Super/Man: The Christopher Reeve Story (2024)

Super/Man: The Christopher Reeve Story Review

Super/Man: The Christopher Reeve Story (2024)

Christopher Reeve is the best comic book superhero in movie history. His life after that was tragic but it became a parable.

We look upon famous actors as examples and this often means interpreting their personal lives as soap opera or projection or aspiration. But Christopher Reeve’s story, at least for me, always felt different. It became a parable. And part of that has to do with the fact that he actually was Superman and I don’t mean because he played Superman. For some people, he merged with that role in a way that was extraordinary. Having spent now nearly half a century with these movies, we understand what Reeve’s Man of Steel represented: the chiseled handsome-hawk profile, the fleet muscularity, the helmet of black hair with its forehead curl exactly so, the true-blue nobility of his eyes Reeve remains the only actor I’ve ever seen play a superhero who seemed like an authentic pop god from another realm of color and line brought to life on Earth by Roy Lichtenstein.

It was partly because Reeve’s Superman had attained such indelible Hollywood-mythological status that what happened to him on May 27, 1995 came to seem singular in its devastation. As everyone knows, Reeve was thrown from a horse during an equestrian competition and landed on his neck; he woke up paralyzed from the shoulders down. There was no cosmic haunting tragic irony about him being Superman (or anyone else) disabled; it insulted nothing whatsoever about Christopher Reeve or anybody else to observe that there seemed something cosmically hauntingly ironically tragically wrong about this having befallen Superman (I believe everybody everywhere did feel and react exactly this way).

“Super/Man: The Christopher Reeve Story” is a powerful moving beautiful documentary about his life which naturally ends up being primarily focused around his accident and its aftermaths (he died in 2004). We hear him talk intimately frankly about waking up conscious after breaking his neck, the first days and weeks afterward when it was all still so unreal and nightmare-like he could only gradually wake up from it. “I realized,” Reeve says, “that I had ruined my life and everybody else’s.” What happened to Christopher Reeve was so incredibly awful that I think not just to myself but probably most people who knew of him or loved him or cared about anything in this world at all what went down with Chris is like living your own personal private version of Job. The accident became an ultimate trial of faith, and as “Super/Man” shows us ultimately restored then enlarged that very faith too.

We know the story of Reeve’s “Super/Man” going in (or more than that, if you read his 1998 autobiography, “Still Me”). But the devil is in the details, and this documentary fills out his life with a gripping fullness. We learn how troubled he was, growing up in two families that left him feeling lost and dealing with an unloving father who despised popular culture (he was a poet, novelist and literary scholar) a man Reeve could never please. We see him at Juilliard starting in 1973 the year he turned 21 where he studied to be a stage actor and became friends with Robin Williams. “Superman” was shot (simultaneously with “Superman II”) in ’77 and ’78, and Jeff Daniels tells a great story about how he was backstage with several actors, including Reeve and William Hurt, as they were getting ready for an Off Broadway performance when Reeve casually mentioned that he was going to be flying off to London to audition for a movie. When he told them it was “Superman,” Hurt said: “Don’t go! Don’t go! Don’t go! You’re going to sell out!”

There were many actors considered for Superman (Arnold Schwarzenegger wanted it; so did Neil Diamond), but Reeve flew over on a Sunday, auditioned on Monday and knew he’d gotten the part by the time he flew back on Tuesday.

Another juicy (if in this case terrible) story: When Christopher’s father learned that his son had been cast as Superman It wasn’t until later that night when Christopher called back home from London that he learned of their very different perspectives. His father wanted toast his success: He thought Christopher had just been cast as Superman Shaw in George Bernard Shaw’s play “Man and Superman.”

A lot of people thought Superman would be a joke of a movie (sorry, but I still think the Lex Luthor parts are), and possibly a flop. What even the wildest optimists could not have predicted was that Christopher Reeve would be nothing less than great in it. His bumbling Clark Kent, with his glasses-nudging double takes, was an exquisite screwball-comedy creation; and his Superman zipped through the skies with sublime aerodynamic sexiness.

“Super/Man,” which draws on archival footage all terrifically edited by Otto Burnham, gives us a fascinating inside glimpse of how the movie got made (when Reeve asked Hackman if he wanted to rehearse, Hackman gave him a look of utter befuddlement), and what it was like for Reeve after it opened people thought he was a rock-star deity. He was charming on talk shows, and he did movies lots of them but almost none of them connected. He wasn’t a bad actor, but there was something about his looks (or maybe they just limited him) they were too much those of a living statue.

(I always liked him in “Deathtrap,” where his fast-talking glibness played off against the physique.) The film charts his 10-year relationship with Gae Exton, the British modeling executive who became pregnant with their first child during “Superman” and had another by ’84; though they never married, she put up with him at home in England when he was out of work there. It was Reeve who ended that relationship Yet he met Dana Morosini now less than six months later, she’s described as a singer actress model dancer businesswoman international traveler comic genius whip smart sexy as hell and then somebody who knew how to keep a secret until it was time to spring the next surprise, and I’ll tell ya what: She must have been all that because the depth of love in their marriage is the most moving element of the movie.

(Also: There’s a great moment when Reeve recalls how, as a young theater student, he was sitting in his apartment watching “Superman” on TV and said to himself: “I could do that.”)

The universe sure does have a weird sense of humor. Reeve just played a disabled cop in “Above Suspicion,” an HBO crime thriller that premiered six days before his accident. The movie makes clear that Reeve was an inveterate jock, always on the move: sailing, skiing, racing cars and bikes, flying planes (he twice crossed the Atlantic as pilot). And it was a fluke. We see the footage. The horse wasn’t running very fast, but just before it’s supposed to jump over a steeplechase fence, it stops cold and Reeve is thrown. As one of his adult sons describes it in the movie, if he’d landed on his neck an inch higher, he would be dead; if he’d landed an inch lower, he would’ve walked away with barely a bruise.

But for whatever reason God testing him; fate singling him out; science providing us all with a demonstration of how vulnerable we are Reeve spent the rest of his life in a wheelchair with a respirator. It’s an incredible story of how he came back from this cataclysm. learning to breathe again and talk again and more than that too. Early on, as he’s starting to come out of his torpor, Dana looks at him lying there and says, “You’re still you and I love you.” Anybody in the audience who can hear that without tearing up has got more steel in them than Man of Steel. He was still himself indeed as the film shows us over its two hours (and 45 minutes), becoming perhaps even more so but there is also this other thing that happened to him now too which resulted in Reeve’s spending half his waking hours sitting down strapped into something.

He became one more person who needed help going from place A to place B, needed help getting dressed every morning; needed somebody else not only to empty the bedpan but also to want to because she loves him. Still, though, Super/Man of all time he remains: Somebody get him back into space and give him his powers back, there’s so much more he could do. “There are many people who are living in bodies that don’t work,” Reeve says, quoting what I believe was a paralyzed friend. “I’m just one of them.” And so The movie shows us how he begins using that incredible will of his that same force-of-nature will that made him a Hollywood star when he was 25 years old (cast as Superman against Henry Fielding) in order not only to keep himself alive physically, which is no problem thanks to the doctors and nurses at Kessler Institute for Rehabilitation in New Jersey where we have relocated now from Saddle River home, but also mentally.

He is reborn as advocate for others who cannot walk, their champion if you like. In doing this work Reeves comes off his superhero pedestal down here with rest us mere mortals where it turns out everybody can be hero even those among us still invulnerable. There were few things wrong with me before seeing film but now after watching am left feeling both inspired AND angry mostly just at myself though for not having done anything great yet!

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