I hated Man of Steel when it first came out, and I wasn’t alone. The movie’s dark tone, combined with the extreme collateral damage in its explosive and CG-heavy action sequences, struck me as excessive and insensitive. All those falling towers represented people dying by the score, and I felt the movie (and its Superman) callously didn’t recognize the carnage for what it was.
But in the years since, these decisions have been better contextualized by the full vision of Zack Snyder’s trilogy and other superhero cinema. Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice reframed the calamitous fight between Superman and Zod on the ground level. And since the destruction of Sokovia in Avengers: Age of Ultron, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has mostly dealt in a sanitized, bloodless version of mass violence.
With time and maturation on the movie’s part (and mine), I’ve done a complete 180 on Man of Steel, which now stands among my favorite superhero movies ever made. Snyder’s sweeping two-and-a-half-hour saga is a deeply personal movie about alienation and isolation, and about the failures of our parents even when they have the best of intentions. It’s about a man trapped between two worlds and being pulled in two directions by the strongest possible forces: the people who love him.
The movies that have followed certainly played their part in Man of Steel’s continued legacy, but one thing has stayed true from the beginning: Henry Cavill was born to play Superman. He has the good looks and the natural charm — two must-haves others have also brought to the iconic character. But unlike Christopher Reeve, Brandon Routh, and many of the other fine actors who have played Superman over the character’s 80-year history, Cavill plays Kal-El as fundamentally lonely.
The gloominess of Zack Snyder’s DC movies is often discussed, but Cavill excels as Superman because his version of the hero exists in relation to the world around him. In Man of Steel, Superman is a complete outsider, unable to fully connect or relate to people from either of the worlds he has inhabited. And that’s all captured in every minute of Cavill’s performance.
The first time we see Cavill’s Clark Kent, he’s a rugged man with a full beard and mustache working on a boat. He’s quiet and inexperienced, and immediately gets called a “dumbass” by a colleague who thinks he’s saved Clark by pushing him out of the way of a falling hazard. When the boat is called to a distress call at a local oil rig, Clark barely wastes a second, ditching everything to save the rig’s crew. He doesn’t say a word for the entire sequence, silently sacrificing the life he had built for himself in order to save a group of strangers. It’s all instinct, and even if he’s silent, Cavill is able to communicate everything you need to know about what Clark is thinking — he’s almost amused when he’s “saved,” barely stopping himself from rolling his eyes, and Clark’s sheer determination when he decides to expose his powers and save the rig workers darts across Cavill’s face in an instant.
In these quiet early moments, Cavill’s Clark comes across as thoughtful and sensitive. He seems to constantly analyze and mull over every situation and interaction, considering how consequential his actions can be and how separated he feels from everyone else. Cavill’s big blue eyes, when not furrowed in confusion or curiosity at the people he shares this planet with, yearn for connection. He sees and hears too much for any one person to handle, and it takes a visible toll on Cavill’s expressions throughout the movie.
The Kryptonians Clark encounters are even more alien to him than the humans; Michael Shannon’s terrifying Zod lays into him for his estrangement from his heritage. And Kal-El isn’t quite “human” enough to fit perfectly into our world, either. It’s an important character trait for someone who literally has a fortress of solitude, but one that often gets lost in favor of showing his easygoing charisma and “man of the people” status. Henry Cavill’s Superman has no such buffer: His is a melancholy world, and it’s important for Man of Steel we see that, both through Cavill’s pensive expressions and Clark’s relationship to loved ones and strangers alike.
This dichotomy is seen most strongly through his strained relationship with his dads. Man of Steel could also be described as “there are two dads inside you,” and Cavill’s Clark is the poor superman who has to wrestle with both of them.
Most foundationally you have Jonathan Kent, lost in Man of Steel’s most famous (and criticized) scene. After a bitter argument between a young Clark and Jonathan — Clark said he’s not his real dad, you know the drill — they approach some traffic with a tornado looming in the distance. Clark wants to run in and help the people around them, but Jonathan stops him, urging him to protect his mother. Jonathan runs in himself, and in his final moments, holds up a hand and shakes his head, telling Clark not to save him.
Frustrations with Jonathan Kent’s preventable death by tornado are understandable, but they are missing the point. Man of Steel goes to great pains to show how far Jonathan is willing to go to protect his son, even chastising him for saving his fellow classmates from drowning when their school bus crashes into a river. It’s entirely consistent for Jonathan to feel the same way about his own demise — he is deathly afraid Clark will become a target (or a religious icon, as the mother of the bully Clark saves calls it an “act of God”) if the truth about him is known, and would rather die than reveal that secret.
It’s not that Jonathan is against doing the right thing — after all, he runs into the danger, shooing Clark away. But he holds a different standard for his son, like many parents do, and it costs him his life. The movie treats this as a truth in Clark’s life; it’s worth noting that every other instance of Clark using his powers results in a rapid and extreme military response, much like Jonathan feared. But Cavill’s performance also carries the gravity of Jonathan Kent’s worldview. When Jonathan dies, Cavill’s face is a perfect concoction of pain and anger, tears welling up as he mutters inaudibly to himself, his furrowed brow settling into place as his dad disappears for good and he shouts into the void. It’s a formative moment for the film and this Superman that echoes throughout the rest of the series, and it works because of Cavill’s affecting portrayal of how this shatters his life. In the moment it happens, he’s loud in his grief, but everything after is quietly colored by it, an ever-present drain on his features.
While Jonathan’s death shows the hardships of choosing humanity, Clark’s relationship with his Kryptonian father, Jor-El (Russell Crowe), has all the weight of choosing your fate. It’s a sentiment Jor-El mentions in the movie’s stellar sci-fi prologue on Krypton (hopefully a preview of what’s to come in Snyder’s upcoming Netflix space opera Rebel Moon), telling Zod, “He will be free. Free to forge his own destiny.” And yet such choices often leave Clark cold in Man of Steel. Learning more about his Kryptonian heritage only makes Clark feel more disconnected from the world around him. The digitized consciousness of Jor-El tells him he is “just as much a child of Earth now as one of Krypton” — surely meant to be comforting, but Cavill’s face reflects that he feels like a child of neither. Jor-El tells him he must guide the people of Earth away from the mistakes Kryptonians made, and to test the limits of his powers to keep getting strong, in direct contradiction to the advice of his other father. Clark once again finds himself stuck in the middle.
Both of Clark’s dads are stubborn and rigid in their view of who he can be, attempting to impress their own values upon him out of a loving sense of protection. But none of his parental figures could possibly understand what it’s like to be in his position, as a Kryptonian on Earth, a man who grew up a scared child in a Kansas classroom, unable to control his X-ray vision and terrified by an overwhelming sensory experience that separates him from everyone else. His mother is able to comfort him, but that’s not the same. There is a limit to Clark’s parents’ understanding of his situation, even if there is no limit to their love for him.
That loneliness is ultimately what deepens his connection to Amy Adams’ Lois Lane, the only person who knows him for who he is without the baggage of also being a parental figure. When Clark and Lois meet, they are both exploring the same mystery. His furrowed brow disappears as he explains to her that she has a serious wound he needs to cauterize, and even in a tense situation Cavill’s face is notably more relaxed and warm. You can sense there’s something kindred about the two. She has the same instinct to go toward danger that Clark has, despite being constantly told by those around her that it’s not good for her.
It’s with Lois that you can see Clark start to really figure out the man he wants to be, not the one his dads prescribed for him. When he’s around her, Clark is notably more relaxed, as Cavill’s eyes change from concern to convey his own eternal hope — his character may be a stand-in for humanity’s hope, but his own is entirely wrapped up in her. And their relationship culminates in one of the sexiest scenes in superhero cinema, when the two of them make love in a bathtub in a luxurious penthouse apartment in Batman v Superman. Too often, relationships in comic book movies feel loveless and sexless — rote repetitions that exist merely because they are must-haves from the source material. But Cavill’s Clark and Adams’ Lois are different. They have a bond forged through common values, interests, and shared experiences, and this chemistry jumps off the screen. This Superman fucks.
It’s important to note, of course, that Man of Steel lets Cavill show the more lighthearted side of Clark, too. The first time Cavill smiles in Man of Steel is during Clark’s first flight, and it’s delightful to see him actually have some joy in his life. The second time is when he hugs his mother. Cavill relaxes, back at home, in a simpler world where his secret doesn’t matter. And it’s a useful reminder: Off the screen, Cavill’s love for the character is well-documented (and adorable; his dog is named Kal, for crying out loud!). You can argue that’s an extremely secondary consideration, but it only adds to my appreciation, both of his performance and Man of Steel’s balance for him. This tranquility is brief, but it’s important — and informs everything about that bombastic, destructive climax in Metropolis.
After General Zod shows up and interrupts Clark’s trip to Kansas, the brief spell of calm that has washed over Cavill’s face breaks. He surrenders himself as a prisoner, and his time on the Kryptonian ship is a traumatic one. Clark is rejected as a Kryptonian not only by Zod and his crew, but by the ship’s Kryptonian atmosphere itself, which reduces Cavill to curling up like a confused child in pain. For the first time since he was in that Kansas classroom, his eyes show real fear.
That fear, confusion, and loneliness quickly turn to rage when Zod kidnaps his mother, giving us a side of Clark that we hadn’t seen before. Cavill seethes, reveling in the chance to play out lost boyhood fantasies of beating up bullies. Soon after, Zod’s lieutenant chides him, saying, “You are weak, son of El. Unsure of yourself.” She posits this will lead to his defeat, but it only makes him stronger. Despite the certainty of both of his dads, Cavill’s Clark Kent is bold enough to question things with the strength of his unique perspective, making his own decisions, for better and for worse.
When Clark defeats Zod, it is not a triumphant moment. Many have lost their lives, Kryptonian and human alike, and he only snaps Zod’s neck to save a group of civilians threatened by the general’s heat vision. Cavill looks on the verge of tears as he makes the fateful decision, severing one of his final links to his home planet before collapsing onto the floor and crying out in pain.
It’s this vulnerability that makes Cavill’s turn as the man of steel work so well, and it’s one of the many reasons I’m absolutely thrilled he’s getting another go at it in more Superman movies. When Man of Steel first came out, that vulnerability completely missed me. I was too distracted by the wanton destruction (and, frankly, by the terrible news judgment of Laurence Fishburne’s Perry White) to give the movie, and Cavill’s performance, a fair shake. But with the benefit of hindsight and the evolution of superhero movies in a completely different direction, I am delighted to have a changed relationship to this movie. Against a landscape of quippy sitcom actors in capes, Cavill’s is a thoughtful take on Superman, one that combines a sense of pure alienation with a stubborn drive to hope against all odds. To do this, the movie expertly plays his good looks and movie star charms against his big, sad eyes and constantly furrowed brow, in a dynamic combination that takes this character to soaring new heights.
We’ve had many great versions of Superman over the years, and are due for many more, but Cavill’s tenure was cut off early. There’s more he can do with this character he loves so much. And this time, I’ll be ready for it, too.
Man of Steel is available to stream on HBO Max. It is also available for digital rental or purchase on Amazon, Apple TV, Google Play, and Vudu.