A Super Man

While his real-life heroics as a quadriplegic overshadowed anything he did on screen, Christopher Reeve the actor deserves accolades as well.


October 12, 2004|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

Until his spinal-cord injury, Christopher Reeve was regularly dismissed as a lightweight actor, a guy cast as Superman because he looked the part, a marginal screen presence at best.

All of which goes to show how shortsighted, not to mention unfair, reputations can be.

Reeve, who died Sunday at age 52, was great in the first two Superman films, very good in movies like The Bostonians and The Remains of the Day (both Merchant-Ivory productions) and solid in Somewhere in Time, Deathtrap, and most of the other 30-some pictures he made. True, he was terrible in stuff like Monsignor and The Aviator, but those movies had problems that extended far beyond their lead actor. Likewise, Superman III and IV were awful, although Reeve soldiered on as best he could.

From the start, Reeve voiced fears that his career would never move beyond Superman, that audiences would never be able to see him in anything but red-and-blue, a big red S on a yellow field on his chest. He was right, but there are worse things than to be remembered for such casually, certainly unexpectedly, brilliant performances.

Tragic circumstances, of course, would guarantee that the New York-born actor would be remembered for much more. Reeve died nine years after a spinal-cord injury - suffered when he was thrown from his mount during a Virginia horse show - left him paralyzed from the neck down.

The accident turned him momentarily from celluloid superhero to object of pity, but Reeve would have none of it. He fought back, with a resolve and force of will that certainly seemed superhuman; just a year after his fall, he was onstage at the Academy Awards, urging filmmakers to concentrate their efforts on films with a social conscience.

For the rest of his life, he would champion the cause of spinal-cord research, rallying support not by simply pleading, but by doing, by willing himself to continue on as a public figure long after just about anyone else would have given up.

He made headlines when sensation started returning to parts of his body, when he was able to wiggle his fingers and toes slightly. Reeve's indomitability gave him the fame his film career didn't. He became a best-selling author (1999's Still Me and 2002's Nothing Is Impossible: Reflections on a New Life), and even resumed his film career, starring in a 1998 remake of Alfred Hitchcock's Rear Window, playing a wheelchair-bound man who believes a neighbor committed murder, and directing 1997's In the Gloaming for HBO.

Reeve's obituaries have focused on his post-accident career as a champion of the disabled and an inspiration for anyone dealt a bad hand by life, accolades he certainly deserves.

While his acting career has been overshadowed by his later heroics, Reeve's movie career needs no apologists. He was pitch-perfect in Superman (1978) and Superman II (1980), the most creatively successful adaptation of comic-book-to-silver screen, until Spider-Man came along. True, he looked good in the costume. But more important, he acted the role, too; his Man of Steel was heroic and inspirational, believably larger-than-life, yet with a core that suggested he wasn't all that different from the rest of us.

"A hero should not know he's a hero, otherwise he becomes pretentious and boring," Reeve once told an interviewer. "What makes Superman a hero is not that he has power, but that he has the wisdom and maturity to use the power wisely."

The first Superman sputters a bit in the beginning, as Marlon Brando mumbles his way through the opening act as the father of Kal-el, a baby boy sent in a rocket from his native planet Krypton just before it exploded. Landing on Earth, he's adopted by the stolid Ma and Pa Kent, who adopt the preternaturally strong youngster who will become Superman and name him Clark.

As a teen-ager played by actor Jeff East, Clark is all jut-jawed determination; there's little shading to the character, and despite the film's jaunty tone and impressive special effects, it remains an open question whether this Superman will provide a hero audiences can believe in, much less identify with.

Such doubts are dispelled once Reeve appears onscreen. For one thing, this is a Superman who enjoys being super, who gets a real kick out of his powers (an opening series of rescues, stunts and other feats of derring-do is as delightful a character introduction as anything ever put onscreen). And Reeve makes both Superman and Clark Kent, his bespectacled alter-ego, real people. Superman displays a puckish sense of humor - he chuckles, then acts appropriately embarrassed when reporter Lois Lane asks him to prove he has X-ray vision by telling her what color underwear she's wearing - while Clark acts put upon when being ignored by Lois, something spurned suitors throughout the world could understand.

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