Warning: The following contains spoilers for Mission: Impossible — Fallout. Read at your own risk.
In Mission: Impossible — Fallout, Henry Cavill plays CIA agent August Walker. He’s paired with IMF all-star Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) for a skydiving mission. Cruise looks smaller next to Cavill, but so does everyone. Director Christopher McQuarrie cleverly films Cavill’s height like a running joke, his big, brash mustache the shape of a lesser man’s toupee.
The visual treatment of Cavill reveals a deeper rift. Walker represents brute force, and the brutality of force. He always kills the bad guys, and is okay killing good guys. It’s a philosophical distinction from Hunt and his IMF kin, a chill crew of adventure heroes. They prefer old-fashioned espionage, the deep-cover character work. Walker looms, towers, hulks. You can’t imagine him pretending to be anyone but himself.
Hunt notices a thunderstorm beneath their plane: skydive canceled. But Walker jumps anyway, and is immediately struck by lightning. Cruise works overtime, performing 10 Point Breaks’ worth of aerial melodrama, whooshing Cavillward, defidgeting oxygen tanks, shunting last-minute parachutes. Cavill is unconscious, splendidly limp, limbs hanging weightless above his plummeting bulk. If you’ve tracked Cavill’s career closely, it’s hard to miss the meaning. In Fallout, Superman doesn’t fly; he falls.
Cavill rocketed to blockbuster prominence in Man of Steel, and has played the Last Son of Krypton in two movies since. All bad films, in my opinion. Statuesque Biceppery is the main note Cavill’s hitting. His muscles make Brad Pitt in Troy look like Roger Moore in a turtleneck. It’s less a performance than an exertion (though that’s how DiCaprio won his Oscar).
Not much chance for emotional range, is what I’m getting at. My favorite Cavill performance this decade came between Supermans, in 2015’s The Man From U.N.C.L.E. Unquestionably the best film Guy Ritchie has ever made, U.N.C.L.E. stars Cavill as Cold War spy Napoleon Solo, opposite also-tall Armie Hammer (plus Alicia Vikander before she won her Oscar and Elizabeth Debicki before she basically played an Oscar.)
Ritchie was the first filmmaker to figure out that Cavill, post-Superman flexation, was so huge that filming him doing normal human things would always be a little funny. See Cavill, wearing an apron. Or Cavill, eating a sandwich. It’s the polar opposite of his Man of Steel performance, eternally unperturbed. He seems to float. His American accent is midcentury modern, what Cary Grant would sound like if Cary Grant was a bass drum.
Grant Morrison, one of the great Superman writers of our time, once described his vision of the Man of Steel. “A man who was invulnerable to all harm would be always relaxed and at ease,” Morrison wrote. “He’d have no need for the kind of physically aggressive postures superheroes specialized in.” This perfectly describes Cavill in U.N.C.L.E. and not-at-all describes Cavill in the Superman films; fair to say Zack Snyder enjoys physically aggressive postures.
And I’m convinced McQuarrie cast Cavill in Fallout because of U.N.C.L.E. Like Solo, Walker is preternaturally untroubled. (Lightning storm? No problem!) Like Solo, Walker’s rather heartless, not a man who seems to feel much of anything. And in both movies, Cavill has a fight scene in a bathroom. (One more and it’s a trend!) Cavill was, famously, filming Fallout around the same time as Justice League reshoots. There are moments in Fallout where I started to wonder if McQuarrie (who also wrote the film) was up to a clever bit of stunt casting. Walker has a secret identity, just like Clark Kent. The final act of Fallout turns on the revelation that the CIA agent is secretly John Lark, writer of a death-cult manifesto proclaiming, “There cannot be peace without, first, a great suffering.”
Lark’s big idea is to upend the old world order, kill some third of the global population, thus shall peace reign supreme. This plan is oddly identical to the big idea Thanos had in Avengers: Infinity War. (Population control, so hot right now!) And it seems notable to cast Cavill in the part. His Superman films became talking points from their mass destruction, whole cities leveled in his holy, red-caped wake. His journey there drifts a lot off messianic imagery. You wonder if you missed the Gospel where Jesus punches people, but perhaps “the perversion of a peaceful philosophy into the cause of great suffering” is an important part of the Messiah’s epilogue.
In Fallout, this is all a big problem. Lark’s world-changing philosophy is that of a mass-murdering maniac, killing women and children with smallpox. The film praises ingenuity, teamwork, the possibility that everyone can be saved. Walker is a loner who will kill anyone. He thinks that makes him tough. In Fallout’s estimation, he just lacks imagination. “Why the f— do you have to make everything so complicated?!?!” he screeches, a villain confused by this plot he’s in.
It’s a wonderful performance by Cavill, secretly complex. He’s playing a relaxed evil, unfussy evil, corporate evil. His physicality sells the action setpieces, makes you wonder why anyone would ever hide him behind digital superpowers. His smirk is so punchable, but there’s a sharp humor you can’t ignore. Yes, you think, this is probably what it would look like if a horrible egomaniac narcissist had some nuclear bombs.
Is this Cavill’s way forward, a heel turn from bland hero to deadpan villain? Maybe. You wonder if there’s a looming James Bond reboot that could one-up Mission: Impossible for stunt casting. Imagine Cavill as the very vision of 007hood, tall, chiseled, tuxedoed, monstrously uncaring — and he’s the bad guy opposite whatever anything-but-a-white-dude plays James or Jane.
Or maybe the next step is a do-over of the first step. Justice League was two bad movies mashed together, and corners of the internet exist to highlight the certain fuzzy quality of Superman’s ’stache-less lip. And yet, a few scenes are the best Cavill’s ever been. He looks happy to be alive, stoked to hang out with other superheroes, sweetly concerned about inspiring goodwill amongst the children. The weight of the world might still be on his shoulders, but that’s what super-strength is for.
Is there still a future for Henry Cavill’s Superman? Fallout suggests one marvelous possibility. We know he can play a bad guy now. Imagine Cavill’s Superman staring down his own hilarious evil duplicate: Bizarro rebooted, with a mustache.