One could bend steel from the moment he arrived; the other insisted, over and over, that “nothing is impossible.” One took to the skies heroically and effortlessly; the other was grounded tragically, and battled to stand up again.
The oddly intersecting worlds of an American myth and an American celebrity — Superman and the man who brought him to life for millions of people, Christopher Reeve — reveal how a nation consumed with creating fresh heroes finds its role models.
“Christopher Reeve became a cultural icon himself,” said M. Thomas Inge, a popular culture historian and author of “Comics as Culture.”
American heroes are usually rugged individuals linked to the Horatio Alger archetype — plain folks from humble, often rural beginnings who react gracefully to the hands they are dealt or achieve the impossible against the odds. But Superman was extraordinary from infancy, the survivor of a doomed world, and he didn’t have to overcome any odds. His vulnerability wasn’t self-doubt or human intransigence, but a glowing green rock.
“What else is there left for Superman to do that hasn’t been done?” Reeve said in 1983 after donning the cape for a third movie. But the actor who played the superhero would find a new purpose 12 years, a horse-riding accident and two fractured vertebrae later.
Citizen-soldiers who reveal in the endIn comic books, it’s the Batmans and the Spider-Mans who adhere to the American citizen-soldier notion — reluctant superheroes pressed into service by the murder of parents or the happenstance bite of a radioactive insect. They’re self-doubting and intense — but ultimately they prevail.
Real American life has long coughed up similar, if less melodramatic, hero tales. Abe Lincoln emerged from the Kentucky woods determined to become a statesman. A frail, deaf kid named Thomas Edison willed himself into being a genius inventor. And in the media age, Pfc. Jessica Lynch, a small-town West Virginia girl, returned from her terrifying Iraq hostage ordeal to instant celebrity.
It doesn’t hurt their reputations if they perish before their time. “This thing of being a hero, about the main thing to it is to know when to die,” Will Rogers once said.
Reeve fit that more common mold — someone who had to rebuild from the ground up, whose contributions are forever linked to the hand he was dealt and how he dealt with it. But shaking the backstory of pop-culture heroism that the Superman movies infused in him — “escaping the cape” — was never easy.
“He didn’t really have a choice of how he wanted to portray his ordeal,” said M.G. Dunn, a sociologist at Roanoke College in Virginia.
“A lot of people would expect him to make the connection between someone who is playing a superhero and someone who has to deal with a superhuman tragedy,” Dunn said. “People are going to want to know how Superman feels in this situation.”
Unyielding force of willIt wasn’t just Reeve’s fighting back that captured imaginations, though. It was his unyielding, deeply stubborn attitude that the body could heal with the right therapy and treatment, that things deemed medically impossible could be achieved through force of will.
Not everyone appreciated the approach — some said it raised patients’ expectations cruelly — but the heroic flavor of his quest resonated. He didn’t exactly discourage it, either, with his public advocacy, his paralysis foundation and his intense expressions of determination.
“I want people to know that I kept at it,” he said in 1997.
The blurred lines of heroism and tragedy weren’t new for “Superman.” George Reeves, TV’s Man of Steel in the 1950s, shot himself in the head in 1959. The headlines were less subtle then: “Superman dead.”
The quest for Superman-like heroes shows no sign of abating. A new movie is in the works, and on the Web site for the WB show “Smallville,” mass culture’s latest take on the myth, fans immediately exhorted Tom Welling, who plays the young Clark Kent, to take up the mantle of Reeve, his sometime guest star.
“Tom Welling has now the responsibility to follow the path that he marked,” one fan wrote. And from another: “Tom, you have the torch — take it.”
These days, a decade after DC Comics published a graphic novel called “The Death of Superman,” Clark Kent’s alter ego is still around and more human than ever. He deals with insecurities, failed relationships and his place in the world. He grapples with his dual identity. He wonders whether things would be better off without him.
And a new comics series, “Identity Crisis,” depicts the characters of the DC universe as all too human. In it, Superman, man from Krypton and American hero, even cries.
“Who is a hero?” author Peter H. Gibbon wonders in his 2002 book, “A Call to Heroism: Renewing America’s Vision of Greatness.” To answer his question, he quotes a Russian proverb: “He who hangs on for one minute more.”
That fits Superman throughout his seven-decade history. And, for the eight years until his death Monday, it fit Reeve, too.