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From 'Man of Steel' to 'The Witcher': Tracing Henry Cavill’s superhero to anti-hero arc

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“Almost everything [I read] was in fantasy and my reading for pleasure has more often than not been in fantasy," says Henry Cavill. "So when I was playing [The Witcher games by CD Projekt Red], I was thinking ‘how could I get this to become a movie or T.V. show’? In those terms, for me, the preparation for Geralt was in-built.” Photo by JL JAVIER

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — It’s not easy being a witcher.

For lead actor Henry Cavill, at least, it means doing your own stunts, getting extremely swole for the armor and swordplay, and being immersed in the mythos and world of The Continent to inhabit the scruffy boots of the sullen anti-hero Geralt of Rivia.

“I’ve been a fan of the fantasy genre since I was a boy and my father would read to me before I could even read,” said the British actor, speaking at the presser for the Asia Pacific launch of Netflix’s newest fantasy original series “The Witcher” held at the Conrad Hotel in Pasay City, Philippines last Dec. 12.

“Almost everything [I read] was in fantasy and my reading for pleasure has more often than not been in fantasy. So when I was playing [The Witcher games by CD Projekt Red], I was thinking ‘how could I get this to become a movie or T.V. show’? In those terms, for me, the preparation for Geralt was in-built.”

After playing a slew of supporting parts in movies on the strength of his T.V. roles — particularly as the jockish nobleman Charles Brandon on Michael Hirst’s “The Tudors” — Cavill landed the plum role of Superman on 2013’s “Man of Steel.” Photo by JL JAVIER

As “The Witcher” series approaches its debut airing, it’s a good time to parse how exactly Henry Cavill, an English actor and a big fantasy genre fan, became the pop culture embodiment of the Nietzschean ubermensch for this generation.

After playing a slew of supporting parts in movies on the strength of his T.V. roles — particularly as the jockish nobleman Charles Brandon on Michael Hirst’s “The Tudors” — Cavill landed the plum role of Superman on 2013’s “Man of Steel.”

With Zack Snyder at the helm, Cavill’s collaboration with the “300” director offered a decidedly brooding, meditative, and all around grumpier version of the Son of Krypton. Something that matched the atmospheric melancholy of Nolan’s post-”Dark Knight” style.

The 1896 English translation by Alexander Tille of “Thus Spoke Zarathustra” by German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche speaks about the ubermensch, translated as “super man” or “over man.” The super man is literally beyond human or out of proportion to humanity, someone alienated by their strength or abilities who can live by his own moral code that imbues him with a deep sense of morality, an unwavering purpose.

Kal-El, the baby who came down from the heavens and grew up as Clark Joseph Kent, as American as apple pie and John Deere, is that super human embodied. Comics writer Jerry Siegel and artist Joe Shuste may not have had the Nietzschean ubermensch in mind when they created Supes but he sure has many of the qualities attached to an arc straight out of the Campbellian hero’s journey.

Superman, after all, is an alien. He is an invading reality that distorts and warps the status quo, an outsider that must be accommodated or exiled. Kal-El chose the second path, becoming the stranger that is assimilated, a visitor that becomes part of the daily fabric. Superman is an alien but he's also the acceptable face of the invader from outer space.

Cavill as the anti-hero Geralt of Rivia, a role different from his previous "superhero" roles, particularly as Superman in DC Comics' Extended Cinematic Universe. Photo courtesy of NETFLIX

In 2016’s “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice,” almost unanimously critically panned yet grossing $873 million worldwide (still the biggest box-office hit of Cavill’s career ever), Cavill commented on the view of Supes as an outsider who wants in, a hero wanting to belong.

“I'd like to delve more into the aspect of Superman [that] we traditionally know, coupled with where we left him with’ Man of Steel,’” he said in an interview.

“It's the hero who is trying to exist in a world where people may say he's not relevant anymore, where, actually, he's extraordinarily relevant and it's him coming to terms with that and becoming that relevance and showing people that hope does exist without it being too chocolate box.”

In contrast, “The Witcher’s” Geralt of Rivia is an outlier with a heart of gold, albeit said heart may be scruffed and locked safely within a safety deposit box wearing armor, a deep and complex personality that is supposed to be close to emotionless or taking pains to be seen as such.

“I think Geralt’s true superpower is his capacity to love,” said Cavill at the APAC press conference at Conrad Hotel. “His belief in the world isn’t necessarily what he feels on the inside. He’s a lover and a fighter.”

Cavill echoed the same sentiment in a previous interview where he said he was excited about his “chance to find Geralt's place in the world.” Cavill added, “Geralt has that thing of trying so damn hard and being misconstrued or not appreciated — of people having a negative opinion of you, despite you actually trying to do the right thing.”

"The Witcher" showrunner Lauren Schmidt Hissrich. Photo by JL JAVIER

“Witcher” is the profession of Geralt of Rivia, meaning he is a mutant mercenary brought up to be able to take alchemical drugs and potions to enhance his senses and physicality, taking on the role of monster hunter and being hired out by nobles and townsfolk when supernatural beasts and creatures threaten the land.

Nicknamed the “White Wolf” for his pale skin, all-white hair, and loner’s temperament, Geralt is a far cry from the choir boy clean jawline or the Boy Scout personality of Superman. Rather Geralt is the necessary outsider. He takes out the trash, whatever scum of the mythological bestiary it is that needs disposing of.

And while Superman will be applauded for the same heroics, Geralt will be paid and then pelted with rocks and vegetables on the way out of town. It’s the same coin, yet Geralt and Kal-El occupy different sides.

“Geralt’s journey is mostly about loneliness at the beginning, a lot of being outside,” said showrunner Lauren Schmidt Hissrich at the APAC press conference.

“The trickiest thing about fighting on set with a heavy weighted sword is that you’re not actually swinging it to kill someone” — Henry Cavill

“It was challenging to adapt [“The Witcher]” because of how much story there is,” she added. “See there are eight novels, so we have eight hours to tell a chapter basically of Geralt and Yennefer and Ciri’s journey. It’s mostly about Geralt’s adventures, but we really wanted to build up The Continent for what it is and the people that are in it. Where do witchers fit into that?”

Cavill has brought extraordinary intensity and immersion into his roles as basically the face of the Nietzschean ubermensch for this generation, in Superman and now as Geralt.

There is evidence to suggest that Cavill had ample preparation to breathe life into grandiose heroes since 2011, when the underrated “Immortals,” an epic fantasy action directed by Tarsem Singh, cast him as Theseus.

The movie is a weird yet utterly gorgeous distortion of several Greek myths Frankensteined together into a top-heavy Hollywood monster.

As Theseus, an ordinary fighting man from a small village thrust into an extraordinary war — the same guy who defeated the Minotaur in the Labyrinth and executed the Six Labors — Cavill starred alongside Mickey Rourke as the villainous King Hyperion in search of the Epirus Bow, a legendary weapon that would help in the king’s cause to conquer the known world.

Very loosely based on how the Greek Gods and Titans fought their epic 10-year war called the Titanomachy, “Immortals” is certainly one of the most spectacular-looking, awfully written movies ever made. Yet Cavill shines in the role, even as he spends half of the movie with his shirt off, stripped down to the core at 6 percent body fat, to mimic the physique of the fighting man who hasn’t grown up with much proper nutrition and yet has phenomenal cardio.

As the mythical founder of Athens, this was also the first leading part that Cavill was required to almost tremendously transform his body for a role. To become Theseus, Cavill trained under the watchful eye of Mark Twight (same fitness trainer for “300”) to develop washboard abs and became wiry as well as ripped.

After “Immortals,” the grueling physical aspect of training to get that look of being “beyond human” continued in “Man of Steel,” where aesthetics were key, especially since Cavill was donning the iconic spandex suit and cape.

Cavill at the fan event of "The Witcher." Photo by JL JAVIER

Still under the tutelage of Mark Twight, his new training regimen focused mainly on Olympic lifts, functional training, and metabolic body movements, with kettlebells, dumbbells, and just bodyweight. Cavill’s Superman workout lasted for two and a half hours a day, with six-day day routine that lasted for 10 months and intersected with some filming. He gained over 20 pounds of muscle.

“I did two months training on my own and four months training in LA with Mark, and that was excruciating,” said Cavill in an interview. “I was breaking boundaries I didn’t know I could. I remember one moment, doing some horrible rowing sprint thing, and I said, ‘I can’t do this Mark, I can’t, I’m done,’ and he said, ‘No you’re not, don’t listen to the lies.’”

These grinding workouts are mentioned specifically because these don’t fall much under the purview of a garden variety actor’s fitness regimen.

It is certainly unavailable to the ordinary person, not only because the coaches who get you from a Theseus body, to a Superman body, to a Geralt body are by-invite only, but also because said ordinary person or actor would undoubtedly fold like wet cardboard under the pressure of such sustained stress.

Speaking of developing the physique to play Geralt of Rivia, Cavill had to gain even more muscle mass and develop bigger shoulders, arms, and thighs to don the heavy armor and be able to execute explosive swordplay.

“It was very different because of the athleticism of Geralt’s fighting style,” said Cavill at the APAC press conference. “[Geralt] has a lot of pirouettes and explosive movements and a lot of uneven ground. You’re not fighting in a gym, but on a slope with cobbles, or it’s raining. So you need to make sure everything is protected and that you build up the right muscle group: hips, knees, elbows, shoulders.”

Because Cavill had zealously opted for no stunt doubles for “The Witcher,” his new trainer Dave Rienzi bulked him up using a routine inspired by seven-time Mr. Olympia Phil Heath, combining heavy strength work with fasted cardio. This gave him the sculpted aesthetics of someone who swings a heavy sword for a living.

Cavill onstage at the press conference of "The Witcher." Photo by JL JAVIER

“The trickiest thing about fighting on set with a heavy weighted sword is that you’re not actually swinging it to kill someone,” said Cavill at the APAC press conference at Conrad Hotel.

“So it’s really stopping the sword is the trickiest bit,” he continued. “In an ideal world, you’re not making contact with anyone’s hands when it comes to stunt fights but if you’re doing a very technical fight it is pretty much par for the course that you’re going to make contact.”

From Theseus, to Superman, and now to Geralt of Rivia, Cavill’s defined jawline and muscled-up physique has become the de facto visual pop culture image of what it means to be “beyond human.” And as the series premieres, audiences can see for themselves if Netflix has done right by the acclaimed fantasy series to pin their hopes on the jacked shoulders of the Englishman from London.

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“The Witcher” premieres Dec. 20 on Netflix.