In a darkened editing bay on the Warner Bros. lot in Burbank, California, Man of Steel footage rolls on a 70-inch screen. Finally, here's the director Zack Snyder's long-awaited, top-secret Clark Kent: swarthy and muscular, working at a bar on a lonely stretch of highway. No Brooks Brothers. No glasses. No Daily Planet. Instead, Kent, in jeans and a henley, is a drifter, bouncing from job to job, not yet ready to assume his true calling, not yet given the chance. Kent finds work far from any Metropolis. Among deckhands. And roughnecks. And wasted truckers who grope innocent women while he buses tables. He tells them to stop. They get aggressive, tossing beer, throwing punches. One connects and he takes it. Kent walks away, seething. He later lashes out, unleashing his long-pent-up wrath on inanimate aluminum and steel. This is Clark Kent struggling, grappling with the possibility of keeping his powers secret forever.

Thirty miles southwest of the studio, Henry Cavill, just shy of his 30th birthday, who plays this updated, emotional Kent, approaches beneath a section of scaffolding in Manhattan Beach. It's April 15. On the other coast, the chaos on Boylston Street in Boston is just beginning: Two blasts, marathoners and spectators fleeing. But here the magnitude is still unknown. It's a textbook sunny day, and Cavill emerges from the scaffold's shadows. At first glance, he looks stone-cut: six foot one, in a blue V-neck sweater with freshly gelled hair and an ivory-smooth shave. I've been warned: "It takes a second to adjust, because Henry's just so good-looking," Amy Adams, who plays Lois Lane, told me. "He's dashing with just a hint of danger, and it's kinda great. It's super-hidden. But you know there's a steeliness within him that makes the gentlemanly qualities all the more interesting."

Cavill—"Rhymes with travel," he says—likes the quiet down here by the beach. It's low-density and private: all solo dog walkers and flowering hedges and vacant parking spots on the street. It's bygone California. When not in London, Cavill makes his home here with his girlfriend. Her name, he says, "is Gina," which comes out in a way that suggests he doesn't want to answer any more questions about his girlfriend. "She's amazing," he says. "Gina" is known to everyone else as Gina Carano, the MMA fighter turned actress who is also conveniently rumored to be the next Wonder Woman. Cavill has chosen to walk up the street, leaving the car at home. "I'm not much of a schmoozer," he says, "not much of an eventgoer. I'd rather stay close to here. This doesn't feel like L.A. It doesn't feel like work." But whatever Fortress of Solitude–like privacy Cavill and Carano are enjoying down here by the water might very soon vanish. "Henry's about to be one of the more famous people on the planet," says his costar Michael Shannon, who plays the villain General Zod. "Getting to play Superman is a blessing and a curse. It's a hard character to capture. He's devoid of animosity or sarcasm, but he's not a dullard either. It's an overwhelming movie, and Henry's right in the middle of it, and he just carries it like a champ."

It's almost happened for Cavill before, this sort of Clark Kent–to–Superman transformation—twice, and one of those times, literally. "I was actually up for Superman before," Cavill says. "I was very close to getting the job, and then the director changed and I was no longer part of the plan." It was 2002, and Cavill was 19. The director, McG, dropped the project because Warner Bros. wanted to shoot it in Australia and he's afraid of flying. (The studio finally got its next Superman film aloft in 2006, with a relative unknown—who remains relatively unknown—named Brandon Routh donning the signature spandex.) The other tentpole that eluded Cavill: "I screen-tested for James Bond when I was 22," he says. "But Daniel [Craig] was above and beyond the best choice."

After missing out on Bond, Cavill found steady work on television. He played Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk, in 38 episodes of Showtime's The Tudors. While shooting the sex-soaked period drama in Dublin from 2007 through 2010, Cavill spent his downtime buried in Robert Jordan's fantasy series Wheel of Time. "The books are about the rise of a chosen one with great powers," Cavill says. "I'd stay up until five, six in the morning reading. I couldn't put them down." Then, in 2011, he scored his first lead, playing Theseus in Tarsem Singh's Immortals, a CGI romp through the ancient Greece of gods and men. Cavill valiantly—shirtlessly—avenges his mother's murder, confronts his own destiny, and saves all of humankind from Mickey Rourke.

Not without gratitude, Cavill compares his early résumé to hiding in plain sight. "It was just jobs here and there," he says, modest as a Smallville farm boy. "Until I got Superman."

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Seated inside FishBar, a favorite local restaurant plastered with plasma screens and taxidermied game fish, Cavill, whose blue left iris permanently features an alien spot of reddish brown, weighs his dining options. There's the usual push and pull between what might keep him Super and what he really craves. "If you're looking for healthy, the mahimahi is good with the spinach and the steamed broccoli," he says. "But I keep wanting to get the fish and chips." Where Cavill's from, the self-governing island of Jersey in the English Channel, that dish, slicked with oil and vinegar, is more than well represented. It's also a possible culprit for his childhood nickname. "I was fat," he says. "I was Fat Cavill."