On the 10th anniversary since the sad passing of Christopher Reeve (yes, it’s been that long: October 10th specifically), I thought it a fitting moment to re-assert why Reeve remains the definitive Superman.
And it isn’t simply nostalgia from the fact that Reeve was Superman when I was a kid; although I do have nostalgia for those first three Superman movies (note, not the fourth so much). To my mind, Reeve simply IS Superman.
Even when I occasionally read Superman comics (and even when I read them more regularly as a child), it was Reeve who’s voice I was hearing in every speech bubble. In this age of mega-budget superhero cinema, lightning-fast turnaround, matter-of-course re-booting and re-casting, it’s no small feat that an actor can still have such a hold on the legacy of so big a character/franchise after so much time.
The actual fact is that my ability to take in new Superman incarnations is highly compromised by the great shadow the late Christopher Reeve still casts; essentially I’m not sure he can be followed. Two attempted rebootings of the Superman film franchise have been met with mixed receptions; Superman Returns, with Brandon Routh’s stepping into cape and suit of the Man of Steel, fell flat and found few fans, while the more recent and much larger-scale Man of Steel, though considered a much better film, was met with varied levels of enthusiasm. Some are happy with Henry Kavill’s portrayal of Superman; but at no point have I heard it suggested that Christopher Reeve’s classic portrayal of Superman over four films in the eighties is in any danger of being eclipsed (and don’t bother even mentioning Dean Cain).
As far as cinematic interpretation of the Superman legend goes, Reeve’s version seems pretty much unassailable as the definitive portrayal. Whether that’s because of on-screen likeability or something more complex, I’m not sure; one key thing is that I think Reeve nailed the Clark Kent side of the role in a way that his successors haven’t even remotely managed to do – and Clark Kent is essentially half of the role. Reeve once said he’d based his take on Clark Kent on Cary Grant’s performance in Bringing Up Baby.
A lot of it of course is down to how those scripts were written and those films directed, the tone and style of them, which informed Reeve’s performances. In keeping with the era in which those movies were made, the films aimed more for the family-friendly likeability tone and not the darker, more adult tone of 21st century superhero adaptations. Those movies in that style wouldn’t work now of course, but were a product of their time. They still remain, however, among the better half of comic-book film adaptations ever made; I can still happily watch those films – Superman 2 in particular – and a central part of that appeal is of course Christopher Reeve’s Superman.
It’s unlikely that any current or future casting will present any real challenge to Christopher Reeve’s handle on the Man of Steel’s mantle; which doesn’t particularly bode well for Dawn of Justice or any subsequent Superman projects. It’s essentially the same problem as ever having to follow up Robert Downey Jnr’s Iron Man or Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine; both examples of actors who have utterly defined the characters they’ve come to portray and will be near-impossible to replace.
Not that Christopher Reeve’s life was all about Superman; but it is certainly what he is most popularly associated with. And among other tributes that could be paid to the late actor, activist and charity campaigner, a major one is the fact that even in this modern superhero-heavy age of cinema he is still the definitive face of so iconic a pop-culture figure as Superman, despite those films being 30-plus years old by now.
They could be coming up with Superman reboots for the next several decades and not find a suitable replacement for Christopher Reeve.