Friday, October 9, 2009

Friday Free-for-All: Christopher Reeve & Superman

This Friday Free-for-All is going to be a little different than prior editions. Usually I'm content to just dash off a quick intro, link to some video clips and call it a weekend. However, today I feel like doing a little more of a tribute. Tomorrow, October 10, is the five-year anniversary of Christopher Reeve's death. As someone who grew up idolizing Superman, this was a black day indeed.

We've seen a lot of celebrities pass this year, icons even. Patrick Swayze. Farrah Fawcett. Michael Jackson. Each time - but particularly with MJ - we were treated to the odd spectacles of massive media coverage and distraught fans shedding tears for men and women whom they never knew personally. Naturally that led to an inevitable backlash - "What's the big deal? Big whup! A singer died. There's a war on! People die every day. Who cares?"

We care.

We don't mourn the celebrities so much as we mourn for what they brought into our lives. The movies that inspired us, that made us laugh. The movies we shared with friends, family and and significant others. The movies that shaped who we are, to the point that they are as much a part of ourselves as the lessons we learned in school and the time spent with loved ones. We mourn the loss of a voice who gave us the soundtrack of our lives. The music that played as we went to our first school dance, on our first car trips, during our first kiss. The reaction to Michael Jackson's death was less about him than it was about us. We had forgotten what his body of work meant to us - and on that dark day of his death, we reflected and remembered.

Every generation has such a day. For some, it might be the murder of John Lennon. For those older, perhaps the "day the music died" stirred such emotion. Others still might remember exactly where they were when they heard Tupac died.

For me, October 10, 2004 was such a dark day. I just remember being stunned silent by the simple headline on the Associated Press. "Christopher Reeve dead at 52" The man who was my generation's Superman, and in my mind, the ONLY Superman - was gone. I felt one of the most fitting tributes was this political cartoon.

If you knew me, you'd understand what a big deal this was. Though most kids my age felt that Star Wars or Indiana Jones were the greatest movies ever made, for me, Reeve's first two Superman efforts held that spot. It was the first Superman film that made me want to be a director at the age of five. I watched all of those movies too many times to count, to the point where I could probably recite the entire movie from heart. I've collected Superman comics for over twenty years and have a complete run going all the way back to the John Byrne Man of Steel relaunch in 1986. I'm probably one of the few people who could best Jerry Seinfeld in a fan-off.

From an early age, Superman instilled in me a strong sense of right and wrong. Don't get me wrong, I read plenty of comics featuring the "darker" heroes. I can appreciate them for what they are. They're interesting characters and they all have their place - but there's only one Superman.

In a lot of ways, for me, Reeve and Superman are practically synonymous. Reeve looked so much like Superman that he could have been cut straight from the comic book. It's hard to think of more perfect casting when it comes to filling the boots of an icon like that. Not only that, but in my mind, he's the only Superman actor who ever fully sold the distinction between Clark Kent and Superman, to the point where you could believe that someone wouldn't guess they were the same person.

One of my favorite moments in the first film is the scene embedded below. Clark shows up to pick Lois up for a date and as he fiddles with his glasses, considers telling her who he is. With the glasses now off, his posture straightens, seeming to grow several inches. His voice drops an octave as he starts to reveal the truth, only to chicken out, immediately hunch over and reassume the nerdy Kent persona. It's a wonderfully done on-screen transformation achieved not with any special effects, but pure thespian skill. (And I'll give Brandon Routh credit for coming close to the same effect in Superman Returns. He's definitely my #2 Superman - but the script didn't offer him the same opportunities to really define his separate personas)

Incidentally, the first three or four times I saw this on ABC as a very young kid, this was essentially where the movie ended for me, as it always led into the commercial break before my bedtime.

I tend to prefer the first Superman movie. Superman II is quite good, though I tend to favor the recently released Richard Donner Cut to the theatrical in many ways. It's not a perfect version of the film, and instead is more of a hint of what could have been had Donner not been fired and replaced after shooting 75% of the sequel. Had he remained on the project, the ending clearly would have been different, so I can forgive that. Donner's cut removes much of the dumber moments with the supervillains and restores Marlon Brando's performance. That alone makes it better.

For instance, in the theatrical cut, we are left to guess at precisely how Superman gets his powers back, a plot hole that bugged me even at the age of five. When he gives them up, he's told in no uncertain terms that the process is irreversible. Yet, all we see is him returning to the Fortress and finding the green crystal. The scene cuts and the next we see of Superman, he's flying through Metropolis like nothing happened.

Not so in Donner's Cut. Observe.

Much more emotionally resonant, no? Superman gets back his powers at the cost of his father's life, essentially. That's missing in the other version, a sacrifice. What's more, it brings full circle the father/son themes that run through the first two films. (And Singer's Superman Returns for that matter.)

I won't bash Richard Lester's theatrical cut entirely, because it gave us what I consider the greatest moment in the history of cinema, bar none, no argument.

Now, I understand being tied so closely to Superman wasn't always a picnic for Reeve. It limited the roles people were willing to accept him in, and like many icons, he fought against being typecast. And then, came that horrible day in 1995 when he was thrown from a horse and paralyzed from the neck down. The narrative that story took wasn't surprising: "Superman paralyzed!" the headlines blared. The frequent news magazine segments on his recovery often introduced their stories with some variation on "He played Superman, and now he's become Superman - having endured a great struggle to give inspiration to many."

What he did in that time was remarkable. He lost all personal privacy, as he relied on a ventilator to breathe - and should it have failed while he was alone, he would have asphyxiated. It's impossible to imagine the hell that results when your body becomes a prison. But he didn't wallow in that. He became an advocate for further research into treatments for paralysis, campaigning tirelessly for stem cell research. He gave a louder voice to people who could not be heard, just as Jerry Siegal and Joe Shuster intended their creation to do back in 1938.

And during that period, he even found time to make a few appearances on the Superman TV series Smallville. I couldn't find the scene online, but this DVD segment on his guest shot is an even more fitting tribute to him in some ways.

Some time after Reeve died, his son released a documentary called Christopher Reeve: Hope in Motion, which featured a trip the two Reeves visiting Israel, which is at the forefront of research into spinal injuries. During that trip, he's taken to meet a young woman at one of the centers. She takes steps towards Reeve under her own power, and remarks that she too had been fully paralyzed, naming her specific injury. (C-2, I believe, but don't quote me.) Reeve is shown saying, with perhaps a hint of wonder in his voice, "That's what I am."

When Superman: The Movie was released, the tagline was "You will believe a man can fly." As a four year-old, I watched Christopher Reeve take to the skies and I believed. In watching that moment in the documentary, I believed that had he lived - he would have walked.

After his death, I donated $10 to the Christopher Reeve Foundation, and received two Superman dog tags as a thank you. Emblazoned with the Superman emblem, the tags also carry a simple message: "Go Forward."

If you're still reading this rambling indulgence, I thank you. Every now and then, I like doing an entry that's just for me. I imagine that tomorrow I'll crack open my DVDs and find the time to watch Superman for the millionth time. It will be my way of paying tribute to the man who embodied a hero we can all look up to, figuratively and literally, and a hero who has been a very significant part of my life. It's as much about mourning Reeve as it is reflecting on what his work contributed to my life.

As Superman's father Jor-El says, "They can be a great people, Kal-El, they wish to be. They only lack the light to show the way. For this reason, above all, their capacity for good... I have sent them you: my only son." Superman and Christopher Reeve both were here for a reason, and I can tell you this - it's not just to sell movie tickets.

I'll leave you with this one last clip - Superman's first appearance saving Lois Lane.


  1. "Though most kids my age felt that Star Wars or Indiana Jones were the greatest movies ever made, for me, Reeve's first two Superman efforts held that spot."


    Those two films are held in a very firm spot in my childhood. I personally never understood all the fuss over Star Wars, a statement that would probably get me crucified in several circles ...

    I just recently managed to download the Salkind 3 hour edits of both Superman 1 and 2 ... man, you wanna talk about nostalgia overload.

    Btw, good call on that "Care to step outside?" clip ... when you isolate it, you're right, it is pretty damn classic.

  2. To be honest the three-hour edit of Superman 1 always felt a little long to me. In the days before DVDs with deleted scenes it was really cool to see all those moments that got cut out, but at times the pacing really drags. Aside from the scene of Superman waiting for the Hackensack missile to reach him, there's nothing interesting here that wasn't put in Donner's expanded cut a few years back.

    I've got the same feeling on the Superman II expanded one. Pre-DVD it was awesome to see all those scenes and it really was a big part of making audiences aware there were a lot of scenes shot by Donner. (I still remember being stunned when I was watching it on ABC at the age of eight and suddenly there were all these new scenes at the end of Superman turning Lex over to the Arctic Patrol and then blowing up his own Fortress.) Still, the pacing is a little rough in spots.

    By the way, if you want to waste a whole lot of time, head over to and immerse yourself in their archives. This site was a major contributor in the campaign to get the Superman II Donner Cut released.

  3. Love this post. For me it was Hunter S. Thompson. The night he offed himself I wept like a baby. Some people just take a part of you when they go. I feel like this year has been the worst, too.