Where will the DC Universe go now?
With Henry Cavill out as Superman, what could the Warner Bros. film team be planning for its Kryptonian focus? According to Tatiana Siegel and Borys Kit's story Wednesday, the studio could be placing Supergirl front and center when it comes to representing the S-shield. It’s a smart move, given the character’s existing fan base and the chance it offers DC/Warners to retool the larger DC universe and move it away from earlier movies, as need be.
Unfortunately, the current DC Cinematic Universe has exhausted the obvious comic book source material that would have allowed for a narrative excuse to drop Superman for an extended period of time — namely, the character’s death and resurrection. In comic book lore, Superman’s death at the hands of Doomsday in 1992’s Superman No. 75 led to the character being absent from DC’s fictional universe for more than half a year, with the various Superman comic books even being temporarily suspended from publication for a number of months to sell the idea that the death was, perhaps, more permanent than the cynical fan base believed.
The comic book resurrection of Superman also offered the potential to recast the role, in a sense; before the “real” Superman reappeared, four characters showed up, each one laying claim in some way to the mantle and legacy of the character — two of them literally believed to be a resurrected Superman, another being a clone of the original and the fourth an entirely separate character who nonetheless personified the morality and attitude of Superman at his best.
Ultimately, all turned out to be red herrings, but the idea that Superman would return from death altered could, in different circumstances, be used to insert a different actor into the role onscreen, explaining away Cavill’s replacement. Unfortunately for Warners and DC, Justice League did away with that possibility by bringing him back more or less as he’d been before.
There are other ways to write around Superman. Beyond literally ignoring the problem and never mentioning him — something that might, admittedly, be difficult when simultaneously introducing his cousin as a primary character — there’s the option of referring to him as simply being permanently busy saving the day elsewhere when danger calls on other heroes. He’s Superman, after all. Who’s to say he’s not helping deal with a natural disaster on the other side of the planet when Archvillain X threatens Coast City, Keystone or Gotham? It’s a solution that helps make the world seem a little bit larger, if it also risks making Superman look like the superhero version of a deadbeat dad.
Supergirl herself may be the key to the problem. Throughout the decades of the character’s existence, there have been occasions in which Supergirl has essentially subbed in for her cousin when various circumstances have demanded it — either he’s temporarily lost his powers, or been forced to abandon his traditional duties for one reason or another. Such a situation could come into play with DC’s movies moving forward, with Superman off in space for an extended period, lost in time or forced into retirement until the powers that be decide that it’s time for him to return.
Such a move would also open up storytelling possibilities for the rest of the DC heroes, too. As Suicide Squad and Justice League demonstrated, Superman has assumed a position of moral authority in DC’s movie universe; what happens when that is gone, but only temporarily and it’s known that he’ll return at some point? How do the other heroes step up to fill the void? (Do they even try?) The method of his removal could also prove additive to the larger universe-building: What if he’s visiting the Phantom Zone, or traveling to the future to the Legion of Super-Heroes or meets any number of other characters from other periods of DC lore?
The move could allow Supergirl a space to become established in her own right, and Superman a chance to lie low for awhile until he and the audience have forgotten about what he previously looked like. It’s not death, but it’s the next best thing: a chance for rebirth, for the character and the larger cinematic universe as a whole.