The future’s so bright, Clark Kent’s gotta wear shades.
Editor’s Note: The following contains spoilers for Black Adam.
With his brief cameo in Black Adam‘s mid-credits sequence a huge success, and confirmation from the actor himself, Henry Cavill’s Superman is back in the fold, with at least one solo film confirmed. Coupled with news of James Gunn and Peter Safran being appointed co-heads of DC Studios, the DCEU seems to finally be righting the ship and doing right by the rich legacy of Superman. Interestingly, the talk is that the character will be more hopeful. Cavill himself has said that he’s excited “to tell a story with an enormously joyful Superman.” But what does that mean? What does that even look like?
Man of Steel, Cavill’s first appearance as Superman, was successful, but hardly what one would call joyful. The first part of the movie focuses heavily on the events leading up to Krypton’s demise, with baby Kal-El’s ship safely escaping and en route to Earth where he’s rescued by Jonathan (Kevin Costner) and Martha Kent (Diane Lane). As Kal-El, Clark, grows, so do his powers, yet Jonathan insists that young Clark (Dylan Sprayberry) keep his powers hidden, chastising Clark for rescuing the school bus his classmates were in from sinking. Tragically, Jonathan does not relent, forbidding Clark from showing his powers even as a tornado steals him away. So for those following along, Clark lost his planet, his father killed himself, for all intents and purposes, in front of him and his mother, and even as an adult he keeps his powers in check. This riotous first act gives way to a no-holds-barred, wildly destructive fight against General Zod (Michael Shannon) that sees Superman controversially break Zod’s neck in order to prevent the death of innocent bystanders.
We don’t see Cavill’s Superman again until 2016’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, a dour affair that sees Superman and Batman (Ben Affleck) coerced into fighting one another in a savage battle. They stop fighting one another and start fighting Doomsday, aided by Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), only for Superman to sacrifice his life to stop the monster. That’s right, we’re gonna need another Superman. Or you’d think, except he gets resurrected in Justice League, where he beats the living crap out of the other heroes before finding himself again and returning to take out Steppenwolf (Ciarán Hinds).
Three movies, but the only true glimpse of joy we see in Cavill’s performance is Superman’s first flight in Man of Steel. It is such a winning moment, a true moment, that gets lost amidst the overall pallor of the film. Yes he’s good, brave, and stalwart, but overall lacks heart. It never feels like he’s earned the world’s adoration, and one could argue that had Zod and company not shown up, Superman may never have revealed himself, choosing to aid humanity covertly as he had been. Most of this, of course, falls at the feet of director/producer Zack Snyder and his vision. It’s not to say there’s anything wrong with the so-called Snyderverse – Zack Snyder’s Justice League is amazing – but lighthearted is not an adjective one would apply to it.
What Cavill’s Superman has been robbed of is what makes Christopher Reeve‘s definitive portrayal — in fact, most portrayals — so pitch-perfect. There’s a glint in the eye, something that makes it seem that Superman feels blessed to help, that there is joy in being able to give. He isn’t just a force that exists to stop global-level threats, but one that truly exists to do good, no matter how large or small the challenge is. Perhaps the most telling moment is in 1978’s Superman, when Superman swoops down to rescue a cat stuck in a tree, gives “Frisky” back to the little girl (Jayne Tottman), and says goodbye before flying off. It’s an act that isn’t beneath him, and one that he knows is as important to the girl as stopping Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman) is for the world at large. It is an act that one can easily envision Brandon Routh, Dean Cain, and George Reeves‘ Superman doing as well. Does it make Superman a big blue Boy Scout? Of course it does, but that is what Superman has always been. Reeve’s portrayal of Superman earns the right to see a global outpouring of devotion for the hero. He believed the character symbolized hope, and there is nothing in his performances that betrays that. That belief is always at the forefront, that he stands for something more. Throughout his history, Superman has always been that symbol, the voice of optimism and determination.
Bringing It All Back
Ultimately, the promise of a more hopeful, joyful Superman in the DCU simply corrects the course for this iteration of the character that is more in line with his history on both page and screen. The work has already begun, with his Black Adam appearance showing off a lighter suit than what we’ve seen on him before. We know Cavill can deliver the goods as far as spectacle is concerned. He certainly looks the part, arguably even more so than those before him. We’ve seen the spectrum of emotion that Cavill can bring to the character, which makes it all the more disappointing that we haven’t seen more of those joy-filled moments from him.
What Cavill’s Superman needs is more of those save the cat moments, where we are privy to his humanity, where we understand why the world would be so mournful at his loss. If the future of Superman in the DCEU is truly going to be more hopeful, it’s those moments that will get him there. In a world starving for heroes, where idols can be made or destroyed in mere seconds, and good news is elusive at best, a hopeful Superman delivers a belief that there is good in the world, that one can make a difference with even the smallest of kind acts. We may not fly, but we can be inspired by a big, blue Boy Scout that can.
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