I’m wearing black today—or at least as close to black as my wardrobe can manage (which is navy pants and a black T-shirt with the “NewEgg.com” logo in silver on it). I don’t do that for most celebrity deaths. But this time it was one of my personal heroes who died. Christopher Reeve is dead at 52.
As I got out of bed and stumbled into the living room to check my email, my web browser was pointed at websnark.com, so I hit refresh…and so the news (and Eric Burns’s fitting elegy) was literally the first thing I saw when I came in to the computer this morning. What a way to wake up.
I’m going to be a bit of a heretic and come right out and say that I didn’t really like the Superman movies all that much; the recent Superman cartoon series have been much better in terms of their treatment of the mythos. The first movie was decent, but it suffered a bit too much from “movie-itis”. Lex Luthor wasn’t properly menacing; he was incompetent. Heck, he wasn’t even bald until the very last scene in the movie. (My guess would be that Gene Hackman didn’t want to have to shave his head or go through bald wig makeup every day, so in order to get him they humored him.) Margot Kidder was terribly annoying. The movie’s pacing was horrible, as it spent way too much time on Clark Kent’s early life (though, ironically, that was probably my favorite part of the movie) and that slowed down the entire first half. Perhaps worst of all, there was an unused “Chekhov’s gun”: after the Fortress of Solitude advisors spent so much time telling Superman that messing with time was a Bad Thing, Superman went ahead and did it anyway (in a way that made no sense—making the world turn backward turns back time? What?)…and nothing bad happened. All that build-up…to nothing.
The second movie got a lot of critical acclaim for being better than the first; I didn’t like it as much but that’s a matter of opinion. Anyway, they should have stopped there.
Still and all, Christopher Reeve was just such a good Superman that I could almost forget all that. It seemed like he really “got” the character, and he had such good chemistry with Kidder that I could even forgive Kidder’s annoyingness (for a while, anyway). But that’s not why he was my hero.
Christopher Reeve was my hero because of what he did outside the movies. One day, he had a terrible accident, which resulted in that which most of us can only have nightmares about—total paralysis. Complete inertia from the neck down. That has to be one of the most horrible things you can ever have happen short of dying—because you’re going to live the rest of your life as just a head, attached to a lump of meat that might as well be dead. It horrifies me every time I think about it; if that ever happened to me, I think I’d be seriously considering asking them to pull the plug.
But Christopher Reeve absolutely refused to let that get him down. He insisted he was going to walk again—and then he got the doctors together and started getting on with it. He kept spinal cord injuries in the public eye, he got attention and funding for research…if, someday, spinal cord injuries can be repaired or bypassed and paralyzed people start to walk again, they will have Christopher Reeve to thank for it. The man never stopped, never gave up…oh, I’m sure he must have had bad days, just like all the rest of us, but he kept on plugging away at it with the sort of superhuman determination that characterized his most famous on-screen role. Imagine that…the reason he “got” the role of Superman was that he shared many of Superman’s moral qualities. Far too often, our idols have feet of clay. Reeve, after the accident, had a whole body that might as well have been clay, but he was far more of a superman than he had ever been on the screen. And he even found time to appear on the screen again, as well—having a recurring guest role in Smallville, and appearing in a remake of the Alfred Hitchcock movie Rear Window.
I gather Reeve was actually making progress on the walking front, too. I fully believe that if he hadn’t gotten that infection, he would have made it to his feet again in a few more years. I wish so much that he had. I wish I could have met the man, just once, to tell him what an inspiration he has been to me. Such courage in the face of total adversity is rare in this world—and I think that’s what Mark Waid & Alex Ross must have really meant when they dedicated Kingdom Come to Christopher Reeve, “who makes us believe that a man can fly.”
Even living in a body that he could not move, Christopher Reeve flew higher than most of the rest of us can ever dream of doing.