This morning I had breakfast, went to the bathroom, got dressed, turned on the computer, and read the news. Morning routine.
I read the headline: “Superman Dies!” and thought, “What, again?” I clicked on the article, and discovered that they were talking about Christopher Reeve, who died on Sunday, October 10, 2004.
As I write this, I’ve got the score from the first Superman movie running in my CD player. Again. I’ve got it on repeat. I never met Christopher Reeve, but somehow his passing saddens me very much. At least as much as the news of his accident, back in 1995. Why is it that, somehow, whatever happens to Christopher Reeve affects a great number of people more than it logically should?
Flashback. It’s 1977. A teenage boy stands in front of a cinema. It’s about 10 am on a Friday morning. The boy skipped school to be here at this moment, the first showing of what he expects will become his favorite movie. He wears a self-made Superman costume under his regular clothes. It was the first time he ever did any of this. Imagine his disappointment when the person at the box office tells him that the movie was delayed a week.
A week later, though not at the first showing, the boy does believe a man can fly. Even more, the actor playing the part of Clark Kent and Superman is so good, the boy even believes that a pair of eyeglasses make an effective disguise. Watching the movie again and again, the boy believes it even once he reaches adulthood. The difference is that the adult is quite aware that the latter is at least as relevant as the former.
Christopher Reeve was a phenomenally talented actor, who should have been far more of a household name than he was. Whatever he tried, though, people kept seeing him in the part that did make him famous. They kept calling him Superman. Which he was, make no mistake about it. Christopher Reeve took the part and made it his own. His presentation of this cultural icon was so, well, iconic that every other Superman actor past, present and future will be measured against it. And probably fall short.
It wasn’t until after his accident that he actually earned the appellation, though. When he became paralyzed, the media used the Superman name. Partly as an informative shorthand to help their readers identify the actor by his best-beloved role, partly because they seemed to find it amusing that a man who once played someone invulnerable could turn out to be so vulnerable after all.
In the following years, however, Christopher Reeve shamed them. He refused to give in to his fate, he decided to fight it. “I will walk again,” he insisted, and people believed him. In his tragedy, Christopher Reeve found a new, a deeper meaning in life than he had previously. He fought to help those who suffered as much as he did, using his celebrity status to gain more media attention and donations for the cause than the cause had ever gotten before. He was the man who would not give in, who would not give up. The media that had originally mocked him by calling him Superman kept calling him that, but soon it would be out of respect. Christopher Reeve taught us what heroism really is. Heroism isn’t flying around in a red cape and beating up bald men. Heroism is never giving up, never mind what.
Christopher Reeve found a new meaning in something that most of us would probably consider a fate worse than death. While he seemed to accept his fate as something that affected him, he appeared confident that in time he could beat it. His iron will, his supreme confidence, are his legacy to his fans. In tragedy, he became what he had previously only played: a larger-than-life Man of Steel who is an example and an inspiration to us all.
That is his legacy. If we accept it, he will never truly be gone.
Good bye, Mr. Reeve. You will be missed.
Jens H. Altmann is a German writer who has written in almost all media, and a variety of genres. His comic Berserker: The Wild Hunt will be available in 2004 from Studio Underhill.