Argylle is a disaster for all involved – but especially Henry Cavill

Hair apparent: Henry Cavill in ‘Argylle’  (Universal/Apple)
Hair apparent: Henry Cavill in ‘Argylle’ (Universal/Apple)

Rarely do duds come as glaring and obvious as Argylle. The blockbuster movie, about a spy novelist (Bryce Dallas Howard) who’s sucked into a real-life web of murder and espionage, had flatlined before even reaching cinemas. Was it the gaudy, laugh-repellent trailer that proved its undoing? The nebulous premise, which seemed to think there was something interesting about the question of “Who is the real Agent Argylle?” The recent insipid output of director Matthew Vaughn (The King’s Man; Kingsman: The Golden Circle)? Maybe all of the above. Just how damagingly the film has flopped remains to be seen, of course: it opened to a paltry $16m (£12.7m) in the US, and barely over double that worldwide. Factor in the nine-figure production budget and a marketing campaign that seemed to do everything but follow you home and throw rocks at your window, and it’s no wonder that some outlets are already branding Argylle an unmitigated disaster.

The Independent’s three-star review was far warmer than most; I, like many people, hated it. Nobody walks away from Argylle with their head held high. Sam Rockwell shunts his way through some dreary slapstick action; Bryan Cranston and Catherine O’Hara are shoddy, unserious villains; John Cena, Dua Lipa and Ariana DeBose make glorified cameos; only Samuel L Jackson, perhaps Hollywood’s most accomplished and unimpeachable casher of cheques, glides through the mess untroubled, like a greased-up toboggan down a deep, familiar groove. Howard brings to Argylle the same drippy quality she did to Jurassic World (what’s the opposite of joie de vivre?) but for my money, it’s Henry Cavill, playing the imagined embodiment of the fictional Agent Argylle, who has the most to worry about.

Cavill, sporting a sort of gravity-defying Action Man hairdo and an ugly luxury jacket, is featured prominently in Argylle’s marketing, although relatively little in the film itself. He is never a fleshed-out character, instead embodying just the loose idea of a superspy – James Bond as sketched on a pub napkin. At various points over the last decade, Cavill’s name has been floated in conversations about Daniel Craig’s 007 successor but Argylle suggests that the franchise was right to (seemingly) swerve him. The performance could generously be described as knowing self-parody: Cavill’s spy is stiff, smug and as dry as a nail-varnish martini. But intentionally or not, it’s a drag to watch.

During an early fight scene on a train, we watch from Elly Conway’s (Howard) perspective as Rockwell’s character morphs repeatedly into Cavill (and back again) while scrapping with goons. It’s a clunky gimmick for the fight scene and one that illustrates just how little panache Cavill musters – every time he pops back on screen, it’s like the temperature drops a few degrees. If his preening, too-perfect spy is a self-lampooning joke, then it’s not a funny one, in the way that, say, Regé-Jean Page’s pompous knight in Dungeons & Dragons or Ryan Gosling’s himbo Ken doll in Barbie are. No, the character here is just nothing, and only seems to affirm Cavill’s harshest critics.

What’s particularly concerning for Cavill is that Argylle comes amid a patch of palpable career uncertainty. The actor rode to prominence on The Tudors in the late Noughties before finding stardom as Superman in Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel and, more recently, the Netflix fantasy series The Witcher. In the past couple of years, however, he’s bade goodbye to his two signature roles. Fans had speculated that he quit as The Witcher’s flaxen-haired Geralt in anticipation of new Superman sequels; in December 2022, he revealed that he had been unexpectedly dropped as Superman after a studio leadership reshuffle.

Both The Witcher and DC Comics have very involved, fervid fanbases; Cavill – a loud and proud Warhammer fanatic and all-round nerd, “one of their own”, as it were – was a popular choice in both instances. And yet, among the critical establishment, scepticism remained. We know at this point that Cavill, now 40, can play wooden and unexpressive well (a supporting turn in Mission: Impossible – Fallout was similarly rigid). But can he limber up? Without the safety net of a franchise beneath him, Cavill is at a point where he needs to really prove his acting chops if he wants to endure as a movie star. Argylle offers nothing in the way of proof.

It would of course be unfair to hold Cavill responsible for Argylle’s failings; it would be like blaming the sinking of the RMS Titanic on the maître d’ of the on-deck restaurant. But it leaves his stock more precarious than ever. It’s all very well being the man of steel – now it’s time to show some.

‘Argylle’ is out in cinemas now