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Henry Cavill as Superman: Why are Brits so appealing as American superheroes?

January 31, 2011 |  2:24 pm

The reaction in the fan universe to the news that Henry Cavill is the new Superman has been surprisingly muted given that the actor has little track record -- and the one he does have involves a royals soap-opera on pay cable.

But with the casting of "The Tudors" costar as the new Man of Steel, it's impossible not to notice the trend of Brits in capes. As my colleague Geoff Boucher notes, British citizens will fill all three slots in the holy trinity of superheroes for the first time in history now that Cavill will play Superman. (Welsh native Christian Bale is reprising his role as Batman in "The Dark Knight Rises," and British-American Andrew Garfield is the new Spider-Man.)

Meanwhile, Aussie Chris Hemsworth is playing Thor (a character, of course, rooted in another country's mythology) in a new Marvel movie. Even Green Lantern comes from Canada.

Before the comment flames begin ... yes, in many ways this doesn't really matter. These actors will lose their accents long before they leap off their first building. And while Superman is ostensibly a character who seeks "truth, justice and the American way," the phrase from the comic (if it's used in the movie at all) is just a euphemism meant to suggest goodness. These days it could just as easily be the British way.

Still, the casting of foreigners is notable. For one thing, it reflects where filmmakers are headed with these characters. Nearly all of these superheroes are darker and more tortured, and the current generation of Brits is seen, rightly or wrongly, as more comfortable at that end of the acting spectrum than many of their American counterparts.

Maybe more important, the choice speaks to a desire to cast relative unknowns in the roles. Except for Bale, none of the Aussies or Brits was known to a broad U.S. audience when they landed their superhero parts. The ability to get an actor at a reasonable paycheck -- the superhero, after all, makes the actor as much as the other way around -- can't be far from the minds of producers. And creatively, an unknown is a blank slate that can grow with a franchise instead of overshadowing it.

In fact, while some of us get very worked up about just who will play these superheroes, the actors who have inhabited these parts most successfully -- Christopher Reeve, Tobey Maguire -- have been low-key, even fey presences. Actors well-known for their charm -- a George Clooney, for instance -- actually make less-memorable superheroes.

When Brandon Routh was cast as Superman six years ago, he worried that he'd be confused a little too much with Reeve. It wasn't an idle concern: Routh looked and acted enough like the late Reeve to draw the comparison, but he inevitably got the short end of the stick. The goal these days seems to lie in the other direction: Bring in someone who looks and acts nothing like those who came before.

-- Steven Zeitchik


Photo: Henry Cavill (center) in '"The Tudors." Credit: Jonathan Hession / Showtime


Hero Complex: British Invasion among superhero actors


Comments () | Archives (8)

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You can't be all that familiar with Britain, or you wouldn't suggest that the UK and the US look on "truth, justice and the American way" in a way, shape or form that is similar. Take it from a former expat: there is a huge difference. Today's Brits would be horrified at the mere suggestion of a "British way" in the way it is meant in the comic book.

I also believe you are doing American actors a huge disservice in suggesting that they can't play dark and/or tortured, or subsume their persona in the role. Arguably the best superhero to hit the cinemas recently is Robert Downey Jr.'s Tony Stark/Iron Man - and he grew up in Santa Monica.

US studios cast Brits because 1) paycheck is lower; 2) the ego is more manageable - the Brits subscribe to "tall poppy syndrome" and aren't all that comfortable acknowledging success; 3) the publicist/agent/manager/lawyer entourage is easier to handle and doesn't know all the industry insider tricks and buttons to push; 4) international box office is more important than ever and a British/European star guarantees international press coverage.

I've just discovered Henry Cavill as the Duke of Suffolk on the BBCAmerica rebroadcasting of "The Tudors". I had no idea who he was, but I found him captivating. Whatever scene he was in, I couldn't take my eyes off of him. I finally had to look him up. I'm now a big fan.

It's exciting that he gets to play Superman and I wish him much success.

Love Tom Welling but KNEW it could never happen. The fans and young women are just reacting badly to the moment. They had their hearts set on something and it didn’t happen. Once they get over this moment and the heartbreak, really think they will come to embrace this movie. Cavill is nice looking, even if he isn’t EXACTLY what they wanted. Snyder will deliver the action. Nolan will deliver the story. This film can not fail. It will be awesome.

Wait. You say there aren't complaints from the "fan base".
You make that like it's some kind of problem...(You call it "muted"? Like it really is existant but it's been quieted somehow?)
That has to do, according to you, with this actor's "LITTLE track record"??

Four seasons on a made for SHOWTIME series, THE TUDORS? That's a little track record?
You also make it seem as if being on a "pay cable" network is inferior to the big 3 networks. Not so lowly, unless you haven't watched an Emmy Awards in the last decade or so.

It appears that you wanna twist anything to make it negative and lessen it:
The actor's resume, included. Is it you really think he doesn't deserve the role, or do you just want to seem snarky, no matter what. That seems to be your tone, and attempts, even when it doesn't make sense.
It's insulting to this actor.
Lots of actors go from TV leads, or supporting roles too, to films. Film leads. Nuttin new there.
(He was already cast as Superman in 1996, but the film didn't go into production. Homework, anyone?)

Too SHORT! I'm so sick of this crap! Superman is 6'3" - cast appropriately!

Tom Welling was an ideal choice. Muscular, classical face, able to convey reassuring warmth, but also menace and physical threat. Plus charisma and presence. Now, having said all that, I was a supporter of Jon Hamm. Hamm is also a powerhouse of charisma. He lacked Welling physique and muscularity, but made up for it in gravitas. Hamm would have brought a fresh dynamic to Superman portrayals. We are always getting the young newbie Superman, just starting out. That Superman takes up 1% of all the comic books and cartoon stories. 99% is taken up with Superman's ongoing adventures. Yet, in live action it is 90% newbie Superman and 10% ongoing adventure. Jon Hamm would be a definitive break away from the rut live action Superman was in.

It's a bird... It's a plane...


The main negative comments seem to be about his height. He's 6'1" people! That's way over average height. People only think that he should be taller because Reeve, Routh, and Welling are all in the area of 6'3". In fact, Dean Cain - my favourite Superman, and equally as popular as the rest, was 6'0", and he was fine. To me, anything I think from 5'10" up would do. But even then, it's not about the height. He needs to be taller than Lois, otherwise it would "look" right, the woman dwarfing the hero, but, as long as he is reasonably slim and muscly, I really don't think it matters. You can barley even tell height on screen anyways. Camera angles play havoc with perspective, so it really makes no difference.
I don't think British actors need less money. But I do think that money isn't on their minds as much as Americans. I think their primory purpose is to enjoy themselves. And who wouldn't enjoy pretending to be Superman for a year and several sequels?


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