Man of Steel 2 could be good, but rebooting DC’s cinematic Superman sounds better. First played in black and white by Kirk Alyn and George Reeves, it wasn’t until Christopher Reeve donned the famous red cape that Superman became a true movie icon. The role passed to Brandon Routh before finally falling into the capable hands of Henry Cavill for 2013’s Man of Steel. The Brit would play Clark Kent in Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice and Justice League, but his status has since descended into speculation.
Cavill was first reported to be done in the DCEU, then rumors claimed the actor was at Warner HQ signing on for more. Fans were eagerly anticipating a direct sequel, but even when Henry Cavill looked to be dusting off his blue tights, Man of Steel 2 was never on the table, despite the actor pitching ideas alongside Mission: Impossible – Fallout director, Christopher McQuarrie. When 2021 began, a glimmer of hope remained for a Man of Steel follow-up (especially after the Snyder cut’s unlikely victory), but those dreams were dashed thanks to the recent confirmation of a Superman reboot.
With J.J. Abrams producing and Ta-Nehisi Coates writing, Warner Bros. are gearing up for a new incarnation of Krypton’s favorite (and, indeed, only) son. Although Cavill’s fate isn’t set in stone, the announcement does seem to bring his time as the DC superhero to an end. Naturally, this has left DCEU supporters disgruntled, and the choice of J.J. Abrams as producer may not have helped, following the highly divisive Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker. One could even question the decision to announce a new Superman chapter so close to the release of Zack Snyder’s Justice League. Putting those factors aside, however, the idea of rebooting Superman may be preferable to Man of Steel 2 at this point in time.
Before dissecting Man of Steel‘s failings, it should be acknowledged that Zack Snyder’s DCEU debut got plenty right with Cavill’s new-look, unashamedly modern version of Superman. The action scenes are more intense and visceral than anything the character has been afforded previously in live-action, and served to drive home Kal-El’s status as an all-powerful alien among weak and puny humans. Snyder’s “Christ meets Goku” depiction of Superman took the character into more realistic territory that suited a post-Dark Knight generation. Cavill, meanwhile, is perfect for the part, and any failings of the DCEU can’t be laid at his door. But had the film been a raging success, fans would be talking about Man of Steel 3 or 4 right now, rather than hoping against hope for number 2, so where did DCEU Superman go wrong?
The crux of the Man of Steel criticism is the darkness that runs through Henry Cavill’s origin story. For the best part of a century, Superman has been a beacon of hope through comics, TV and film, but much of that was stripped away in Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel, with Supes now a brooding figure whose traditionally rosy outlook had been officially deemed out of touch. There’s less distance between Clark Kent and Superman than in previous tellings of the Kryptonian’s story, and this makes the shocking scene where DC’s most wholesome hero snaps General Zod’s neck come across as overkill. For all his conflict and rage, Superman had little light to counter his angst.
Man of Steel‘s problems were reflected in the immediacy, with cautiously warm reviews and a solid but unspectacular box office haul. Henry Cavill’s Superman certainly could’ve been saved but, sadly, subsequent DCEU releases weren’t up to the job. Batman V Superman doubled-down on Superman’s menacing undercurrent in order to justify Bruce Wayne’s hatred of him, but both heroes looked foolish as pawns in Lex Luthor’s poorly explained plan and, of course, the “Martha” moment stole whatever credibility Clark and Bruce’s feud might’ve had. One year later, Justice League‘s success can be measured by the fact a cultural movement began to release a different cut.
At each stage of Superman’s DCEU tenure, Henry Cavill was let down, never able to redeem the character after an unbalanced debut in Man of Steel. That could change thanks to Zack Snyder’s Justice League, but the original cut’s release comes too late. Vocal support for Man of Steel 2 on social media proves the impact Henry Cavill had while occupying Superman’s scarlet Y-fronts, but from a purely business perspective, the DCEU character hasn’t been critically or commercially successful enough to avoid Hollywood pressing the big, red, and increasingly popular reboot button.
The mixed reactions to DCEU Superman only partially explain why a reboot is wiser than pushing on with Man of Steel 2 – poor timing is also a major factor. Regardless of the controversially grave path Man of Steel forged, a sequel would’ve made sense either immediately before or after Batman V Superman, allowing Cavill to explore his character before the franchise expanded Clark’s circle of super-friends. Man of Steel 2 could’ve even been a sorely needed pick-me-up to salve the sting left by Justice League in 2017, taking the DCEU back to its roots and sowing the seeds for Clark’s next adventure. Sadly, none of those scenarios came to pass, and 2021 has kicked off with no word of a Man of Steel 2, nor any real indication of how Cavill’s Superman story could continue. The only route forward comes via Zack Snyder’s Justice League which, at the time of writing, is absolutely not going to spin-out into another DC movie continuity.
Compared to the mid-2010s, the DCEU is in a state of disarray, partly by circumstance and partly by design. Negative reactions to Batman V Superman and Justice League effectively ended any long-term hopes Warner Bros. had for their shared superhero universe, and while further outings for Wonder Woman, Aquaman and Shazam will all come in DCEU packaging, they’ll be largely standalone in nature. 2022’s The Flash will open up the multiverse to DC movies, tying together the modern series with Tim Burton’s Batman series and effectively breaking down the walls between superhero generations. With the Snyder cut also in the mix, it’s hard to see how Man of Steel 2 fits into the current structure of the DC movie universe. It’s a sequel 4 or 5 years too late.
J.J. Abrams’ Superman reboot brings opportunities that simply wouldn’t be possible with Man of Steel 2. Looking back across Superman’s movie career, it becomes clear that sequels don’t come naturally to the All-American boy scout, largely because of his overwhelming power. Aside from Superman’s origin story and battling fellow Kryptonians, there aren’t many more 2-hour blockbuster-friendly plots that flow easily to the character, making reboots much more attractive. Having said that, no one needs to see another retelling of Baby Clark crashing into a farm, learning to use his powers for good, discovering his heritage, etc. Superman‘s latest reboot offers an opportunity to do something completely different – potentially by replacing Clark with Calvin Ellis.
Thanks to DC’s incoming “anything is possible” multiverse format, there’s an opportunity to bring Earth-23’s Superman into live-action. Created by Grant Morrison, Calvin Ellis (Kalel to his Kryptonian friends) was a childhood Krypton refugee adopted by a different Earth family, who went on to become President of the United States instead of a mild-mannered Daily Planet journalist. Naturally, this backstory opens up an entirely new, unseen Superman origin that strikes fresh notes compared to Cavill or any of his predecessors. Furthermore, President Ellis’s rise is far more hope-orientated than the disgruntled small-time reporter annoyed he’s being overlooked for the big stories.
Whether Abrams and Coates take Calvin Ellis for a spin or stick with Clark Kent, the next movie Superman needs to keep the human side of the character at the fore, since this is where the long-term interest lies. Because the Kryptonian is rarely outmatched for power, there’s only so many enemies for him to beat on until the novelty wears thin. The real value in a Superman story is the duality between Clark and his alter ego. About how a man with extraordinary abilities is able to overcome everyday hurdles and extraordinary challenges in the same 24 hour period, and about the identity a man of that nature creates for himself. With Man of Steel, Zack Snyder pinned his colors very much to the opposite mast, focusing more on the God-like aspects of Superman’s presence on Earth, his capacity for barbarism, and his public perception as either a savior or a demon. To wind back and shift the emphasis onto Clark in Man of Steel 2 is no longer an option. Better to tell a new story with a clean mindset.