MAN OR SUPERMAN*
Like most girls of the 80s, I spent more than a few years in love with Christopher Reeve**. There was no way around it. I didn’t even mind the tights, which—let’s face it—were a little too, um, tight. There was something about the perfect black curl over his forehead, the stammering self-doubt of Clark Kent paired with the supreme superness of Superman, combined with the smile to end all smiles, that appealed to my inner geek and my inner princess at the same time.
That is not to say that I was in love with all the Superman movies. One and Two were terrific. (Two was especially fun, with the campy extremeness of Ursa, Non, and Terence Stamp’s General Zod invading “Planet Houston.”) But then there were strange plot and casting decisions (Mariel Hemingway? Nuclear weapons?) that forced a disenchantment with the exploits of this particular superhero. Not that implausible plotlines and less-than-stellar dialogue detracted from Reeve's/Superman's innate superness. He was (as many comic book heroes were) half-geek, half-god, outwardly all-American and intrinsically alien. But it was the humility in the man behind the muscle, the Clark within the Kal-El, that drew us all to him.
The classic inner battle for Superman, the character, has always been that he’s a freak among men. He may be able to help save the citizens of Earth on a daily basis, but he will never fully belong. His alienness will always outweigh his humanity. He knows it. He’s ashamed by it. And he tries to suppress it so that he can be like everyone else. Every superhero goes through it, the desire to be normal, flawed, human.
While a superhero can leap tall buildings in a single bound, an actor, being mere mortal, is unable to recover from a fall while horseback riding. Seeing a virile man in his physical prime struck down by paralysis is hard enough. Logically, we all knew it wasn’t Superman who was paralyzed. But that still didn’t stop the thoughts from coming: how could we integrate the solid image of Superman with the shrunken remnant of his injured portrayer? It was as if an individual humanity had asserted itself over a hero’s immortality, becoming his Kryptonite.
Where there is tragedy, there is grief that the end is near, fear that there will be no recovery, depression that tomorrow will bring only more suffering. But Christopher Reeve showed that where there is love, support, and respect, there is hope. His family rallied around him in his impossible medical situation, providing him with hope and faith, and an environment of support that convinced him that, someday, he would walk again. From then on, every figurative step he made was toward that goal.
When Christopher Reeve was seen in public for the first few times after his accident, we were all shocked at the deterioration. Healthy shock of black hair—gone. Strong limbs and solid frame—atrophied. Resonant voice—reduced to a rasp as he breathed and spoke through the oxygen tubes he needed to survive.
But we all soon saw that his physical limitations were not constraining his intellectual and emotional energy, which he funneled into spinal cord injury research. He used his celebrity status to call attention to research, and to raise funds for the study of traumatic injury. The Superman money undoubtedly helped. But he managed to make a significant impact on scientific study, and served as role model to thousands worldwide. He spoke at college graduations and medical conventions. He became a spokesperson for stem cell research, a field that he believed held a cure for his otherwise incurable condition. On Capitol Hill, he lobbied for better insurance protection against traumatic injury and his tireless efforts on behalf of stem cell research were invoked by Senator John Kerry during the second Presidential debate. Reeve even directed a 1998 remake of the Hitchcock classic Rear Window, in which he also acted—the role, initially defined by Jimmy Stewart, was redefined by Reeve’s performance, acted within the all-too-real constraints of his own immobilizing injury. (He even won a SAG award for this performance.)
His skin could not deflect bullets. The Superman known by Generation X was proven to be a mere mortal—eminently fallible, delicately human. But in the end, Christopher Reeve was undeterred. That he couldn’t walk didn’t mean that forward strides weren’t possible. His was a life of progress. To his last moments, he kept moving forward—still fast as a locomotive, still able to hurdle great obstacles in a single bound. And he managed to do it without ever leaving his chair.
*For a comprehensive obit, see http://entertainment.msn.com/movies/article.aspx?news=170270
**A minor note: As a journalist-to-be, I was also a little in love with Margot Kidder’s Lois Lane, a feeling not duplicated by the arrival of subsequent Loises like Teri Hatcher and whoever’s on Smallville now. Feh. Of course, Margot Kidder turned out to be Anne Heche-crazy, or something, so that doesn’t say much for my judgment.