Much like the vocal critics that accuse Superman of being a simple character, I thought that discussing Henry Cavil’s return as the iconic hero would be simple as well. But unlike other critics in their interpretations of Superman, I was not satisfied with taking the easy option in discussing Henry Cavil’s return to the role of Superman following his appearance in the post-credits scene of this year’s Black Adam. In the ten years since the “original hero” had his own feature-length film, when Henry Cavil first wore the “S,” many things have changed in superhero media and the public perception of Superman’s place in popular culture.
Superman is a more complex figure than I believe most people are willing to admit, being more than a strong man and one-man crusader, fighting for core principles like truth and justice. How Superman is portrayed in the media has always been important, and with the possibility of Henry Cavil giving us a brighter and more joyous Superman, I feel it is important to examine the struggles the character has undergone in recent years, and why this is the version of Superman we need.
If I were to ask you to describe Superman in one word, there are many that you could use; yet, the one that I feel has always been the most appropriate is hope: hope for a brighter tomorrow, hope in becoming a better person, and hope in other people. For those that confuse cynicism with realism, these values of hope and optimism are said to be irrelevant and out of touch with the modern world; some believe it is unrealistic that someone with all the powers that Superman has can be truly altruistic and find it in his heart to love unconditionally.
However, when we think like this we reduce the essence of who Superman is into something he is fundamentally not. By demanding that Superman be more “realistic” in his depictions, and by removing his hope and optimism, we are accepting a vision of a world that is grim and cynical, rather than looking inwards and outwards for ways to make it better.
Superman’s innate virtue and desire to help others are made alien to us, as we begin to emphasise the “super” over the “man,” defining him on the basis of his incredible power, rather than his humanity.
An aspect of the character that has felt absent in recent decades is this crucial emphasis on the “man:” Clark Kent’s humanity. By allowing ourselves to be distracted by his powers and what he can physically do, it is easy to forget that Superman, Clark Kent, does not see his powers as something that makes him better than us, but as an obligation to do what is right. His struggles and conflicts are not those of a physical nature, but an emotional one: to know that despite all the power you have, you will never be able to save everyone. It is his ability to shoulder the weight of the world and connect with people on a human level that makes Clark Kent super, not his powers. This is at the heart of why people still respond to the positive message that Superman is able to share with us.
Despite the growing onset of superhero fatigue and overabundance in the media, there is still a place for Superman, for Clark Kent, going forward. The character of Superman has set many precedents for the superhero genre and all that has come after, both in comics and for the superhero blockbuster. Although these trends may not always be received positively, as was the case in this past decade, it goes to show how important Superman’s portrayal in popular media is.
Superman is the standard that all other heroes will be compared with.
As a child, I would often pretend to be as strong as Superman, believing that I could fly. However, as I have gotten older, I dream that I can have his strength of spirit: to be a better person than I was the day before. Despite how much I have changed since childhood, what never changed was the belief that I could be like Clark Kent and like other real-world people, who share his beliefs that the world could be made into a better place. It is easy to be cynical and dismiss Clark Kent’s unconditional love for us, but it is hard to answer the questions that love asks of us in terms of the person we could be, why we are not that person yet, and the steps necessary to become that person.
All of this and more is what came to my mind when I saw Cavil’s Superman return. A different Superman from the one we met nearly a decade ago. One that seeks to talk and resolve the issue without violence and physical confrontation. Despite his prior characterization as the ‘man of tomorrow,’ Cavil has demonstrated a level of sincerity and joy in playing Clark Kent that will hopefully be depicted in his future appearances. And with James Gunn announced as the new creative head for DC Studios, it genuinely does feel that there is a bright future ahead for the man of tomorrow – and perhaps us, as well.