Christopher Reeve, the larger-than-life actor who remains the best known and celebrated incarnation of the cinematic versions of Superman, died ten years ago today of cardiac arrest. Reeve had been suffering from complications of a horseriding accident in 1995 which had left him a quadriplegic.
For Reeve and the memory of him — which shines vividly in the annals of Hollywood and the sci-fi/fantasy realm via his legions of loyal fans — his big-screen portrayal of the Man of Steel from 1978-1987, in which the first film is considered a sort of zenith in the genre and was one of the first popcorn comic book blockbuster films of the cinematic contemporary age, is still the benchmark of the film portrayal of the storied D.C. comic book hero. Approaching with a puckish, almost shy quality, Reeve’s Superman was everyman and no man. He knew exactly which buttons to push in order to make the character work in whatever scene he was in, and he played Superman with a humanistic vulnerability which only strengthened the obviousness of the muscle-bound fearless power ball he was against adversaries. ‘
It was a testament to Reeve that he could hold his own with heavyweight actors of the silver screen like Gene Hackman, Ned Beatty, Jackie Cooper, Terence Stamp, and others, and was able to somehow always construct a kind of Americana wholesome imagery through his shiny red boots and cape, muscular frame just right in the famous suit which adorned the blazing “S” logo, and counterbalanced nicely, especially to Hackman’s licking chops in an erudite manner sizzle reel performance of arch enemy Lex Luthor. Audiences always rooted for Reeve, he always had them in the corner of his eye, and avoided any public scrutiny by playing Superman with always hitting the right keys.
And even as the series went on and plummeted by the fourth installment, in which budget, behind-the-scenes headaches, and utter disregard for the audience pretty much sunk the franchise to that point, Reeve still played the character with an earnest sense of gratitude, as if he had a responsibility to the audience, in which he was able to pull off time and time again with full sincerity. Although the series seems to have firm footing in the new millennium, albeit the re-imagining of the entire Superman tale by way of Zack Snider’s direction and Henry Cavill’s portrayal in Man of Steel and the upcoming Batman vs Superman, there still seems a sense, almost subliminal but markedly there, that everything that happens post-Reeve Superman still has the shadow of it remaining, the ghostlike inference of the irresistible charm of Chris Reeve lingering around, the almost now mythical presence and strong memory in full-fledged manifestation.
And it wasn’t just the Superman series in which he made his bones in the business, as he appeared in films as diverse as Sidney Lumet’s Deathtrap and Somewhere in Time. For sure the typecasting didn’t allow Reeve to be able to stretch, at least in the layman public’s eyes, but the aforementioned films and especially the urban tale Street Smart, in which Morgan Freeman was a co-star and earned his first Oscar nomination, parlayed a range and an eagerness to showcase his acting skills (Reeve had done many plays early on in his career, like the classics Waiting For Godot and The Winter’s Tale). Some of his final appearances were on the small screen, such as Smallville, in which Reeve played a wheelchair-bound scientist who provides many answers to questions which have befell upon the young Kal-El, better known domestically as Clark Kent, played by Tom Welling. He also played the Jimmy Stewart role, the lead, in the television remake of Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window.
Upon his accident in 1995, Reeve became gazed upon as more of a hero than ever as he became a true survivor in many senses of the word and a huge humanitarian for Spinal Cord research. The term “superman” took on a whole new meaning, and there was a sense of spirit, leadership, brevity, and candor to the way Reeve carried himself post-accident, unable to walk or breathe on his own, but yet still was a beacon of inspiration and hope. When he tragically died on October 10th, 2004, there was still, right up to that moment, always that hope that he would and could, miraculously walk again, something he had been feverishly, bravely, and diligently trying to accomplish since he had gained consciousness after the accident. The blur between his most storied character and the magnanimous man himself, almost saw full fruition.
Ten years on the memory of Christopher Reeve will always transmit and reflect so many different symbols and emotions to so many people. But that collective image of him as Superman, soaring through the sky like the phoenix rising, painting the vistas and landscape with his sheer force as he propelled through the blue skies, will always remain. Like other famous sci-fi/fantasy iconic images, like Adam West as Batman, Lon Chaney as The Wolfman, Bela Lugosi as Dracula, Mark Hamill as Luke Skywalker, and James Earl Jones/David Prowse as Darth Vader, Christopher Reeve as Superman also remains as touchstone such. If there was a Hall-Of-Fame for these aforementioned iconic fantasy figures and others, Christopher Reeve would be etched in the marble and proudly displayed for all of time. It’s kind of the same way he remains in our consciousness and in our memories, etched and proudly displayed for all time.