motor functions?

The problem with Superman is that he is a do-gooder without chinks. He flies, zaps lasers from his eyes and uproots skyscrapers while hardly breaking a sweat 

We don’t know. Perhaps we never will. (Much as we’ll never know how a Batman movie directed by Ben Affleck might have panned out.) What we do know is that Cavill’s reign as Superman has been a herculean snooze – one that has seemingly confirmed Superman’s status as Most Boring Superhero of All Time.

The problem with Superman – at least the version Zack Snyder brought to the screen with the Warner Bros-DC trilogy he kicked off with Man of Steel, in 2013 – is that he is a do-gooder without chinks.

He flies, zaps lasers from his eyes and uproots skyscrapers (oops, you’ve just wiped out an entire city block, lad) while only occasionally breaking a sweat. The hardest thing Cavill had to do in Man of Steel, his first outing as Superman, was pass himself off as an oil-rig worker when Clark Kent tried to get away from it all by taking up employment in the petrochemical industry.

Superman: Christopher Reeve in the 1978 film
Superman: Christopher Reeve in the 1978 film

Superman’s biggest challenge, traditionally, was holding his own alongside his age-old frenemy Batman. Superman was square-jawed and doltishly moralistic. Batman was haunted by demons and specialised in ambushing petty larcenists from behind chimneys. Also, he lived in a cave full of bats while Superman’s house was a sloppily maintained man pad in the North Pole, and he never stayed there anyway. Boring!

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The tests facing the Cavill-era Superman have been far more challenging. Instead of merely going head to head with Bruce Wayne he has been up against the weapons-grade charm and supreme quirkiness of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Here he truly has met his match. The triumph of Jon Favreau’s original Iron Man – the punt in the dark from whence the MCU was spawned – was that it wasn’t too fussed about whether we liked Robert Downey jnr as the titular hero. What mattered was that we were engaged by him. He was smarmy, glib and more interested in showing off than in bringing the bad guys to justice.

The Marvel heroes who followed were cut from the same idiosyncratic cloth. There was Thor (funny, a bit dim), Captain America (quippy, earnest) and the magnificently gonzo Guardians of the Galaxy, whose 1980s straight-to-video exploitation movie was disguised as a summer blockbuster.

With his parental issues and his cave, Batman will always be able to stand his ground against such a cavalcade while the Expanded Universe Wonder Woman has worked largely because of the vulnerability Gal Gadot puts to the forefront of her performance. (She’s made of steel yet scratches all the same.)

Wonder Woman: Gal Gadot’s vulnerable superhero is made of steel yet scratches all the same
Wonder Woman: Gal Gadot’s vulnerable superhero is made of steel yet scratches all the same

Cavill’s Superman, by contrast, feels like a popcorn distraction from a simpler era. Indeed, he’s arguably less complicated than the original, Christopher Reeve imagining of the character, from 1978. At least Reeve took an interest in his alter-ego. Cavill’s Clark Kent is just Superman on a day off rather than, as in the Reeve iteration, a manifestation of Superman’s secret vulnerabilities.

Culpability for this has often been rested at Cavill’s knee-length boots. True, as Superman he has all the personality of a concrete slab about to fall on your head from a poorly secured scaffold. But it feels significant that, in his other roles, he radiates magnetism – opposite Armie Hammer in Guy Ritchie’s Man from U.N.C.L.E., for instance, he was charm on a stick.

So we’re back to Superman himself. Many will blame Snyder and his signature Wagnerian bombast. Yet Superman was already a hollowed-out streak of self-righteousness when portrayed, in 2006, by Brandon Routh in Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns.

Perhaps the problem with Superman is that Warner Bros has given us the one it thinks we want, not the Superman we need

The obvious conclusion, then, is the difficulty lies with Superman. Ah, but which Superman? Despite the widespread assumption that the Man of Steel has been one of the constants of the superhero genre since he flew off the pages of Action Comics in 1938, there have in fact been many Supermen – some more interesting than others.

The original “golden age” Superman, for example, was far less superpowered than the modern incarnation. He could leap tall buildings and outpace a bullet but was unable to fly. (Why leap a building when you could hover above it?) This was a street-level Man of Steel, whose foes tended to be small-time crooks. He would have found it hard to engage in a game of lob-a-skyscraper, as Cavill did with General Zod at the end of Man of Steel, given that his maximum running speed was 100km/h.

Within the pages of DC Comics there has also been Evil Superman (with a SS-type logo on his chest) and a Superman raised in the Soviet Union, a hammer and sickle in place of the “S” symbol. Most intriguing of all was the African American Superman, Calvin Ellis, from the Final Crisis story arc, who, not content with advancing the cause of diversity among tight-wearing crime fighters, was also elected president of the United States.

What a movie that would make. (Black Panther’s Michael B Jordan has already been touted as a potential Man of Steel and would be perfect as Ellis.) Perhaps the problem with Superman is that Warner Bros has given us the one it thinks we want, not the Superman we need.

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