So Henry Cavill may or may not have portrayed Superman for the last time in last year’s Justice League after three turns as the Man of Steel. The Hollywood trades say he’s moved on, Warner Bros. and Cavill’s agent are being non-committal, and Cavill himself is posting ambiguous messages on Instagram.
But whether Cavill’s worn the cape for the last time or not, Warner Bros. will continue to face the same obstacle it always does when trying to bring Superman to live-action life on the big or small screen – the Superman of the comic books and to a lesser degree animation doesn’t exist in real life.
Please don’t take that too literally. Of course a man who can fly and lift buildings with his bare hands doesn’t exist in real life. What we mean to say is Superman is perhaps the quintessential example of a dynamic facing iconic square-jawed superhero characters including Batman and Captain America – they exist in our mind’s eye as having the maturity and gravitas of men in their 40s but in the peak physical conditions of men in their 20s and 30s.
Now perhaps this is a completely subjective perception. Maybe to some Superman fans, a 20-something is exactly who they perceive in their head moving planets, saving cats from trees and chasing down leads over Metropolis’ corruption as Daily Planet reporter Clark Kent. But as a child of the 1970s I have three enduring images that inform my perception of Superman:
One, the Super Friends version of Superman, who comes off more of a dad figure than an older brother figure to teenagers Wendy and Marvin, later Zan and Janya, and to a lesser degree Robin.
Two, the George Reeves TV version of Superman. Reeves was 37 when he first took that role, and 38 when he filmed the majority of the TV series episodes making him by far the oldest live-action Superman. The suit-and-fedora men’s fashions of the early 1950s time period also help him come off as the most mature live-action version of character ever put on screen, particularly while portraying Clark Kent.
And finally, three, the Curt Swan Superman. To be blunt, Swan’s Superman always struck me as the oldest of the iconic versions of the character. Perhaps I was influenced by a wacky story from my youth (Google tells me it’s 1978’s Superman #330) in which it’s explained Clark Kent’s eyeglass lenses were made from glass from his Kryptonian rocket, which helped broadcast a super-hypnotic effect that made people who looked at Clark perceive him to be an older, slightly balding, more frail and "less handsome" (his words) version of himself.
Needless to say all of those perceptions of the character are significantly influenced by the fact I was between five and ten-years-old when they were formed – of course Superman and Batman and Cap are perceived as older to a child. But then Superman debuted 80 years ago – there are literally few people alive whose first impressions of the Man of Steel weren’t formed in childhood.
But the issue also goes beyond subjective interpretation. The current DC Comics version of Superman is also now the father of a 10-year-old boy, born after what can only be presumed was a lengthy career in which Lois Lane didn’t know his secret identity and then a few years of a pre-marriage/pre-parental courtship. Even estimating Superman's entire career and relationship with Lois before Jon was born at an ultra-conservative five years, add to Jon’s age and assume Superman’s career began at age 25, that makes him no less than 40-years-old in comic book years.
So beyond any questions of whether the next Superman should be black or white (for the record, we’re good with an actor of any race) is the better question of whether to cast an older actor that can pull-off the experienced gravitas and larger-than-life charisma Superman projects with every fiber of his being for a handful of films before filling out the suit becomes an issue... or going the more practical route of casting a younger actor you can physically count on for 10 to 15 years.
While this is pure speculation, Warner Bros. is likely done telling Superman origin stories on film for a while. And it’s high time moviegoers get to see a Man of Steel who is a fixture in the world. There have been enough stories about his introduction or return after an absence.
The studio had the right idea when it wrote Batman as older and world-weary in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and Justice League. The impressive physicality the 40-something Ben Affleck brought to the role rang true, and his maturity as Bruce Wayne perhaps best-matched the comic book and iconic Kevin Conroy-voiced versions of the character. (Although your regard for Affleck-as-Batman likely matches your overall regard for Ben Affleck.)
The biproduct of pairing of Cavill and Affleck, however, highlighted lack of Superman’s gravitas in those films. And this was not fault of Cavill. He is a perfectly fine actor who managed to pull off Superman’s nobility, but what was missing was that Curt Swan/George Reeves wink – the sense that Superman knows who and what he is and more to the point, that he’s got this. Not a Superman discovering how he fits in.
All of the live-action Supermen since George Reeves have been in that 20s or early 30s sweet spot when they took the role – old enough to be somewhat credible as an adult but young enough to play the role for years if necessary - from 26-year-old Christopher Reeve to 27-year-old Dean Cain to 27-year-old Brandon Routh to 29-year-old Henry Cavill to 31-year-old Tyler Hoechlin. We’ve even had a couple of Superboys mixed in there.
But what we haven’t had for nearly 70 years is an already mature Superman – a hero who has seen ton of action, who knows his place in the world, perhaps more importantly enjoys that place and knows that place is as a father or favorite uncle figure to everyone, even to guys pushing middle age who are connected to their youth by comic book characters.
So if Cavill is indeed out, and the entertainment world becomes fixated on who be next actor to take the role, here’s hoping Warner Bros. focuses less on the color of his skin and more on the date on his driver’s license.
Finding a live-action Superman is never easy, and finding a 40-something Superman that could pull off the muscle suit would make it even harder, but hey, we hear Hugh Jackman may have some free time.