Justice League removed Henry Cavill’s mustache with CGI for his return as Superman – and boy is it bad. So, yes, as expected, Superman is resurrected in Justice League, although he’s a little different. No, we’re not talking about how this time he actually is a beacon of hope rather than the more brooding take of previous films, but his brand new – and decidedly fake – upper lip.
This bizarre story has already been well reported. By the time Justice League‘s extensive reshoots began, Henry Cavill had already started work on his next film, Mission: Impossible 6, in which he evidently has a pretty substantial part. The main impact of this is that Cavill had to keep traveling back-and-forth over the Atlantic on his off-days from M:I‘s England set to Justice League‘s in America, although specifics of the character led to something more complex. You can’t have failed to miss that throughout Justice League‘s press tour, Cavill has been sporting a damn fine mustache that would make Hercule Poirot a little jealous; that’s because his character in the film requires the facial fuzz (presumably to accentuate his Britishness) and so while Paramount were fine with their star jetting off to be Superman, they wouldn’t allow Cavill to shave.
This posed a problem. Plainly, Superman does not have a mustache. And so the production decided they would digitally remove the ‘tache using CGI: per Cavill, the hair was waxed up to reveal more skin, then mo-cap dots were placed on his face and the VFX artists did the rest. When the story broke in July, all involved were keen to play it down, with it made clear the effect was of minimal financial impact and the cast joking endlessly.
Unfortunately, while the effort was surely there, the resulting effect does not work. From the very first shot of the film, the replacement is painfully obvious, with the cleft puffed out and lip unnervingly unreal. It shatters the movie’s illusion whenever it happens and reveals just how much of the character’s role was reshot (most of it); for cracking the case of what Joss Whedon altered, its essential. But all the joking misses a bigger question: why was it this bad in the first place?
THE TRUE AWFULNESS OF HENRY CAVILL’S MUSTACHE EXPLAINED
Technically speaking, what we’re dealing with is the mouth equivalent of the uncanny valley; the closer to real something gets, the more its imperfections create a haunting effect. You typically see this with fake human characters, most noticeably in their glazed-over eyes, but as technology has advanced the mouth has become a problem area. Last year’s digital resurrection of Peter Cushing in Rouge One had definitely inhuman lip movement. And yet Superman’s feels more distracting.
The effect being attached to the otherwise real Cavill is the key. We know what Superman looks like, so the contrast of human and inhuman is obviously more pronounced; whenever he looks different it’ll stand out, be that a costume, hairstyle or adjusted facial features. It’s particularly noticeable when he speaks, with the lip’s curve not moving as if it’s separate to the rest of his face (because it is); when he’s still, it’s harder to tell (but still, ultimately, possible). The method discussed above – with the waxed-up hair – doesn’t help matters, as it appears to have led to Cavill overexaggerating his performance to compensate for having no lip control, making the entire thing more cartoonish.
Obviously, this is in part a result of the rushed reshoot period. The film was set for November 2017 years ago, and by the time Whedon started his changes earlier this year, it was getting too late to push it back (a move that would have a knock-on effect on the rest of the DCEU and Warner Bros. slate); they had a hard set delivery date to do too much work for. This is evident throughout the film, with mismatched scenes and poor CGI a rampant problem, but the mustache is its nadir. It would be possible to do Superman’s face justice for the handful of scenes he’s in, but the VFX artists simply didn’t have the time and resources to deliver that.
Contrary to what some industry commentators have said, this isn’t really the fault of those doing the CGI. The studio mandated the deadline and the director went about hitting that, and in this regard he evidently failed. Joss Whedon and presumably many, many more people at Warner Bros. signed off on the fake lip, rationalizing it was “good enough“. Or, perhaps, “better than the alternative” of not having a completed film.
THERE WAS A VERY OBVIOUS ALTERNATIVE TO REMOVING CAVILL’S MUSTACHE
There is, of course, debate being had that there were other options available to Warner Bros. A popular one is that Cavill could have shaved for Justice League and regrown or worn a fake for Mission: Impossible 6, but that sees Warner Bros. take priority when, by all measures, Paramount has final say; they had Cavill contracted at the time, and presumably the mustache was part of the deal, with any Justice League agreement for reshoots or press time not allowing any interference with that. If Warners were going to avoid this, they had to use the mustache.
And why didn’t they? Yes, it would be a change to what came before and what Zack Snyder envisioned, but giving Superman a full-on beard (real mustache, the rest fake) would have better hidden the problem. The only drawback would be that it requires every moment of Kal-El to be reshot, but as we’ve already established that already happened pretty much anyway (besides, adding facial hair on with CGI is easier than taking it off). What’s more, fans would totally buy it; the notion has comic precedent – Superman sports a beard in Rebirth and it could serve as an alternative to his mullet – and as we’re seeing Superman not be quite himself, this would be a neat visual signifier. All it would need to be paid off properly is one shot of him without the ‘mustache at the end, something that would be much easier to make look good than a full role.