Christopher Reeve Still Soars, by Alan Kistler
It’s been a rough week and I needed something to make me feel good about the world.
This past monday was the last day this year they were doing the Bryant Park movie. For you non-New Yorkers, HBO has sponsored movie screenings every Monday evening for the past 16 years during the summer, projecting films on a large screen at the edge of the Bryant Park. People gather with blankets and picnic baskets for when the lawn opens at 5 PM, and within 10 minutes there is an audience of well over 1000 people, all waiting for sunset when the movie begins.
This last week, it was Superman: The Movie (the director’s cut, specifically) with Christopher Reeve, Marlon Brando, Margot Kidder and Gene Hackman. I needed this and so I got a couple friends together to join me in the park. Some of us, myself included, were born after this film came out in theaters. Lucky for us, though, we still had the opportunity to see Superman: The Movie in something approaching that big-screen environment this week — because I’m quite certain that you haven’t truly experienced this film unless you see it on a massive widescreen surrounded by an enormous crowd. You can literally feel the electricity in the air that surges from a nearby person becoming a new fan.
When the "S"-shield blazed across the screen and the John Williams theme soared from the speakers, over 1000 people roared and cheered and applauded. When Clark Kent donned the costume for the first time, again, the entire park was filled with cheers and screams and shouts of "YEAH, CLARK!" It was like the moment in a sports game when your team makes an incredible play and you feel the joy of everyone around you. We laughed at Hackman’s sarcasm, we sighed at Lois and Clark’s flight over the clouds, and again, cheered our hearts out when Superman saved the day in the end and said "We’re all on the same team."
It could have very easily been done as something campy and for the kids. It was not. Superman is a family film in the best sense of the word. Like Willy Wonka, it is a movie that can be enjoyed by kids as well as adults. No, there’s no cursing in it and some people today might say that’s "not realistic" but honestly, does cursing and blatant sex immediately make a movie more realistic and worthy in our eyes? Seems silly to think so. And there’s indeed a sprinkling of adult humor, such as when Lois makes the Freudian slip of asking Superman "How big are you — How TALL are you?"
Yes, maybe some of it drags. Sure Hackman’s scenes are cheesy and don’t stand up as well today, but look at the film as a whole. How can you not smile just watching it? And director Richard Donner should also be given a lot of credit for remembering what some writers forget. Superman’s coolest power? Not heat-vision or strength or speed. He can fly! Whether you think of him as a guy from a cape or, as Mark Waid once put it to me, "an angel come to save us," please realize just how strange and wonderful it is to see a man fly.
Most of all though, it wasn’t the spectacle that captured us. It was the man. Christopher Reeve’s performance has always been magical to me. At no point does he tells Lois, "I love you" in the film. He doesn’t have to. You can see it on his face. And in both identities of Clark Kent and Superman, he wins you over by the sheer fact that he’s completely honest in everything he says.
When he’s in his reporter role, he reminds us of Jimmy Stewart from Harvey, a person who’s perhaps just too friendly and kind-hearted for his own good. He’s a bit clumsy, more withdrawn and less confrontational than Superman. But he isn’t in any way inept or weak, as proven when he puts himself in-between Lois and a mugger and also by the fact that he asks Lois out for a date so quickly after meeting her for the first time. He’s no coward, simply "mild-mannered" and we wouldn’t mind having him for a friend.
And when Reeve dons the costume, that openness and honesty remains. There isn’t a hint of any self-righteousness or pompousness. He doesn’t raise his voice as if he’s pontificating. And he is the only one who can get away with hokey jokes like "I never drink when I fly."
In an interview, Christopher Reeve said that he decided to downplay the character rather than over-act, preferring to "let the costume do most of the work" and what an ingenious decision that was. We are forced to take Superman seriously because there is nothing about him that seems comical or overdone.After a few minutes, you forget the silly outfit he’s wearing, he just seems so comfortable and natural as if he were wearing a t-shirt and jeans. George Reeves, Kirk Alyn and Dean Cain all adjusted their hair and tried to slump a bit, but their mannerisms and voice were pretty much the same in both identities. There was no real disguise there.
But watch Christopher Reeve. Just like it’s supposed to be in the comics, Superman and Clark have different mannerisms, body language, posture and voices. The best piece of physical acting is when he is standing in Lois’ apartment as Clark Kent, ready to take her out on a date. She steps into the bathroom for half a minute and you get to see the transformation happen right there. He doesnt’ change into his costume. He doesn’t have to. He simply stands up, pushes his chest out, changes his posture, his expression, his stance, takes off his glasses … and suddenly he’s Superman. He was able to make us believe the disguise could work, just like that. I actually heard several gasps in the audience and then the entire place applauded that one, wonderful example of acting. The movie was good, but Reeve made it great.
And the frankness and deep feeling Reeve broadcasts with every line tells you how well he understood the core of the character. Superman’s not a naive boy scout nor is he perfect. He feels isolated and alone at times and he is forced to question his limits, how much should he help and how much should he let humans do for themselves. And he is driven to inspire us as much as possible, not only due to his Kansas upbringing but becuase of his tragic alien heritage. His planet was destroyed because of vanity, because the people in charge would not discuss hard questions or face uncomfortable facts. In the comics, it has been said that space travel from Krypton became forbidden because they would not trust people who were not their own and thus there were no ships already constructed for Jor-El and his family to escape to. Vanity and prejudice led to Superman’s race becoming extinct and so he’s here to tell us that he thinks we can be better than that.
We have to be.
"Why are you? … I mean, why are you here? There must be a reason."
"Yes. I’m here to fight for truth, justice and the American way."
And you believe him. You absolutely believe him.
With all the darkness that seems to be increasing around us at times, it’s good to remember a character like that. Because that attitude, that ideal, it isn’t just fantasy. If it were, no one would be reading Superman comics today.
The world can be a better place than we sometimes think it is. It just takes super-heroes like Kal-El and performers like Christopher Reeve to remind us of that sometimes.
Cheers to you all.
Alan Kistler once tried changing into his own superhero costume while in a public phone booth. What followed afterward is a matter of public record. He has been recognized by Warner Bros. Pictures and mainstream media outlets such as the New York Daily News as a comic book historian, and can be seen in the "Special Features" sections of the Adventures of Aquaman and Justice League: New Frontier DVDs. His personal website can be found at: KistlerUniverse.com.