There are only two moments when Henry Cavill, fine actor though he is, really feels like Superman. One of those moments is in Man of Steel, his Superman debut, when Cavill closes his eyes, relaxes, and takes flight for the first time. In that moment, the scowling outsider is replaced by a kid from Kansas who’s experiencing unbridled joy at being a superhero, and it’s marvelous.
The second perfect Superman moment from Cavill is one that, sadly, you won’t see in a movie. It’s the moment when he reported for his Superman screen test, before he was ever cast in the role, and was asked to wear the iconic costume worn by Christopher Reever during his four-film tenure as the Man of Tomorrow. Man of Steel and Justice League director Zack Snyder finally shared the moment via social media last week.
First of all, taking a black and white photo of one of the most famously colorful superhero costumes of all time might be the most Zack Snyder thing ever. That aside, just look at Cavill for a moment. He’s wearing a costume he’s never worn before, he’s not in a very evocative comic book environment and he’s basically about to head in to the biggest job interview of his life. But he looks so damn comfortable, like he was born in that suit.
“He walked out and no one laughed,“ Snyder later recalled. "Other actors put that suit on and it’s a joke, even if they’re great actors. Henry put it on, and he exuded this kind of crazy-calm confidence that just made me go, ‘Wow. Okay, this is Superman.‘”
Cavill’s Superman, as depicted by Snyder, writer David S. Goyer and other architects of the DC Extended Universe, rarely gets to exude a "crazy-calm confidence” onscreen. There’s a lot of determination, a lot of steely-eyed resolve and some anger, righteous and otherwise. In the right moment, that Superman can be effective and even moving. He can never touch Cavill in this photo, sitting serenely like being Superman is the most natural thing in the world.
That, honestly, might be the most difficult trick to pull off with the character, so much so that many creators – in films and comics alike – tend to drop the naturalism in favor of examining the alien heritage of the American icon. It’s something Reeve got, though. For all the camp in his Superman films there’s also a tremendous ease to his performance, a swagger wrapped up in those bright blue tights. Cavill’s era ditched the bright blue in favor of more muted tones and slow-motion punches. Whether it was intentional or not, a lot of the swagger left along with the old uniform. Apart from that one moment in Man of Steel, when he first believes for himself that a man can fly, Cavill’s Superman never feels like he enjoys being Superman. While that’s certainly a valid interpretation of a superhero, as demonstrated by Sam Raimi in Spider-Man 2, it’s not a great interpretation of Superman.
Why? Because Superman is supposed to be what happens when you let the nicest couple in America raises the most powerful being on Earth to be a good person. Superman saves people not because he’s a cape-clad Jesus metaphor burdened with eventual martyrdom, but because he can. You ever hold a door for an old man pushing a walker? You do that, presumably, because you know instinctively that it will be easier for you to get the door than it will be for him and because you’re happy to help out for a second. For Superman, deciding to save the world is almost that simple. It’s not always easy and it’s not always fun but it’s what he does. Because he can and because he was raised from infancy to understand that it’s good to help people.
That’s what Cavill looks like kicked back in that chair, mothballed old costume and weird hair or not. Can we have that Superman back, please?