Superman Returns: What Henry Cavill’s Comeback Brings To DC Films

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In news possibly intended to distract from Warner Bros. Discovery taking a $2 billion write-down on content and development, Henry Cavill publically announced that his mid-credit cameo in Black Adam meant he was returning as Superman for future DC Films. It has been five years since Justice League suffered from poor reviews and miserable box office ($659 million worldwide on a $300 million budget). Cavill has been MIA from the Hall of Justice. He’s been busy fighting Tom Cruise in Mission: Impossible Fallout, aiding Millie Bobby Brown in Enola Holmes and grunting his way through The Witcher. The news doesn’t automatically mean we’re getting another solo Superman movie. Cavill may become an added-value utility player akin to Mark Ruffalo’s Hulk in the MCU. Cavill may be the closest thing WBD can manage to casting a movie star as Superman.

In 1978, Warner Bros. and the Salklands picked out a total unknown named Christopher Reeve to portray the last son of Krypton for what would be Richard Donner and Tom Mankowitz’s blockbuster Superman: The Movie. Superman ($300 million worldwide) and Superman II ($190 million) were unmitigated hits. Superman III ($80 million) and Superman IV: The Quest for Peace ($37 million) were not. Helen Slater’s Supergirl earned just $14 million on a $35 million budget. In 2006, after a decade of near-misses and development hell, Bryan Singer cast unknown Brandon Routh in what would become Superman Returns. The before-its-time legacy sequel to the earlier Reeve films earned $200 million domestically and $391 million worldwide. That was more than Batman Begins and Star Trek but with mixed reviews and indifferent consumer reception on a whopping $270 million budget.

Henry Cavill donned the suit in Zack Snyder and David Goyer’s Man of Steel. The reboot earned mixed reviews and indifferent audience reception to the tune of $291 million domestic (from a $128 million debut) and $668 million worldwide on a $225 million budget. Accounting for inflation and the 3-D bump (which didn’t exist in 2006), it barely sold more tickets in North America than Superman Returns. The overseas numbers were up 98%, owing partially to the 3-D bump and partially due to the film being implicitly sold as a spin-off of Chris Nolan’’s Dark Knight trilogy. Warner Bros. was concerned enough about Man of Steel 2 that they cast Ben Affleck as Batman and turned the sequel into Batman v Superman. It earned terrible reviews, a B from Cinemascore and $873 million from a $424 million global launch.

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Aside from “But she’s got a new hat!” distractions, what does Cavill’s return bring to DC Films? Well, it may be the closest thing to a ‘star+character’ casting coup for the Man of Steel. Cavill was a relative unknown when he was cast as Clark Kent in Zack Snyder and David Goyer’s Man of Steel. He followed in the ‘from zero to hero’ movie and television footsteps of Christopher Reeve, Dean Cain, Tom Welling and Brandon Routh. I’ve long argued that Superman is less popular and beloved than merely known worldwide. He’s Mickey Mouse, not Bugs Bunny. The character has rarely been atop the comic book pop culture food chain. We haven’t had an unquestionably successful Superman movie since Superman II in 1981. Nonetheless, there is a clear desire from WBD’s current leadership to make a hit Superman movie.

The easiest way to differentiate this new Superman solo movie, and we’re being entirely theoretical right now, is to buck the trend of casting a relative unknown as Clark Kent and offer the role to a ‘movie star.’ Now Cavill was not a movie star in 2013, nor in 2015 when The Man From U.N.C.L.E. (co-starring fellow ‘not a movie star’ Armie Hammer) earned just $105 million worldwide on a $75 million budget. The question is whether folks discovering and appreciating that Guy Ritchie-directed spy throwback, along with (more importantly) the folks who liked him in The Witcher (462 million hours in the first month for season two, 541 million hours for season one), Enola Holmes (76 million hours in the first month with Enola Holmes 2 dropping next week) and Mission: Impossible 6 ($792 million global) skew that equation.

No, Cavill is not a butts-in-seats opener outside of a safe franchise role or a Netflix
NFLX
offering. Nor do Joker or Venom mean that Joaquin Phoenix or Tom Hardy are openers. But who qualifies? The few genuinely butts-in-seats male actors (Leonardo DiCaprio, Denzel Washington and, uh…) or ‘might be fun as Superman’ picks like Jon Hamm, Matt Damon or Bradley Cooper are only viable if they skip straight to Kingdom Come-era Superman. Ditto older male actors who can draw a crowd under specific circumstances, like Dwayne Johnson, Brad Pitt, Will Smith, Keanu Reeves and Tom Cruise. Who in the 25-35 age range, be they white (Timothée Chalamet) or non-white (Michael B. Jordan), is well known enough by the general public to designate their casting as Superman as a star+character event? You might as well not change a horse in midstream.

Bringing back Cavill has the side benefit of appealing to the perpetually online folks who genuinely want him back as Clark Kent. However, we can expect a civil war between those who want to see him play a happier, peppier, more idealistic Superman (which he seemingly wants to do) versus those who think that Cavill’s return will eventually lead to Zack Snyder’s apocalyptic Justice League 2. It also enhances the notion that the DCEU, from Man of Steel in June of 2013 to Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom in December of 2023, exists as a single MCU-like continuity. However, I’ll again note that nothing in any in-universe DC Films flicks negates the events of Man of Steel and Batman v Superman. The so-called SnyderVerse still exists, even if Snyder is seemingly happier making Army of the Dead and Rebel Moon for Netflix.

I do not know to what extent Cavill’s Superman will be used as an added value element in upcoming DC Films flicks, but nor can we expect a solo Superman follow-up until 2025 at the earliest. That will have been eight years since Justice League, nine years since Dawn of Justice and 12 years since Man of Steel, making a theoretical Man of Steel 2 a quasi-legacy sequel to itself. That may be part of the scheme, banking on generational nostalgia for the unsuccessful-in-its-time Man of Steel. We’ve seen that work for Amazing Spider-Man, and it’s part of Disney+’s strategy for properties like Willow and Hocus Pocus. Or maybe a new Superman movie will fare no better than the previous 39 years of Superman films because general audiences genuinely prefer Spider-Man, Batman and Captain America. As always, we’ll see.

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