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October 11, 2004


Christopher Reeve 1952-2004

Christopher Reeve, the actor who played Superman in a series of movies from Warner Brothers in the 1970s and 1980s, died Sunday in New York after spending a day in a coma. Reeve had been paralyzed by a horse riding accident in 1995, and had been best known in recent years for his almost excruciatingly public struggle to walk again. imageReeve's ubiquity on talk shows, awards show, and television news magazines derived from the poignant irony of his physical situation: Superman in a wheelchair. He seemed to bear the indignities of both that circumstance and the hungry spotlight it threw on his personal life with a significant amount of aplomb, continuing to work when and where he could and fighting in recent months for research that could one day improve his condition and the condition of those similarly afflicted. He was even name-dropped for those efforts in a presidential debate two days before his passing.

Reeve's portrayal of Superman in the 1978 Richard Donner-directed film, and to a lesser extent in its sequels, had a definite if hard to measure effect on American comics. Reeve was almost miraculously good in the thankless role, something that becomes more apparent as the then-lauded special effects fade against a background of subsequent decades' worth of more sophisticated digital effects work. Reeve moved really well. He looked tall and confident in the Superman outfit instead of ludicrous, no small feat. He seemed appropriately doughy and ignorable as Clark Kent. Reeve nailed the physicality of the Superman/Clark Kent secret identity dichotomy so well it somehow didn't seem totally ridiculous that no one at the Daily Planet newsroom figured out the truth -- something that never should have worked better on film than in a comic book. In a curious inversion of a typical guy/girl movie relationship, Reeve's underplayed attentiveness propped up Margot Kidder's slightly frightening Lois Lane. Reeve leavened his performance with as much old-fashioned movie star charm as anyone could muster by the late 1970s, letting the audience in on the bouncy comedy that makes up a large part of the concept's core appeal. Somehow the role transformed a blandly handsome, solid yet somewhat boring actor into someone you'd think had years ahead of him playing top-notch romantic comedy and character dramas. It's impossible to imagine anyone else in those particular movies at those particular times.

Reeve's acting success and the undeniable hit status of the first film breathed new life into the Superman license, perhaps giving comics creators false hope that there was more than a few hours worth of story playing the Last Son of Krypton concept as a straight adventure over the fantastic and still fun-to-read oddness of the 1950s and 1960s. The success of the films also made a place for future superheroes movies that exude naive reverence as opposed to the knowing self-mockery of the Batman TV show. As the most important of the post-Star Wars film vehicles, it gave the superheroes a seat at the potential blockbuster table long after they stopped deserving one. The release of Superman, and the desire of its makers to have a smooth publicity season preceding its debut, also played a crucial role in helping Neal Adams and Jerry Robinson secure certain rights for Superman creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster.

As usual, a decent obituary can be found at the New York Times (registration required). Of the early major media pieces, I like the one at ABC News. Mark Evanier gives his succinct impression of Reeve as a show business figure here. For a fan's reaction followed by the certain horrors of a large message-board style geek community sound-off, your go-to guy as usual is good ol' Harry Knowles.
 
posted 9:06 am PST | Permalink
 

 
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