Tuesday, October 12, 2004

Christopher Reeve, R.I.P. : Remembering a Super Man

There's an old saying out there: you eventually become what you pretend to be. And that truism certainly holds true in Christopher Reeve's case.

Anyone who's seen Superman (1978) and its immediate sequel (we can gloss over 3 and 4 for these purposes) knows and understands. Christopher Reeve is Superman. He embodied the comic book hero far better than George Reeves did in the 1950's, setting a standard that Dean Cain, for all his TV hipness, could never meet.

When Reeve was paralyzed in 1995, his determination to heal himself made him unique among the string of celebrity advocates that haunt our media landscape today. There were other stars who suffered from debilitations -- John Wayne with cancer, Yul Brynner with emphysema. But they usually confined their activities to public service ads. But Reeve offered himself as a living experiment for ground-breaking treatments, used his name recognition to lobby for cutting-edge research, and achieved a success both personally and professionally than no one could have foreseen.

Why? He probably would have denied the idea, but I say because of Superman.

Understand something about the character: created in the middle of the Great Depression by two teenagers in Cleveland; given powers to do things that men could only dream of, protecting the public by catching bad guys and rendering their superior firepower useless. Clark Kent didn't use his powers to make himself a ruler or king; he used them to help the victims of injustice, fought on behalf of the little guy, John Q. Public. The writers and artists who handled him for DC Comics over the next 70 years may have stumbled a bit along the way, but none of them have ever forgotten: Superman is a symbol of hope.

And Christopher Reeve understood this.

If Reeve had given in to his initial despair, believing that his life was over, it would have meant that Superman was just a movie role, the way it was for George Reeves before his tragic death. But Reeve embodied Superman for his generation, and his children's. And he understood that Superman's battle would always be never-ending; Superman might lose a skirmish because of kryptonite, but he'd never give up.

And neither did Reeve.

Would Reeve's post-paralysis activity have been as meaningful if his breakout role were, say, Indiana Jones? or Forrest Gump? Or the new James Bond? Or even Rambo? I seriously doubt it. Reeve's activity had meaning precisely because his most famous role was that of a being with powers beyond those of mortal men. Reeve's determination, his open-mindedness to new theories and treatments, his drive to advocacy, are exactly the virtues the American public expects of a classic super-hero.

Reeve's personal battle ended October 9th. But I think everyone agrees, he did the cape honor while he wore it -- and after he hung it up.

Rest in peace, Superman.