Warhammer 40k fans the world over rejoiced last Friday, when news officially broke that Henry Cavill would both star in and executive produce new Warhammer 40k films and TV. The media venture is a partnership between Games Workshop, Amazon and Vertigo Entertainment, and has led to a storm of speculation about what role Cavill will play.
Henry Cavill’s Warhammer 40k affection is well documented, and his announcement on Friday was an effusive love-letter to the unique setting, as well as a promise to fellow nerds that he’d do it justice. His passion for the franchise is unquestioned.
Cavill is also built like an action hero. With square jaw, broad shoulders, piercing gaze, that trademark growl in his throat, proven sword-skills, he’s capable of conveying the intensity and charisma of an Inquisitor, the superhuman prowess of a Space Marine, the derring-do of a Rogue Trader, or the human heroism of an Astra Militarum soldier. Give him another bleach-blonde dye job and let him use that RP accent and he’d make a rocking Roboutte Guilliman, resurrected Primarch of the Ultramarines.
But whatever happens, there’s one role Cavill must not play – the 40k Emperor of Mankind.
The Emperor is, without a doubt, the most important figure in the whole of Warhammer 40,000. In the 41st millennium the Emperor’s corporeal form is locked to the Golden Throne on Terra, projecting his considerable psychic might across his failing galactic Empire in unknowable ways. Obviously, a throne-bound Emperor would be a weird waste of Cavill’s considerable chops as an action hero.
In the 30th Millennium the Emperor walked among his subjects and led the Great Crusade to conquer the galaxy and forge the Imperium of Man. But the Emperor is more of a force than a man. He’s so powerful that he simply doesn’t relate to humans or his Primarch “sons” – in fact, you can blame a lot of the Horus Heresy galactic civil war on the fact he’s such a crap dad. The Emperor doesn’t even have a distinct physical form – he appears to those around him in whatever form suits him best and their minds can handle.
The Emperor might not quite be a God, but representing him in media is like attempting to represent the Christian God – putting a human face and human traits on something that, according to believers, exceeds our capacity to understand, and which does not relate to us in the ways we relate to each other. The Horus Heresy books do a pretty good job including the Emperor in the plot where it’s relevant without spoiling his mystique, providing so many perspectives on him from contradictory sources that it’s still not possible to say exactly what his intentions are.
The Emperor needs to stay off-screen, or at the very least, to be an entity that radiates power and exceeds understanding when he does show up. You need a whole team of actors for his different appearances, and a whole CGI studio to represent his reality-bending presence. Cavill is larger than life, but he’d disappear like a pebble into the endless abyss of the Emperor.
Cavill, you’re the God Emperor of our hearts. It’s not just that you shouldn’t play the Emperor. No one person should.
(Except maybe Tilda Swinton. She can do anything).