If the final moments of Black Adam are any indication, the future of the DC Universe on the big screen may be tethered to an iconic character from DC’s tumultuous past. In fact, it says a lot about Black Adam that the final stage of marketing for Dwayne Johnson’s long-in-the-works attempt to launch another DC movie franchise emphasized the return of another hero: Superman.
During a brief, but potentially significant mid-credits scene, Henry Cavill dons his iconic blue and red suit for the first time since 2017’s Justice League—exchanging a few words with Johnson’s eponymous “anti-hero” before inviting him for an even longer chat. Whether or not the implied feature film ever moves forward hinges on current discussions at Warner Bros. Discovery about where the studio’s financially lucrative—but creatively struggling—DC Universe goes from here.
In the wake of Black Adam’s questionable attempt to right the DC ship, saving the studio’s cash cow is a job (again) for Superman. But is this iteration of the Man of Steel the right hero for the job? Should this Superman, forged in the muddy CG and even muddier creative auspices of the problematic DC Expanded Universe—one of the most expensive and bumpy commercial filmmaking endeavors in recent Hollywood history—shoulder this burden, especially considering that some of his recent films contributed to this situation?
Director Zack Snyder’s Man Of Steel, a 2013 blockbuster that put Smallville’s most famous resident through a gritty and grounded Christopher Nolan-esque lens (with Nolan serving as executive producer and his brother, Jonathan, contributing to Steel’s script), was embraced by some fans for its scope and scale. Other viewers, however, struggled with Snyder’s vision for the personification of truth, justice and hope. Especially when this Kryptonian orphan—who finds an Earth full of humans as alien to him as he is to them—decides the only way to save his adoptive people is by killing one of his own kind.
That version of Superman found himself in even darker territory, both visually and narratively, with 2016's Batman v Superman: Dawn Of Justice, a response to Marvel’s success with The Avengers team-up. The Avengers paid off four years of Kevin Feige’s strategy, investing audiences in solo films starring Earth’s Mightiest Heroes before eventually rewarding them with an epic team-up that forever changed the comic book movie industrial complex. In response, DC execs—hilariously, painfully—opted to do the exact opposite. Stakeholders seemed to put shareholders’ needs, and maybe their collective pride, ahead of telling a story worthy of both characters and their loyal fans. This extension of the Snyderverse forced a relatively new (and not-entirely proven) Superman into a movie opposite a darker-than-dark Batman (Ben Affleck).
BvS felt like a black light painting from a ’90s Spencer’s Gifts come to life. Snyder’s over-cranked, slow-mo action scenes were stitched onto an underwhelming story that shoehorned Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman debut into a battle against a grating Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg) and an unfinished, CG version of Doomsday. The film also featured the first Batman since Christian Bale’s landmark take on the Dark Knight, this one a version who kills criminals and kick-punches Superman—at least until he infamously realizes their deceased moms share first names. The film opened big but fell short with fans and critics, failing to service either the titular characters or their corporate overlords’ desires to compete with Marvel’s big-screen output.
In 2017, Snyder’s Justice League would throw considerable salt into this costly wound, losing money at the box office and, more critically, the confidence of both fans and studio execs. A small but vocal contingent of fans refused to accept this noble misfire, though, and a regime change at WB ensued, rewarding those fans’ mean-spirited campaign with a four-hour director’s cut of Justice League. The studio would later distance itself from that sequence of films with Matt Reeves’ 2022 reboot of The Batman.
The current state of the DCEU is clearly a fractured one, with Warner Bros. holding on to the pieces that either made a billion dollars (2018’s Aquaman) or could make a billion (2023’s Aquaman sequel and the fraught-with-controversy The Flash movie, starring Ezra Miller). If anyone can fix that which their films helped break, it would seem to be Superman. But, hopefully it’s a Superman that represents what audiences want from the character and what Cavill’s considerable, likable presence deserves.
DC and Warner Bros. have had almost a decade to course correct, and they’ve almost consistently failed. Unfairly or not, Superman and Batman have spent most of their movie careers taking turns shouldering the burden of rebooting or reinvigorating the studio’s cornerstone franchise. And even though Cavill’s cameo was a one-off deal, his return seems to have garnered nearly unanimous praise from fans—a promising sign that there may be more Superman to come.
One way to capitalize on that, short of a press release announcing a clean break from the last nine years of ups and downs, is to use Cavill’s Superman as both a launch pad for another fresh start for DC and as a figurehead that other heroes can fall in behind—similar to what Marvel did with Iron Man—with the goal to combine these heroes’ considerable box office potential in a Justice League movie that they and audiences deserve.
We have yet to see the full potential of Cavill’s Superman on the big screen, and to see what an actor as likable and compelling as Cavill can bring to Kal-El. Is it too much to hope that DC and Warner Bros. could do with Cavill and Superman what Christopher Reeve did with the hero almost 45 years ago?
Of course, to make that happen the studio needs to put distance between itself and the Snyderverse and its combative loyalists—and the sooner it does the better off WB and DC will be. The best parts of the 2017 Justice League were the moments where Cavill portrayed Superman with the charm and “aw, shucks” decency that endeared him to fans in the comics. That’s the Superman audiences want to see, especially given the current state of the world. The world could use a hero, even a fictional one, to help people rediscover how good it feels to believe a man can fly.