It’s one industry in which the UK is becoming dominant: exporting movie superheroes. And not everyone is entirely happy. The announcement in February 2011 that Jersey-born Henry Cavill would soon be fighting for truth, justice and the American way as the new Superman – joining British Batman Christian Bale (b. Haverfordwest), semi-septic Spiderman Andrew Garfield (b. California, raised in Surrey) and ex-pat X-Men McKellen, Stewart, McAvoy and Fassbender in the fight against evil – sparked reactions ranging from considered handwringing to outright consternation.
The Comic-Con contingent, inevitably, took to the blogs to bemoan this general outsourcing of caped labour; meanwhile, the pundits of reliably unhinged Fox News staple Fox and Friends floated a connection between America’s obesity epidemic and the inability to find homegrown actors capable of squeezing into Superman’s underpants. (As Bale landed Batman off the back of his weight-shedding turn in 2004’s The Machinist, maybe they had a point.) So why have we become the go-to nation for saving the planet?
As Cavill first caught American eyes as the thrusting Suffolk on cable television’s The Tudors, it’s possible that what we’re watching simply constitutes the latest, most spectacular phase of the hands-across-the-Atlantic process that brought many British actors – from Hugh Laurie on House to Damian Lewis on Homeland – to US TV. The characters these actors created were ambiguous, compromised; they chimed with America’s new-found definition of heroism, reshaped by years of bruising, non-fantastical conflict. That clean-cut squarejaw thrust forward by original Superman George Reeves could no longer do justice to the world’s complexities.
And the latest wave of superhero movies – gloomy of outlook, morbidly self-involved: perfect adolescent fare, in most respects – are very serious indeed about the complexity they assume. With their anti-heroes and tangled mythologies, “Shakespearian” is the word most often tossed around with an eye to legitimising what might otherwise resemble expensively ponderous exercises in dressing-up. Standing before the blue and green screens that facilitate these films’ elaborate effects work, performers are obliged to visualise space as though they were on stage – so why not recruit theatrically-trained Brits?
An enduring idea of class may also be crucial here. The wisecracking arrogance common to American Batmen – from Adam West through to George Clooney – is intended as endearing, a manifestation of the nation’s chipper, can-do spirit. In Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight films, Bale’s champagne-sipping, banker-like Bruce Wayne instead carries aristocratic connotations: we’re meant to notice how only someone this well-off could insulate themselves from the underclasses. Heath Ledger’s Joker and Tom Hardy’s Bane register so strongly in these films because they embody real-world grudges against unsympathetic elites; it’s apt, then, that those representing the powers-that-be have Empire in their DNA.
Naturally, it helps that we’re relatively cheap. Given how much summer event movies are now expected to spend on spectacle, more affordable performers have become a book-balancing necessity. Yet there may equally be wider sociological reasons for America’s decision to look elsewhere for its heroes – and why that Fox and Friends bulletin seemed so very anxious. An article published at vulture.com at the time of the Cavill announcement suggested that many believe America, busy fostering a generation of joshing kidults off-screen as well as on, no longer has the capacity to produce believable supermen.
“I believe there’s been a certain feminisation of the American male,” said John Papsidera, The Dark Knight’s casting director. “[In the UK], men are still raised as men. Guys like Henry Cavill, there’s an easy masculinity to them.” An unnamed talent agent went further: “By the time a kid reaches 12 or 13 in America, if he’s displayed any talent, he’s steered towards athletics in high school. Kids who want to do theatre… they’re immediately labelled wimps, or – worse – fags.” Superhero dressing-up has perhaps become the ultimate test of one’s manhood.
Nolan’s trilogy, which concluded with the Batman mantle being passed to a young American contender, suggested this trend may not last: these characters remain potent symbols, whoever’s wearing the cape. Our thesps are just as likely to be cast as supervillains – Tom Hiddleston’s Loki in Thor, Benedict Cumberbatch in Star Trek: Into Darkness – and when it comes to Marvel’s “sexy” next-gen Avengers, we’re batting zero for four, in baseball parlance: their Captain America is that other, Boston-born Chris Evans, whose six-pack remains regrettably unambiguous.
As we wait for Man of Steel’s CGI dots to be joined, it’s still possible Cavill’s Superman will fly the Stars and Stripes higher than ever before. But it appears American movies, casting directors and audiences are becoming more open to the idea of British performers assuming the identities of all-American figureheads, just as this new cinematic free-trade agreement enabled, say, Robert Downey Jr. to play Sherlock Holmes, or Renee Zellweger Bridget Jones. Only with news Miranda Hart is to play Wonder Woman will we know the movie world has truly spun in reverse. Your move, America.
Man of Steel opens in cinemas nationwide tomorrow.