Days before this year’s San Diego Comic-Con, Deadline reported that Henry Cavill would appear during Warner Bros.’s Hall H presentation to announce his return as Superman. As expected, the Internet lost its mind, and, as expected, it didn’t happen.
The social media fervor around Cavill’s rumored appearance is another strange chapter in the decade-long Snyderverse saga that is too complicated and intense to explore fully. (Rolling Stone published a detailed account of the making of Zack Snyder’s Justice League last week, coinciding with the film’s digital release.)
However, it did inspire within me a reflection of Cavill’s time as Superman. I felt that Snyder misunderstood Superman and, in an attempt to modernize him, left him unrecognizable. In Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, Superman was dour, tortured, and aloof, trapped in a nonsensical battle with Ben Affleck’s Batman that left him impaled by Doomsday. Justice League presented a less-burdened Clark after the team revived him to fight Steppenwolf, but the glimpses we see get lost in the chaotic third act. (The Ultimate Edition of Batman v Superman and ZSJL offer better versions of the character by far, but the core problems still carry over.)
However, Cavill’s Superman wasn’t always doom, gloom, and overwrought Christ metaphors. In Man of Steel, one moment perfectly captured the superhero’s enduring appeal and made him modern and relevant. After meeting Jor-El and discovering his true origins, Clark heads out into the Artic in his iconic blue and red suit with its billowing cape. Snyder presents Clark’s first steps as a superhero with the majesty it warrants. The sequence is stunningly detailed and composed. Hans Zimmer’s score, mixed with Jor-El’s explanation of Clark’s powers, grants the exposition genuine heft. A hazy sunrise emerges in the background, and specks of snow and ice scatter with each step he takes. No one understands the limits of his power, but it’s tangible. Clark looks up to the sky with a determined stare and launches upwards.
Snyder doesn’t allow Clark to fly easily on his first try. Instead, Clark takes giant leaps that leave craters in the tundra beneath him. It’s an astute directorial and narrative choice. It references the “leap tall buildings in a single bound” quote that has formed the character’s backbone for generations. Those leaps convey the enormity of his strength, his inexperience, and even his fear of his abilities. Clark only knows what he knows, so why not jump first to test his limits? But those leaps are just warm-ups.
With one last leap, Clark forces his body into an upward trajectory, slicing through the clouds at top speed. Snyder renders this moment with sharp clarity in the sound mixing and the visual effects. What resonates emotionally are the close-ups of Clark’s face while in flight. Cavill is largely stoic up to this point, but here, joy and surprise brighten his face. Clark enjoys his powers; they don’t burden him. Even better is what follows that smile when he starts to lose balance. In an amusing moment, Cavill’s joy shifts to horror as Clark falls and crashes through a mountain.
You can probably imagine Marvel bookending this humiliation with a self-deprecating quip. Snyder’s approach is more thoughtful. Cavill lets Clark’s disappointment register, but neither he nor Snyder wallows. Instead, Clark stands up and closes his eyes to soak in the sun’s radiation and restore his strength. A look of serenity washes over Cavill’s face, but he doesn’t fully surrender. There are still slivers of hesitation borne from Clark’s earlier mistakes. He succumbs just enough to re-center himself and allow Jor-El’s overlaid words to encourage him. Restored, he kneels, grounds his fist in the ice as snow circles it, and launches again in the sky, leaving behind deep cracks.
Clark’s first successful flight is everything you would imagine it to be. He zips through clouds and around mountains, soaring above African wildlife and skimming oceans. It’s visually impressive but would be meaningless without seeing how Clark is taking it in. Cavill smiles again, but there is slightly less jubilance and more focus. You still feel his joy and also see his growth. By the time Clark flies straight up towards space and looks down at Earth, you’ve watched a hero’s metamorphosis in real-time. Most importantly, you’ve watched someone who wants to be a hero. Clark sees the wonder in being a symbol of hope and wants to carry it forward.
Clark’s first flight helps explain (or justify) Snyder’s more controversial creative choices in Man of Steel. Seeing Clark struggle and learn from his flying mistakes provides a foundation for the colossal errors he makes while fighting Zod in the film’s climax. Clark is still learning, you could argue, so it tracks that he would wreak unintentional havoc and damage while trying to save the planet. Even his murder of Zod works in this context, and Snyder and Cavill show the emotional devastation of that choice. Some criticized the film’s solemnity, but through the prism of Clark’s smile in the air, the seriousness felt like a growing pain that Man of Steel 2 would resolve.
We never got a Man of Steel 2, and that growing pain became an ingrained character flaw. In his later works, Snyder lost sight of Superman’s joy and hope, crucial traits which set him apart from other heroes in the DC Universe. He fundamentally believes that life – human, alien, or otherwise – is worth saving. He doesn’t view heroism as an obligation. A responsibility, yes, but not a burden. He enjoys helping people, and that joy and care are what make people believe in him.
Can Superman have doubts or moments of emotional weakness? Yes, but Superman is neither a pessimist nor a nihilist. Show him struggle, as he did flying for the first time, but misery and detachment shouldn’t be core to his character. (Justice League Unlimited offers a nuanced take on a petty, jealous Superman that complicated and ultimately strengthened his character and narrative arc.) What narrative enjoyment comes from seeing two similarly miserable superheroes punch each other into oblivion?
Superman’s characterization in the Snyderverse can be frustrating, but it’s a mistake to write the character off. Henry Cavill was a terrific Superman who achieved greatness when the script and direction worked with him. There is a universe out there where Snyder and DC held firm on Superman’s core tenets that they convey in the first flight scene. Sadly, we don’t live in that universe, and it’s unlikely we’ll ever see Cavill try Superman again.
But for one moment, however fleeting it was, we believed that a man from Kansas could fly.