Man of Steel: Christopher Reeve 1952-2004

The threat of being typecast is real for any actor. While many aspiring or frustrated actors might kill for even the chance to become typecast, it must be a purgatorial fate for those few who achieve the dubious distinction of becoming inextricably intertwined with a single character.

To his credit, if Christopher Reeve ever felt discouraged by his close association with Superman, he never let his feelings show. He appeared to understand, especially in his last tumultuous decade, just how precious it was to be part of something so universally admired and loved. Superman is one of the most recognizable fictional characters in the world. Go almost anywhere and flash a picture of that distinctive “S” shield and someone will recognize it. And although America’s stature in the international community has suffered in recent years, Superman remains a stridently apolitical figure.

Batman doesn’t present as many problems for an actor, because his face is hidden. Michael Keaton was only one in a long line of actors to play the Dark Knight, and the gig did little to hinder his career. (You could make the argument that Adam West suffered from his identification with the role, but you would have a harder time making the argument that West was a gifted thespian whose career was harmed.) Likewise, if Tobey Maguire decides to abandon the role of Spider-Man (as he almost did for this year’s sequel), filmmakers shouldn’t have any trouble finding a suitable replacement: Spider-Man is the mask, and the mask doesn’t change.

But Superman doesn’t have any masks or distinctive facial hair or mannerisms to hide behind. His face is instantly recognizable: jutting jaw, wide cheekbones, dark eyes set deep in his face (one last vestige of his origins as a 1930s tough guy). For better or for worse, Christopher Reeve just happened to be the spitting image of Superman. He stepped onto the silver screen looking for all the world like a Curt Swan drawing come to life. He didn’t need makeup or prosthetics or CGI: he just was.

Which is why the horse-riding accident that stole Reeve’s mobility in May of 1995 was so heartbreaking for so many people. Certainly, every such injury is a terrible, but Reeve’s predicament resonated because he was still Superman. In his last years, Reeve became a real life hero. He made use of his association with Superman to campaign on behalf of the research in pursuit of a cure for his condition. The fact that he lingered as long as he did and seemed almost to prosper, steadily making tiny strides that must have been inconceivably monumental to him and his doctors, makes his passing all the more unnerving. I think most people, deep in their heart of hearts, believed that they would live to see Christopher Reeve walk again. Superman wasn’t supposed to lose, not when he had come so far.

There are those in the medical community who believe that Reeve’s efforts on the behalf of spinal cord injury research may have had a negative effect on public perception of the condition, and that his repeated assertion that he would walk again inspired unrealistic expectations in the minds of fans and his fellow paralytics. But by any measure, Reeve’s advances were superhuman, defying even the most optimistic therapeutic scenarios. He drew irresistible strength from his irreducible weakness. Hopefully, his remarkable relationship to his illness will inspire others who are similarly afflicted, to persist and prevail, and not be overcome by any failure to live up to his impossible standards.

The problem with Superman, unlike self-made heroes Batman and Spider-Man, was that he was specially gifted. He was born with the powers of a god, and selflessly devoted himself to the service of mankind. He was an alien, the archetypal outsider envisioned by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster as a response to the existential crisis of the American immigrant. If you’re a kid, you know that if you just tried hard enough, you can be Batman. There can be only one Last Son of Krypton, and chances are that you’re not him. [footnote] Reeve was Superman, in every way that really mattered. Certainly, Steve Reeves and Dean Cain and Tom Welling are reasonable facsimiles. But none of them has that look, that magical combination of non-threatening, almost absurdly handsome features and humble swagger. No one else was able to make that costume — an incredibly silly suit for a grown man to wear — seem dignified and also subtly sensual.

Everyone jokes that only a moron could fail to discern that Clark Kent and Superman were one and the same, but Reeve made the transformation believable. His Superman was comfortable in his own skin in a way that almost, but not quite, obviated the need for Clark Kent. Reeve’s Kent was an essentially tragic figure, a man set apart from the masses by dint of a powerful secret. If the majority of Superman comics prior to the 1978 film avoided any deep examination of the mechanics of the character’s secret identity, Reeve’s unassuming performance put the matter to rest. His Superman pretended to be Clark Kent because he wanted to be Clark Kent, even though he realized his responsibilities precluded him ever achieving a “normal” life. His indefinable regret added an accessible human dilemma to a character who had evolved, over four decades of steadily increasing power levels at the hands of unimaginative comic book writers, into a godlike force of nature. This seemingly small twist on the Superman mythos eventually became one of the central tenets of the comic book mythology.

Reeve was by most accounts a moderately gifted actor. His career outside of the Superman films, while not without highlights (the 1980 stage production of Lanford Wilson’s Fifth of July, Street Smart 1987), is often forgotten. Superman may be a colorful superhero, a “strange visitor from another planet” with fantastic powers and simplistic motivations, the requisite baggage of the absurdist genre from which he sprung, but Reeve approached this most forbidding and facile of roles with consummate skill and presence. He made Superman live and breathe. But just as the most rigorous student of Stanislavski’s Method school might find the line between his role and life blurred and compromised, Christopher Reeve found that once he had become Superman, there was no going back to mild-mannered Clark Kent. Until the day he died, and now forever after, he was Superman.

All things considered, there are worse fates.

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This is not to discount other survivors of Krypton. One of the major revisions in DC’s 1986 Man of Steel revamp [largely inspired by Reeve’s iconic performance] was to demonstrate that Superman was once again the only survivor of his planet, restoring an original distinction that had been trampled by an endless stream of Supergirls and Phantom Zone villains and Kandorians.