All it took was a wink and a smile. That’s what actor Tyler Hoechlin and those who worked on Season 2 of Supergirl knew about Superman, an alien from a dead planet raised with midwestern manners. Within minutes of his debut on TV, Hoechlin’s Superman felt bold. Radical, even. Superheroes don’t need to be Greek tragedies in spandex. They can be fun and charming.
Henry Cavill knew this too. Unfortunately, no one else around him did.
On Wednesday, The Hollywood Reporter released a bombshell story quoting anonymous sources claiming that Henry Cavill is exiting the role of Superman in Warner Bros.’ DC film franchise. (A later statement issued by Warner Bros: Everything’s fine!) The DC shared universe, which began with Cavill in 2013’s Man of Steel, isn’t going away (not yet at least), but a “shake-up” behind the scenes illustrates a commitment to cementing DC as a real competitor in the pop culture sphere. And if that means letting Cavill go, then so be it.
What’s unfortunate is it didn’t need to happen. Henry Cavill was, purely in terms of being Superman in a movie, perfect. And not because he looked like him. That’s easy. (Superman’s gee-golly idealism exuding out of a 6-foot-6 frame, that’s hard.) But because half a decade ago, Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel came not with Superman but a morose doppelgänger better suited to a one-off “What If?” Elseworlds comic than as the role model of a generation.
A Superman who is advised not to save people every time. A Superman who leaves widespread destruction in his wake. A Superman who feels the weight of his responsibility like a burden, and not an opportunity. A Superman who made a very, very difficult decision — kill Zod — only to learn almost nothing from it.
The failure of Cavill as Superman isn’t just “Snyder’s fault,” because filmmaking is a collaborative art and commercial filmmaking comes with rigorous and expensive market testing. But a film is ultimately a director’s vision, and somebody gave Superman to an artist whose primary understanding of Batman is that Batman would get raped in prison.
Henry Cavill as Superman was a gift, and no one knew what to do with him. A mostly unknown whose biggest credit was The Tudors before becoming Kal-El, Henry Cavill is a disarmingly charming personality who knows how to have some fun in spite of all the “Hollywood”-ness that comes with being Hollywood.
No, Cavill didn’t livestream Facebook Q&As on any given Tuesday, and the self-deprecating tone he uses on Instagram is not a new PR strategy. And pretty much every major movie superhero seems to tweet or selfie off the cuff; Chris Evans and Don Cheadle wouldn’t rail so hard against Trump if they weren’t allowed some measure of autonomy.
The emphasis here is that Henry Cavill was Superman. Not the Hulk, not the Punisher, not Deadpool. Superman, whose conceit is that you can’t believe someone is as genuine and decent as they claim to be. After Chris Evans as Captain America, Melissa Benoist as Supergirl, and Christopher Reeve before him, Cavill is one of the most authentic actors to play a character analogous to the source material.
Henry Cavill is still so much a groomed celebrity on social media. But are we really not going to pretend his tribute to his own facial hair, set to Sarah “I’m going to ruin your day” Machlachan isn’t the funniest shit ever?
Or, in the cacophony of the internet’s obsession over his mustache, Cavill turned his Instagram into a noise canceller.
Where most studios are frantic to not let its faults show, forcing fans and journalists on this beat to tirelessly speculate what goes on behind the closed doors of studio meetings, there went Cavill trolling all of us with the right kind of “This is all bullshit” snark it deserved.
It all felt like bad dad jokes you can’t not love. Guess which superhero is making bad dad jokes to his half-Kryptonian son right now?
But this isn’t about an actor being Very Good on Instagram. It’s about how Henry Cavill, a Hollywood actor whose status means you can’t expect any honesty or earnestness without involving an army of publicists, might actually be genuine and earnest. (Is he decent? He fucked up with a bad take on #MeToo, which he apologized for, so perhaps that demonstrates a measure of decency. His actions now and in the future will determine if he really is a good man.)
At a time when it’s impossible to tell what sincerity looks like, when images are groomed to perfection, it was bizarrely radical that Henry Cavill knew how to just be. That’s the biggest quality you look for in a Superman. Just a wink and a smile. It’s too bad he didn’t do that in a movie.