Iron Man gets the best jokes. Batman gets the best films. Wonder Woman gets the best plane (invisible!). And Hulk? Well, Hulk smash! But Superman started it all. Now 75 years old, the galaxy’s most famous Kryptonian is back in “Man of Steel,” a grounded take on the icon, directed by Zack “Watchmen” Snyder. In the film — an origin story — the young alien is scuttled to Earth, grows up, meets a girl (Amy Adams) and defends our planet from the evil General Zod (Michael Shannon). He also mopes around — a lot. In a tonal continuation of “The Dark Knight” series, our hero has feelings, and they add an extra dimension that the creators (including producer Christopher Nolan) hope to make the character less boring and more relevant.
Henry Cavill, a British actor best known for TV’s “The Tudors,” stars as the Man of Steel. We had to ask him why he’s not so steely after all.
We’ve gone from square-jawed demigods to heroes that have to show vulnerability or a flaw. What do you think of that progression?
Well, when they were initially conceived, we needed them — desperately. We needed them to be strong-jawed superheroes — the classic hands-on-hips, nothing-can-touch-me, bullets bouncing off them [kind]. I mean, when Superman first came around, we were out of World War I and World War II was sort of creeping up. We needed those guys who could flit around the place and do wonderful things, and we could fantasize about all the world’s problems being solved.
And now they’ve evolved into a more modern, more realistic thing to go with the times, so that the stories are still interesting. People these days don’t find the immovable object interesting — the untouchable thing and the hero who will always win. We want to think that maybe our hero will lose, but then he wins. We must be able to associate with them. They’ve become less of a fantasy and more of an ideal to strive toward.
What has the Superman done to make him more relatable?
We’ve given him a very human essence. As much as he’s not susceptible to the frailties of the human physical body, he’s very much susceptible to the frailties of the human psyche. And that is what really makes us in touch with someone else, makes us go, “I know your pain” or, “Yeah, I’ve felt that happy before.”
“The Dark Knight” director Christopher Nolan produced “Man of Steel” and has made the DC Comics world feel tethered to reality more than to cartoons.
It ties in very much with the evolution of the superhero. We need to see them in a real-world setting. It helps us to feel more and to be a part of the story. And that’s important to me. I’ve never played this sort of, “OK, I’m going to talk [in a low, gravelly voice] all of a sudden.” If I heard someone talking that way, I’d look at them funny and say, “Are you OK? Do you need to sit down?” Because they sound like a crazy person. I wanted to play him as a realistic being, just with these incredible powers, and that was up to CGI to fix for me. [Laughs]
There’s been a great deal of talk about plans for a Justice League movie. Do you feel a natural sense of competition with the Avengers, which is owned by rival company Marvel?
I mean, of course there’s going to be a sense of competition because it’s groups of superheroes coming together, of course there is. I don’t like to think of it as competition. But people will naturally put the two together as competitors.
Eventually there has to be a World Cup of Superheroes.
So who would win?
OK. The difference between the Marvel heroes and the DC heroes is that DC heroes are godlike, all of them, where Marvel heroes, you might get one like Thor but otherwise they’re very human. So in a head- to-head … who knows?
You can take sides.
No, I’m not going to pick a side because I don’t think it’s fair because anything can happen. A plan never survives first contact. So … yeah. But it would be very cool.
What do you think audiences need from superheroes now?
“It’s the same thing we’ve always needed, which is that sense of hope. There’s always something going wrong in the world. It just shifts depending on the generation. And it’s always nice to have that fantasy that there’s someone who’s going to fix everything. It’s beating the odds, and that’s been the same with mythological characters since the dawn of time, since we could think up gods — good gods and bad gods. Nothing has changed in the human psyche. We still need that.”
Know your Superman:
From: Jersey, off the coast of Normandy (he’s British)
You know him from: “The Tudors”
He was considered for: Cedric Diggory in “Harry Potter”; Edward Cullen in “Twilight”; James Bond in “Casino Royale”; Superman in “Superman Returns”
How being an actor is like being Superman: “It’s a lonely existence, and that I could pour straight into the character. And also that search for acceptance.”
Essential reading: “The ones I like the most are ‘Death of Superman,’ ‘The Return of Superman,’ and ‘Red Son,’” he says. “And I love some of the Superman/Batman ones. The particular one I read which stuck in my head was ‘The Search for Kryptonite.’ Batman is just getting peeved at Superman trying to be really helpful because he’s got that super-strength and he can do things that Batman can’t. But then at the finish of the book you see that Batman’s got all the different kinds of kryptonite in a room, and you’re going, ‘Oh s—.’ I just love the interaction between the two.”