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Superman soars again

An all-star team of filmmakers, including Christopher Nolan and Zack Snyder, is relaunching the truest and bluest of all superheroes. The man in tights? A Brit named Henry Cavill, whose career may break the speed of sound.

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To become Hollywood’s new Man of Steel, Henry Cavill had to pass the Laugh Test. To wit: Could he wear the Superman suit without anyone giggling? And not just any Superman suit. To shoot his screen test last month, the 27-year-old British actor donned a replica of the costume Christopher Reeve wore in director Richard Donner’s classic 1978 film. By today’s standards, those sky blue spandex threads with the iconic S shield on the chest look dated — and hence an effective yardstick for the team now charged with making Superman fly for 21st-century moviegoers. ”If you can put on that suit and pull it off,” says director Zack Snyder, ”that’s an awesome achievement.”

As an assistant helped him into the suit, Cavill was feeling less than super. He certainly has the face for Superman — solid chin, defined cheekbones, piercing eyes, dark hair. He’s also 6’1” and radiates intelligence, maturity, and all around good-guyness, though he’s too humble to say so himself. But Cavill worried that the rest of him wasn’t up to snuff. He had recently lost the muscle tone he gained to play a loincloth warrior in the mythic fantasy Immortals, due this November. ”All I could think was, Oh, God, they’re going to look at me and go, ‘He’s not Superman. Not a chance,”’ recalls Cavill, best known for playing Henry VIII’s buddy Charles Brandon on Showtime’s The Tudors. ”The actor inside me was going, ‘You’re not ready! You’re not ready!”’ Snyder saw something different. ”He walked out and no one laughed,” says the director, a geek pop idol for his work on Dawn of the Dead, 300, and Watchmen. ”Other actors put that suit on and it’s a joke, even if they’re great actors. Henry put it on, and he exuded this kind of crazy-calm confidence that just made me go, ‘Wow. Okay, this is Superman.”’

And with that, Superman’s Hollywood relaunch is up, up, and almost away; shooting on the as-yet-untitled Warner Bros. film begins this summer under Snyder, producer Christopher Nolan (whose two Batman flicks have grossed nearly $1.4 billion at the box office worldwide), and screenwriter David S. Goyer, who also wrote Batman Begins, three Blade films, and Dark City. The result of their collaboration, due late next year, will be a must-see event, one the studio hopes will leave audiences in a must-see-more mood.

Of course, this all-star Superman project isn’t the studio’s first bid to return the paterfamilias of comic-book superheroes to pop culture prominence. In 2004, Warner Bros. tapped Bryan Singer — whose first two X-Men movies helped launch the modern era of superhero cinema — to restart the franchise following an infamously epic series of false starts. But Singer’s emo-hued homage to Donner’s movies, Superman Returns, starring newcomer Brandon Routh, proved to be a costly stall: It had a reported budget of $270 million but grossed only $391 million globally. Back to the drawing board.

Warner Bros. didn’t have to look far for a promising new take. In February 2010, Nolan pitched a new approach to Superman developed by Goyer, addressing the character — introduced in 1938 by creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster — in a modern context while staying true to his origins and essence. Last fall, Nolan hired Snyder, another Warner Bros. favorite, to direct. Snyder says the movie will emphasize the man in Superman, presenting a slightly older version of the icon than we’ve previously seen on screen. He declined to comment on the film’s plot, its villain (rumored to be General Zod, the escaped Phantom Zone baddie played by Terence Stamp in Superman and Superman II), or the design of Supe’s new suit — except to say that it won’t be a Reeve replica.

Whatever form the new story takes, Hollywood insiders believe a successful new Superman must answer two big questions: (1) Can an extraterrestrial demigod seem approachable to mere mortals? and (2) Will a culture hooked on Dark Knights and glib Iron Men buy into a more old-fashioned brand of heroism? ”’Truth, justice, and the American way’ is a pretty goody-goody point of view in a society more cynical about that kind of thing,” says one prominent producer. ”That’s part of the puzzle they need to figure out: How do you make that point of view cool?” Snyder is already on the case. ”We get that people perceive Superman as a naive Boy Scout,” says Snyder. ”Does that character have a place in the modern world? I think that’s a legitimate question, and it’s the focus of the work we’re doing.”

A major piece of that work is now complete: finding an actor who can express the next-gen Superman’s masculinity, gravitas, and empathy. Henry Cavill was raised on the small British island of Jersey with limited time for pop culture beyond TV and computer games. The acting bug bit during his years at boarding school, and ever since he was 17, ”I’ve been chasing the career around the world.” In addition to four seasons of The Tudors, he appeared in such films as 2002’s The Count of Monte Cristo, 2007’s Stardust, and 2009’s Woody Allen comedy Whatever Works.

Snyder says he would have cast Cavill in his 2007 film 300, except the actor was holding out for another job: becoming the next 007. ”I came very close,” says Cavill. ”The choice was between a younger Bond and a Bond closer to his 30s, which is to say, Daniel Craig.” Cavill disputes reports that he was also a contender for Batman Begins (”At least, nobody was talking to me about it”) but confirms he was a top candidate for an earlier version of Superman (to have been directed by McG) that fell apart in 2004. ”But here I am, seven years later. Got ya!” he says with a triumphant shake of the fist. ”It was wonderful to have a second stab at a job — and as a wiser, older, more experienced actor.”

That experience came in handy during his two-part audition. Last October, he was asked to read some scenes written specifically for the tryout. He came back in January for a screen test and proved he could sell the suit and an American accent. Snyder declines to identify everyone who auditioned for the role, but volunteers that his second choice was True Blood‘s Joe Manganiello. ”Joe’s a great guy. I really liked him,” says Snyder, adding that it came down to a gut decision. ”It was about seeing a quality that inspires this inexplicable, mysterious, cool emotion that says, ‘That’s my guy.”’

Two weeks after Cavill’s screen test, Snyder gave him the life-changing call. ”I told him that I had some good and bad news: He needed to start working out.” Cavill was home alone in his London apartment at the time. He tried calling his girlfriend and his parents — but he couldn’t get through to anyone. ”I was like, ‘This is ridiculous! I’ve just been given the biggest job in history, and nobody’s picking up their bloody phones!”’

Soon it’s Cavill who’ll be hard to reach. He’s about to begin getting Super-ripped at Gym Jones, a fitness boutique specializing in building action-hero physiques. And the actor says he is eager to get into his own Superman suit. ”Even during the audition, even amid my anxiety while wearing the older model, I had this extraordinary feeling: ‘Wow. I’m wearing the cape. I’m wearing the S.’ Extraordinary,” he says. ”I can’t wait to do it for real.”