Superman’s new identity has been revealed, and history be damned, it’s England’s 1st Duke of Suffolk. Well actually, it’s his alter-ego, actor Henry Cavill, who some have called “the unluckiest man in Hollywood.” Cavill has had several close calls to winning franchise roles in recent years, nearly nabbing the part of vampire Edward in the Twilight series (played by Robert Pattinson), James Bond (Daniel Craig) and Batman (Christian Bale).
The choice of Cavill for Superman is a bold one; he’s the first non-American actor to play Superman (note that all the other franchise roles he missed on have gone to non-Americans as well). But he’s also next in the long line of superstar actors who have made the big jump from TV to the movies. The news over Cavill’s assumption of this iconic role does not just concern who will be the new Superman; it stirs up the age old rivalry between the television and movie industries, one that film always seems to win.
Movie roles are still considered the golden ticket to success for an actor or actress, but they are the older medium. Many a Hollywood leading man, such as George Clooney and Johnny Depp, have made the leap from television to the big screen without looking back (much). When they do grace our presence in our homes, it’s usually a mere guest spot, one that networks use to bump ratings during sweeps.
Actors typically consider television a stepping stone, though actresses have (as of late) realized there are a greater variety of roles available on the small-screen. Channels like Showtime, which has remade itself in recent years by offering more parts for women, also gave Cavill his first real break with a well-regarded stint as Charles Brandon on The Tudors. Cavill’s performance was understated compared to some of his costars, most famously, lead Jonathan Rhys Meyers, whose dramatic King Henry VIII was considered either brilliant or excessive, with no space in between.
Our vision of a good actor is commonly someone who can play a variety of parts, which often includes supporting a franchise. The decision to attach oneself to a franchise is considered an excellent career path monetarily; they pay well, but can require a long commitment and less flexibility. This is actually equally true for long-running television shows, yet franchises are considered far more impressive for an actor’s legacy.
With the addition of the Superman part, Cavill stands to become typecast or create a huge variety of options in his career. He has leading man looks (in this writer’s humble opinion, he was by far the best looking actor on The Tudors), and on some levels, his participation in the The Tudors was as historically significant a role as Superman is (depending on whether you ask a history geek or a comic book lover). Cavill has the potential to become one of the small liege of British actors who regularly make waves in America.
At the same time, superhero movies are rarely well-received, and depend largely on special effects, rather than excellent plot, dialogue and character development, making it interesting that such a part is still considered so coveted. Despite all his work on the Golden Globe-nominated series, Cavill will now always best known for Superman, no matter the quality of the movie. It’s a big trade to make, and demonstrates that as much as things are shifting, television has a long road to pave before it is as highly regarded as film, even film that may not even stand the test of time. Universally, and within the industry, Cavill will be considered more successful leading the Superman franchise (which could be at best little more than blockbuster-fare) than he has been in a major role on a critically-acclaimed cable television show.
A lot of the hype is just visibility; many more people will see him as Superman than ever saw him on a premium cable channel. Whether that’s a good thing, or not, remains to be seen.