Henry Cavill’s new dawn
During his first outing in the famous red-and-blue suit, for 2013’s Man of Steel, Henry Cavill was asked for his thoughts on the ‘Curse of Superman’. The theory has existed for years and even has its own Wikipedia page. It relates to the apparent bad luck that plagues anyone playing the superhero in a TV show or movie. As the British actor was to assume the mantle, then surely the curse would have him in its sights?
Clearly nestled into the role at that point, Cavill answered the question with the calm and steely determination of Superman fronting up to Lex Luthor’s latest scheme. “I have indeed heard of the curse,” he told collider.com. “I think there’s been some bad luck in the past, especially when it comes to horses [the late Christopher Reeve was paralysed after being thrown from a horse in 1995], and I don’t mean that as a joke… There’s bad luck, but I don’t think it’s any curse.”
If anything, Cavill is the antithesis of such an affliction.
On release, Man of Steel took Dhs2.5 billion at the box office, making it the highest-grossing Superman movie to date — this despite its fairly average reviews, with critics and fans alike asking if it brought anything new to the character, other than a moody rehash of his origin story. But it was still deemed worthy of a follow-up, this month’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.
Another clue is that, unlike actors who have played Superman in the past, Cavill is someone whose darkest days appear to be behind him, not in front. Born on the island of Jersey (a UK Crown dependency off Britain’s south coast) in 1983, he was sent away to boarding school in Stowe, Buckinghamshire, aged 13, and became a victim of bullying due to his then-fuller frame. “I grew up with the kind of complex that comes from being overweight and constantly teased, and getting called things like Fatty Cavill,” he says of his childhood. “When you’re fat, kids use that to pick on you and make fun of you. You can react very negatively and let that make you miserable and self-pitying, or you can react against it and use it as a motivating factor to be more self-reliant and determined to stand up for yourself.”
Cavill chose the latter option, and can now see the positive in the toughest of situations. He even says the experience helped him to play Superman — an outsider from another world.
“I understood what it means to not feel that you fit in and you need to look within yourself more,” he continues. “My parents were very instrumental in encouraging me to not let those experiences inhibit me or make me more cautious about life.
I was taught to have a positive outlook and instead of feeling sad or sorry for myself, have a stronger sense of who I am and what I wanted to accomplish. All [that abuse] made me much tougher and more anxious to prove myself.”
For Cavill, the way forward came through acting, and his interest was piqued when his school was featured in the 2000 movie Proof of Life, starring Russell Crowe. A number of pupils were included as extras, and Cavill, then 16, approached Crowe during a break. “I said to him, ‘Hi, I’m thinking of becoming an actor. Do you have any advice, any tips?’” Cavill told Access Hollywood in a 2013 interview for Man of Steel, in which Crowe had been cast as Superman’s Kryptonian father, Jor-El. “He said to me, ‘Yeah, it’s good, it pays good, but you know what? Sometimes they don’t treat you so good.’ And then two days later, I received a package — it had in it a rugby shirt, Australian candy, Vegemite and a photo of Russell in Gladiator, and on it he’d written, ‘Dear Henry, even a journey of 1,000 miles begins with a single step. Russell.’ That sat in my room in Jersey for years. When I was getting turned down for roles, I’d look at it and say, ‘Okay, keep on plugging.’”
But even with the encouragement of a big Hollywood name, getting a break would be tough. There were multiple bit-parts in TV and film, until finally an opportunity to play Superman came along — but not for Man of Steel. In 2004, Warner Bros was considering the latest of its potential reboots following the earlier Christopher Reeve movies, favouring a story by JJ Abrams. Cavill was considered for the lead, as, like Reeve, he was an unknown [his costume screen test can be seen on YouTube], but ultimately the project was pulled when the script leaked online. Abrams’ version took many liberties with the source material, including Krypton not blowing up and Lex Luthor being an alien. The fans weren’t happy. Director Bryan Singer presented his own ‘safer’ vision, which became Superman Returns in 2006, with Brandon Routh in the role instead. The film was not a success, and Routh’s career has floundered since.
It would not be the first franchise that saw Cavill pipped to the post. He lost out to Robert Pattinson twice, as Cedric Diggory in Harry Potter & the Goblet of Fire and again to play Edward Cullen in the Twilight films. Then he made it down to the last two to play James Bond in 2005’s Casino Royale, with Daniel Craig being the competition. The producers had said they wanted a younger Bond, just not that young [Cavill is 15 years Craig’s junior].
Finally, a breakthrough came with TV. A role as Charles Brandon, the first Duke of Suffolk, in four series of US historical drama The Tudors helped to raise his profile, with Entertainment Weekly even naming him ‘Most Dashing Duke’. It was enough to make the leap to film, this time in the lead. 2011 delivered Cavill a Clash of the Titans-style epic, Immortals, followed by action-thriller The Cold Light of Day, alongside Bruce Willis. Following Man of Steel, he played suave super-spy Napoleon Solo in director Guy Ritchie’s revamp of 1960s TV show The Man From U.N.C.L.E (pictured below).
But of course it’s Superman, and the sight of Cavill in the familiar costume, that he is most famous for so far — something the 32-year-old actor clearly enjoys. “There’s a certain pride in playing this kind of iconic figure and it creates some excitement with people,” he says. “I don’t walk the streets thinking, ‘I’m Superman’, although it’s not a bad image to have, and girls don’t seem to mind either!”
It doesn’t sound like the musings of somebody worried by a curse. If Cavill has suffered any hardship, then bullying and earning a reputation as Hollywood’s ‘nearly man’ seem to be the extent of it. But if there is a curse out there, how can the actor prepare? And what is the Curse of Superman, anyway?
Some have speculated that it emerged with the character himself. His creators, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, who wrote and drew his first adventure for Action Comics No 1 in 1938, were pressured into selling the rights for just $130 (Dhs470), struggling through life while the publishers made millions. Then Kirk Alyn, the first actor to play Superman in a black-and-white serial in the 1940s, failed to find more work after being typecast.
George Reeves was next in line, playing the character in a TV show, The Adventures of Superman, which ran from 1951 until 1958. Reeves’ is perhaps the most tragic story related to the supposed curse, along with Reeve decades later, dying from a mysterious gunshot wound to the head at his Beverly Hills home in 1959. The official ruling was suicide, as it was widely known that Reeves felt depressed due to his inability to find other roles. A dramatisation of the events featured in the 2006 movie Hollywoodland – incidentally starring Ben Affleck as Reeves, who appears as Batman to Cavill’s Superman in Dawn of Justice.
Christopher Reeve, who played the character in the four iconic movies from 1978 to 1986, felt the effects of the curse in his own way. First there was the familiar struggle of landing roles away from the iconic tights and cape, only to be followed by real tragedy in 1995 when he was thrown from his horse and paralysed from the neck down. In 2004, he passed away following a cardiac arrest related to his injuries, while his wife died two years later from lung cancer.
Affleck, Gadot and Cavill play the iconic trio of heroes
But has Cavill managed to avoid the curse by having a run of bad luck earlier in life? Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice looks likely to be his biggest hit to date. The main draw is that, unlike Man of Steel, a Superman movie, the follow-up serves as a platform for creating a wider universe, similar to what Marvel has achieved with its Avengers franchise. It will introduce other heroes, including Batman (Ben Affleck) and Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), who will then spin out into their own connecting franchises: Suicide Squad, with another appearance from Affleck’s Batman, will be released in the summer; a Wonder Woman movie is currently in production; and Cavill himself is bulking up for his next outing as Superman in a Justice League film.
So while the title of the new movie suggests its two lead characters are at odds, at some point they must become allies. “The film expands on the world that you were introduced to in Man of Steel,” Cavill confirms. “Superman is now more confident and understands his role as a superhero better. He has a very strong sense of his mission on Earth and he disagrees with Batman’s way of doing things, even though they both want to save lives and fight evil.”
Batman, on the other hand, sees Superman as a potential threat to the survival of the planet, with Lex Luthor (portrayed by Jesse Eisenberg) masterfully playing the heroes off against each other. And in case you were wondering how Batman might beat Superman in a fist fight, check out the trailer, where the Dark Knight wears a suit of what seems to be Kryptonite-laced armour.
What Cavill needs to ensure after the dust settles is that his Superman isn’t relegated to the sidelines. While Warner Bros has announced an ambitious slate of movies featuring DC superheroes up to 2020, what is surprising is that no solo Superman movies were included — his character has shared billing here, and his only confirmed appearance after this is in The Justice League.
Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice looks likely to be Cavill’s biggest hit to date. It serves as a platform for creating a wider universe
Does that mean Superman is not seen as the catalyst to get this interconnected movie universe off the ground? It appeared to start that way with Man of Steel, but its lukewarm reception saw Batman being brought in for the follow-up — Hollywood knows how to make Batman work, with The Dark Knight Rises ranked as the 10th highest-grossing movie of all time. The character is box-office gold and the early buzz here is that Affleck is so good in the role that a spin-off trilogy is already being planned, which the actor himself may direct.
More solo movies for Batman and the other characters then, but a role in a team movie for Superman. Could this be Cavill’s version of the curse, lowering him through the superhero ranks? The actor himself seems unsure what will happen. “It’s not a Superman sequel,” he says of the team-up with Affleck. “This one helps develop new storylines and expand the kind of universe that will set the stage in the future for more Superman stories, I hope.”
Perhaps there will be an announcement after Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. Onscreen, their fight could go either way, but in terms of the box office, Batman is a tried-and-tested safe bet, and even after Man of Steel, Superman still seems the bigger risk. Perhaps the studio should have more faith. This is a character that has endured the last 78 years, who inspired the creation of every superhero there is, and in Cavill they have an actor who couldn’t embody him more. The real curse is in him not getting the movie he deserves — using modern special effects, with a serious emotional and physical threat. The right actor is already in place. Give him the right script and let Cavill bring it.
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Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is released in cinemas March 25