That's What's Up: What Henry Cavill's exit means for the DCEU's future

Each week, comic book writer Chris Sims answers the burning questions you have about the world of comics and pop culture: what's up with that? If you'd like to ask Chris a question, please send it to @theisb on Twitter with the hashtag #WhatsUpChris, or email it to staff@looper.com with the subject line "That's What's Up."

Q: If Henry Cavill really is leaving his role as Superman, then what do you think is next for the DC movies?via email

Like everyone else, I heard the news this week that Cavill might be hanging up his cape — and saw Cavill's truly amazing and monumentally cryptic Instagram video — and I was more than a little surprised. We have, after all, had ten years of a cinematic superhero universe on the Marvel side that's had pretty consistent casting among its major characters for over a decade now, and with as many movies as we've seen over on that side, the DC stuff feels like it's just getting started. I've long since resigned myself to living in a world where the cinematic Batman is Ben Affleck decapitating people with his car, and on the brighter side, it's actually pretty difficult for me to imagine anyone but Gal Gadot playing Wonder Woman now. I just sort of assumed all this stuff was permanent.

If the rumors of Cavill's departure are true, though, It probably shouldn't have been that much of a shock. I mean, just think about it from Cavill's perspective. If I'd starred as Superman in three movies and none of them were good, I'd probably bail, too.

Three Strikes

I have to admit that I'm a little bit torn, though. On one hand, saying that I hate those movies is sort of like calling the Apollo 11 mission "a five-day round trip." It's true in the most technical sense, but it only hints at the enormity of how massive an undertaking it really is. On a comprehensive list of every single piece of media I have experienced in my life, Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice comes in dead last, narrowly edging out Man of Steel. You could show me a grainy VHS tape of my own death scored by that noise Jim Carrey makes in Dumb & Dumber, and I'd still like it more than BvS.

I'm not a fan, is what I'm getting at. And unfortunately, Cavill's portrayal of Superman is a big part of that. From the moment he steps on the screen in Man of Steel, he's the exact opposite of what I want that character to be: a dour, scowling sad sack, reluctant to help others, and held at a distance from anything remotely resembling humanity. He's a Superman who snaps someone's neck while screaming in anguish, and then shows up in the very next scene all smiles, smashing up a satellite so he can get some privacy. The core of Superman's personality is that he is, at his core, a very human character, and Cavill plays him like someone who's never even heard of Clark Kent.

And that's just what you can get from Cavill's performance specifically. When you throw in the movie around him, you've got a Superman who consistently fails to help other people, from his own father to the entirety of Congress, who sits at the center of the most ham-handed Christ figure imagery in the history of visual art. His total list of accomplishments as Superman across his first two films can be summed up pretty quickly. First, he surrenders. Second, he kills someone. Third, he dies. That's not a good Superman.

Because of all that, I'm generally pretty in favor of any drastic changes that can be made in those movies. Here's the problem, though: not only is none of that actually Cavill's fault, I truly believe that he had (and has) the potential to be one of the best Supermen of all time.

The Man From K.R.Y.P.T.O.N.

And I know that because I watched The Man From U.N.C.L.E.

I'll be honest with you: I skipped this one in the theaters almost entirely because Cavill starred in it and I was still nursing the grumpiness I covered above when it came out, with the rest of the balance owing to still being leery of Armie Hammer after the flop that was the ill-advised Lone Ranger. When I finally sat down and watched it, though — which I only did because my wife watched it while I was out of town and liked it so much that she immediately wanted to watch it again with me once I got home — I sat there with my jaw hanging open for the entire movie, just getting angrier and angrier at every scene. Not because Cavill was bad, you understand. Because he was so good.

There's a moment toward the beginning of that movie where Cavill, as the amazingly named Napoleon Solo, is trying to get away from Ilya Kuryakin, Hammer's character, who's running him down like a Cold War Terminator. Solo is riding in the back of a car that's speeding away, watching as Ilya, who at this point has survived a car crash and chased down the fleeing vehicle on foot, and is trying to stop it by grabbing onto it and planting his feet in the road. Gaby, the woman whose escape Solo is trying to aid, asks him why he doesn't take a shot at this man who's right there in point blank range, and Solo responds with a measured, slightly impressed "Somehow, it just doesn't seem like the right thing to do."

That single scene, when Cavill's character decides not to use the life-and-death power he has over his opponent, an unstoppable but still very vulnerable human enemy who he'll end up teaming up with later because he just doesn't think it would be right, has more DNA of Superman and Batman in it than the entire movie that's named after the sons of two Marthas beating each other up with robot suits and Kryptonite gas. It made me furious, because I realized exactly how charming, personable, and willing to help he can be without losing a bit of the obvious strength that makes him seem formidable. The rest of the movie backs that up, too. Cavill could've been a great Superman, if he was in completely different movies than the ones we got.

Superman Returns

In that respect, Cavill could possibly join Brandon Routh in the exclusive club of actors who had the potential to be great as Superman but wound up in movies that did their absolute best to hide their strengths.

Before Man of Steel came out and set the new standard by including a scene where Superman's father insists that Superman allow him to die rather than save his life because we should all be afraid of what other people will think of us if we do the right thing, Superman Returns was my least favorite version of Superman across media. As a film, it's a bizarre mess of self-indulgence — it's a sequel to Superman II, but not only does it completely ignore the existence of Superman III (unforgivable) and Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (understandable), it's actually a sequel to the director's cut of Superman II that wasn't released until 26 years after the original was in theaters. It's literally based on the premise that Superman got Lois Lane pregnant, then went off to space for five years to look for Krypton — which turns out to be pointless because, as literally everyone knows, Krypton explodes as part of that dude's origin story — and then comes back just in time to break up Lois's relationship and have his super-powered son kill someone. Its very existence as an actual film that was released to the public is mind-boggling, and that's before you get to the garden-variety bad stuff like how Superman is only sort of vulnerable to Kryptonite sometimes.

And yet, the one thing that I have to give that movie is that Brandon Routh isn't a bad Superman. He's in a bad movie, for sure, and there's the weird choice of having what's essentially an action movie with Superman never once throwing a punch, but Routh is probably the best part of it. That sequence where he saves the airplane from crashing into a baseball game feels like Superman, even if the rest of the film doesn't. It's just a shame about everything else.

Legends of, well, not today

And like Cavill, Routh has a role that give us a glimpse into the alternate universe where he was a great Superman, although in his case it's on a significantly smaller scale. It's weirdly similar, though, since ten years after an ill-fated attempt at Superman, he's playing anotehr DC Comics superhero known for a red-and-blue costume on television: Ray Palmer, better known as the Atom. 

Ray might actually be the weirdest character on Legends of Tomorrow, which is saying something when you consider that the show is next-level buck wild superhero nonsense. Seriously, the last season literally ends with a giant Care Bear suplexing a demon, and that's maybe the third most bizarre thing that happens over the course of the year, and that is by no means a complaint. For some reason, the show seems to have decided that everyone hates Ray and thinks he sucks real bad, which is incredibly frustrating as a viewer since it also portrays him as a genius super-scientist who invented a shrinking Iron Man suit.

For all that Ray's eternally cheery optimism is a source of him being endlessly dunked on by Commander Steel, Routh plays him with an earnestness that comes through in a really appealing way. He's an honest man who likes everyone he's with and wants to help everyone he can, and never lets the bad things that happen to him get him down for long. At the end of the day, that's as good a summary of Superman's attitude that you can ask for, and it shows that Routh is willing to pull off just the right amount of corniness to seem sincere. Which, I suppose, is probably because when you're that extremely good-looking, you can be as corny as you want.

The Man Of Tomorrow?

Which leaves us with the initial question: if the rumors are true and Cavill actually is done, then what do the DC movies do from here? The obvious answer is, of course, that they just recast Superman and continue on building a shared universe that — hopefully — uses the cast change to distance itself from the rocky start of Man of Steel and Batman v Superman. There's already plenty of buzz around fan-casting the next iteration of Superman, after all, and it would certainly get headlines.

It still seems weird, though. I mean, with superhero movies finally bringing the concept of a shared universe to the screen at the scale of something like the MCU, where the stories are meant to continue in perpetuity just like the comics, it was inevitable that we'd have to confront this sooner or later. We've even seen it on a smaller scale with War Machine when Terrence Howard was swapped out for Don Cheadle — and on a much smaller scale with the Red Skull reappearing in Infinity War, Howard Stark being played by two actors at the same time to cover different points in his life, and Thor's pal Fandral the Dashing switching actors between sequels. We've even technically seen it with a much more major character when Mark Ruffalo was cast as Bruce Banner after Edward Norton left, although nobody really remembers that Incredible Hulk was the second movie in the MCU.

But at the same time, this is Superman, and he's not exactly Fandral the Dashing. Historically speaking, he's the character that the entire universe is built around, and that's held true on the screen, too. The foundational movie of DC's cinematic universe was a Superman movie, and even though he literally dies at the end of the second movie, Justice League is nominally about bringing him back to life withz a computer-degenerated mustache. Replacing him within the franchise, rather than just scrapping everything and starting over like they have every other time they've had to replace a Superman, is going to seem a little weird.

World Without a Superman

Then again, there's one possibility that I don't think many people have considered. What if they just… didn't have Superman in those movies anymore?

That might seem like a pretty bizarre suggestion, but I don't think it's entirely out of the question, either. The one impression I get from those movies more than any other is that the people who make them don't really seem to want Superman around that much. At the very least, they don't want a Superman who embodies all the stuff that we traditionally associate with Superman in the comics — stuff that Henry Cavill seems more than capable of pulling off if they did. At most, well, they made an entire movie where Superman gets his ass kicked by Batman and then dies, which isn't exactly the best track record for a cinematic superhero. Hawkeye has fared better than that. Aquaman has fared better than that. In fact, I'd say that as a moviegoer, it seems to me like Warner Bros. is far more interested in making a hit Aquaman movie than a good Superman one, and having seen the Aquaman trailer and their last eight attempts at Superman, I'm right there with 'em.

Of course, part of that is because "Superman's origin" and "The Death of Superman" seem to be the only two Superman stories that many fans (and many creators, if we're being honest) have any interest in, but it also speaks to the fact that, as an entity, DC just seems to prefer Batman, especially when they're creating a grumpier DC Universe. And really, if we can have a DC Cinematic Universe that starts with a dead Robin, where there's already an entire rogues' gallery of villains that have already been defeated and locked up behind bars to form the Suicide Squad — including Harley Quinn, which means the Joker has been around long enough to have both murdered Robin and gotten his own sidekick out of the deal before we even get to see things start — then is it really that weird to have a DC Universe where Superman was around for five years and then died, or went to go live inside the sun, or whatever?

The S stands for Solomon

They even have a potential replacement waiting in the wings if they decide to go with a world that's not built around Superman: Shazam, who's making his cinematic debut next April.

When the character first appeared in 1939, he was essentially the second iteration of the Superman idea. He takes all the basics — a big guy with dark hair and powers far beyond those of mere mortals, a costume with a cape, a first appearance where he's throwing around a car, etc. — and then adds what is arguably a far more compelling alter ego. Rather than mild-mannered Kryptonian-American farm boy Clark Kent, Billy Batson is a regular kid who turns into Shazam (or for purists, Captain Marvel) through magic. He's still got the mind of a twelve-year-old in the body of a superhero, giving him a childlike sense of wonder that makes him a little easier to buy as an eternal optimist, gives him a more interesting secret identity to juggle than a bespectacled reporter, and, crucially for his early success, makes it a lot easier for kids to identify with him and imagine themselves as the hero.

Of course, Shazam's reign at the top of the comic book world — during which he was outselling Superman by a pretty wide margin — was relatively short-lived, and he never got the kind of household-name cultural significance that Superman did. It's extremely unlikely that the DC movies would move him into their most prominent role, but hey, the option is there. And honestly? If we got to watch a weird ten-year meta narrative about Captain Marvel and Wonder Woman dragging those movies out of their grumpy-ass present state and into a world that actually looked like it had hope in the face of relentless grimness, I think that might actually be what brought me around on them.

Don't Mess with the S

But of course, that's just all speculation on my part. We don't actually know that Cavill's out the door and into the Phantom Zone just yet. How many times have we heard that Daniel Craig is moving on from the role of James Bond, only to watch him through a gun barrel as he walks back onscreen in a tuxedo for the next round? It's entirely possible that Cavill changes his mind, returns to the role, and maybe even gets the chance to show off all the stuff that actually makes him a perfect choice for Superman.

Or maybe Superman gets killed offscreen by the Joker in a Jared Leto solo movie that is, for some reason I cannot even begin to comprehend, still supposed to happen. Who knows anymore?

Each week, comic book writer Chris Sims answers the burning questions you have about the world of comics and pop culture: what's up with that? If you'd like to ask Chris a question, please send it to @theisb on Twitter with the hashtag #WhatsUpChris, or email it to staff@looper.com with the subject line "That's What's Up."