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The ultimate superhero

ALEX WILLIAMS, The New York Times, Nov 25 2017, 23:18 IST
Henry Cavill, the British actor who has put his stamp on the Man of Steel for a new generation of filmgoers, is photographed in London.

Henry Cavill, the British actor who has put his stamp on the Man of Steel for a new generation of filmgoers, is photographed in London.

It's not every day that you go shopping with Superman. It was 10 am on a sunny Friday in London, when I first spotted Henry Cavill, the British actor who has put his stamp on the Man of Steel for a new generation of filmgoers. Military erect, his arms folded purposefully, he was standing outside Gieves & Hawkes, the Savile Row clothier that has been outfitting the British gentry since King George III.

He was hard to miss. Regardless of one's age, gender or sexual orientation, it can be agreed that the man is a specimen, a 99.9999 percentile hunk, a super man. I pictured a hypothetical ad in Variety: "Wanted: Actor. Untitled Superman project. Must be as handsome as Ryan Gosling, as charming as Colin Firth and as ripped as any starting linebacker on the Dallas Cowboys."

Aside from a Superman-ish forelock that tumbled down his forehead, Cavill looked more like a romantic lead from an E M Forster period drama, wearing a royal blue Cifonelli blazer, a dandyish confection of curls and a distinctly retro, and distinctly absurd, handlebar moustache. "It's for a role, Mission: Impossible 6," he said sheepishly, referring to his giant crumb catcher. "It makes me feel a little odd at times. People think I'm some crazy handlebar-moustache-growing person."

"But," he added gamely, "I'm also playing around with it now, growing it a bit longer. Why the hell not? When else am I going to grow a handlebar moustache?"

Flirting with fame

To the degree the moustache was intended as a disguise, it failed. In recent weeks, the whiskers had seemingly become more famous than he was, inspiring countless tabloid items after Affleck jokingly referred to it as a "full-on porn-star moustache" during a Justice League reshoot. Then again, Cavill has an uneasy relationship to fame. For years, he was a Hollywood's king of the near miss. He lost out to Daniel Craig to be the next James Bond, and also to Robert Pattinson on both Twilight and Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. Although he has been working steadily since he was a teenager, he always seemed to receive second billing to his biceps.

But he has been flirting with A-list stardom ever since he inherited the role of
Superman in Zack Snyder's 2013 franchise reboot, Man of Steel, followed by featured roles opposite Armie Hammer in Man From U.N.C.L.E. in 2015 and now Tom Cruise in his latest Mission Impossible installment.

In person, though, Cavill comes across less like a Hollywood action hero than an English gentleman in the prewar sense, a vestige of an era when leading men were described as "dashing" or "debonair," and civility meant something. In a less august setting than one of London's oldest custom tailors, he might be fair game for the "paps" (paparazzi), as they say in England, as well as for any hormonal young woman with a smartphone and an Instagram handle. "You go to the pub and you're sitting there with your friends having some drinks, and you keep on feeling like people are looking at you or checking their phones," he said, pausing in the aisles. "You think: 'Shut up, they're not looking at you. Maybe that's just my ego.' Then one person comes up and says, 'Can I get a photo, please?' All of a sudden it's like terror cells just woke up. 'Yay, it's photo time!'"

He certainly was not raised to draw attention to himself. The son of a stockbroker father and homemaker mother, Cavill grew up in a family of five boys on the island of Jersey, a crown dependency off the Normandy coast, and was educated at Stowe, an elite British school.

His very British breeding may explain why Cavill carries himself with an utter absence of Hollywood star ego. He listens deferentially, even to shop managers and waiters; laughs easily, if self-consciously; and bashfully glances toward the floor at any mention of his cover-boy looks. It is an awkward British charm familiar to anyone who has seen a Hugh Grant movie from the 1990s.

Wandering through Mayfair, he discussed the weight of the Superman legacy. Too often, he said, popular culture has gotten it wrong about Superman, interpreting his do-gooder ethos and blue tights as "cheesy, and maybe a bit boring," compared with the acknowledged cool superheroes, like Batman and Iron Man. "There's so much more in there," he said. "It's like a movie about taking the super-pill. Imagine you have the ability to do absolutely anything you wanted. What do you choose to do with that power? How would you choose to use it? How do you exert it upon others? How do you accept failure? How do you love?"

Henry certainly never expected to be called a star. In school, after all, he had been chubby; other boys called him "Fat Cavill." Even as his profile rose, he never thought of himself as a Lothario when he was single. When he was dating, he said: "I couldn't do the whole, 'Hey, can I get your number? Cool,' and then call them a week later. When I like someone, I like someone. I don't play hard to get. I can't be texting four or five different women all at one time. I can't do my Wednesday girl, my Monday girl, my Friday girl, my weekend girl, my after-12 pm girl." "To put it in simple terms, I never had 'game,'" he said. It is fair to say, however, that those days are
fading quickly.

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