Henry Cavill as Superman
Courtesy: Warner Bros.

Opinion

Making Sense of Superman's Cloudy Future

Warner Bros. and DC Comics started the superhero-movie revolution. It's hard to comprehend in the days of every single Marvel Cinematic Universe film breaking box office records and winning over audiences, but there was a time when the comic-book movie was defined by DC titles.

Indeed, 1978's Superman: The Movie was a landmark moment in pop-culture filmmaking. Coming hot off the heels of Star Wars, it was the very first superhero blockbuster. Now, Warners quickly ran that newly minted sub-genre into the ground with shoddy sequels and spinoffs, but 11 years later, they came back with a vengeance, this time with DC's other giant star.

The summer of 1989 was absolutely dominated by Batman. You couldn't take a step outside without seeing the yellow and black Bat symbol on everything. Lunch boxes, comic books, billboards, toys, cassette tapes. Batman was omnipresent, the highest-grossing movie of the year and quoted by everybody, from kids on the playground to office workers around the water cooler.

Then, Marvel properties showed up to play. Blade, X-Men and Spider-Man all hit in one three-year period. That wasn't a death knell for DC, though in the context of comic-book movie history, it was the spark that lit the fire that would eventually consume them.
Warner Bros. very smartly turned to a promising visionary filmmaker named Christopher Nolan to modernize Batman, years after that series was run into the ground with campy humor, neon lighting and nippled suits. His Dark Knight trilogy earned all the money, critical acclaim, awards and fan support a series can get, but then Iron Man happened, the MCU was born and for the first time in its history, Warner Bros. and DC found themselves behind the eight ball in a world they essentially created.

Nolan's Batman Trilogy wrapped up the same year as Marvel's Phase One reached its pinnacle with the first Avengers movie. The Dark Knight Rises made a ridiculous amount of money … but it still trailed The Avengers' box office, both domestically and globally. The decision was made that there would be no continuity with the Nolan films, which meant DC was basically starting from scratch. They made the wise decision to use their original superstar as the foundation of the DC Extended Universe and took the Dark Knight approach of hiring a young, visionary director to lead the way.

That brings us to Man of Steel, and Henry Cavill strapping on the cape. Much like Christopher Reeve before him, Cavill's casting was a head-scratcher for many. They didn't know him and weren't sure he was right for the part—and then the first trailer hit, and Cavill proved in seconds that he was more than worthy to fill the suit.
It was a rocky road, filled with weird CG lips and anti-climactic self-sacrifices, but Superman finally felt like Superman again by the end of Justice League.
Director Zack Snyder did something a little different with this movie. He wanted to give Superman an arc instead of starting him out as the confident, practically perfect-in-every-way ideal character that we all know him as. The Superman we see in Man of Steel is a little shy about using his powers. He's hiding, and fighting his desire to help. It's a great place to start the character, even if doing so means he's a bit messy with the destruction around him as he grapples with the depth of his strengths.

I'll even go to bat for the controversial ending, which sees Superman take the life of a bad guy, something viewed wholly out of character by most fans of the hero. With someone as invulnerable as Superman, the only way to hurt him is to force him into a no-win scenario, and that's exactly what Zod does. Superman has to choose between killing the only other surviving Kryptonian, or watching innocents murdered in front of his eyes. That's how you hurt someone who otherwise can't be injured, and Cavill sold the anguish of that scene well.

The problem is, that arc wasn't evolved in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (with Ben Affleck joining the action). Instead, you have a Superman facing a world that doesn't like him very much, and there seems to be zero joy in helping anybody. When he sees a news report showing people in trouble half the world away, he just kind of sighs and slowly slinks away to shed his Clark Kent persona and go help. The Director's Cut helps flesh out the character a bit, but in the end, Superman spends the majority of that movie still playing the conflicted, semi-depressed version of the character.
It's not until his resurrection in Justice League that they finally let Henry Cavill have fun with the character. He's helped by Danny Elfman bringing back John Williams' iconic Superman theme, but by the end of that movie, we finally, finally finish the arc that Zack Snyder promised. It was a rocky road, filled with weird CG lips and anti-climactic self-sacrifices, but Superman finally felt like Superman again by the end of an admittedly problematic movie.

Throughout all the character's ups and downs since 2013, Cavill—currently enjoying renewed career heat thanks to his buzzy performance in Mission: Impossible—Fallout—has delivered a great performance. Now, there's talk that he's stepping away from the franchise, as Warner Bros tries its umpteenth recalibration of the DC Extended Universe and shifts its priorities away from Superman. There is no Man of Steel sequel on the horizon. No Justice League 2, either. In fact, there's nothing with Superman in it for at least the next couple of years. There is a Supergirl film in development, though, and word is that's DC's new focus—and while I'm looking forward to what they're doing there, it seems to me to be a huge mistake to back-burner Superman.
The world needs a hero with endless empathy right now.
For all its many, many, many faults, Justice League finally got Superman to the place where Cavill could have fun with the character, and now it's possibly his last hoorah. Now's when you strike that iron, and give us the Big Blue Boy Scout movie.

Of course, that doesn't mean Superman has to be a boring Goody Two-Shoes. There could be, and should be, conflict with that character. He was, after all, raised as a human being with human values. Even Christopher Reeve's straight-laced portrayal showed Superman getting angry, being scared and having self-doubt. The point is, Reeve's Superman started from a place of compassion and goodness. That's the difference, and that's where you feel Cavill's Superman finally got to.

It'd be a shame if Cavill didn't get to take the next step for the character. The world needs a hero with endless empathy right now. With Steve Rogers (a.k.a. Captain America, played by Chris Evans) possibly exiting the MCU, that pretty much just leaves Wonder Woman to go to bat for humanity in that very specific and crucial way. Whether Cavill is out permanently, or just benched for the time being, it's still a bad call.

Explore Categories