Op/Ed: Reeve's Superman is the BEST Comic Movie Performance

 

Among comic book enthusiasts, it is a truth practically universally acknowledged that Christopher Reeve as Superman was one of the best performances of all time in a comic book movie.

But I beg to differ.

In my opinion, Christopher Reeve as Superman ranks as the best performance in a comic book movie.

Ever.

Obviously, at least one person at Newsarama disagrees with me. And that's his prerogative, I suppose. [Newsarama note: Newsarama founder and senior editor Michael Doran authored that passage and made the decision for its inclusion.]

 

But in my opinion, any simple dismissal of Chris Reeve's acting skills blatantly ignores the complexity and nuance of his performance — a portrayal of Superman that not only made the actor a household name, but  transformed him into Superman for a whole generation.

I know those are big words — an actor "transformed" into his character. But with Reeve, it's so true that it makes this argument more difficult. Reeve's near-embodiment of the mythological Superman actually makes it easy to ignore his acting skills.

He so established the character of Superman that we forgot an important fact — this isn't necessarily the way Superman is; this is just the way a human actor named Christopher Reeve played him. His portrayal is so entrenched in our mind's image of the icon that we have a tough time recognizing that this was acting.

 

Yes, Superman always puts his hands on his hips and lets bullets bounce off his chest. But Reeve's portrayal added more dimension to the hero by giving him a calm confidence, choosing to be a Superman who often wears an understanding smile and possesses an unspoken (yet remarkably apparent) intelligence behind his eyes.

Reeve's embodiment of Superman was so good, in fact, that it has created a problem for comic writers who want to portray the character in a different way. You want to write a Superman who's arrogant? Sorry, but Reeve's understated gentleness established that Superman is humble. You want to drop the klutz act from Clark Kent's disguise? That's going to be tough, because Reeve literally transformed himself on screen to play that part of the character to perfection.

And that brings up another accomplishment that's easily overlooked: Christopher Reeve the actor didn't just embody Superman. He embodied Smallville boy-turned-mild-mannered reporter Clark Kent.

 

Yes, it's true that this Clark Kent utilized "bumbling clumsiness" to disguise himself (with our favorite example being the mugging scene where Lois is clueless that Clark just saved her life).

Reeve's ability to act clumsy is often cited by reviewers as his greatest acting achievement in Superman, and it's easy to understand why. A ridiculously good-looking and muscle-covered Reeve — with a heroic 6'4" frame and chiseled features — was able to literally transform himself into a Clark who was not only fumbling, but physically small and near-invisible. His calm Superman smile changed into a crooked, small town grin under a pair of wide eyes. He altered his voice, his shoulders, his entire persona as he "acted" the part for Lois and Jimmy on screen.

But what most people miss is that Reeve's real genius lies deeper: Despite the mask Clark Kent wore within the movie, the actor was able to show film audiences another Clark Kent inside the man.

 

"The thing that's fun for me as an actor," Reeve once said, "in terms of going back to who I think Superman is, is that he's three people at the same time. He's Superman, who he has learned to be through instructions from his father; he's Clark Kent, which is a very deliberately invented disguise to mask his true identity; and then he's the person underneath the two characters, when he's neither Superman nor Clark Kent."

From the understated embarrassment during his conversation with Lois on the rooftop to his struggle with her death, we could see the pain behind his eyes, and we could see his love for Lois — even when she couldn't. The aforementioned mugging scene even has this multitude of communication in Chris Reeve's portrayal. He "acts" afraid for Lois, portrays Superman's confidence, but also shows the concern from the Clark within. And therein lies Chris Reeve's brilliance.

With Superman, Reeve and director Richard Donner arguably established the format for the modern superhero film. And it's been established that the movie influenced today's comic book filmmakers.

 

Thanks to their trailblazing, there have also been a ton of great comic book movie acting performances since. And some are mind-bogglingly good. When I say Chris Reeve was the best of all time, I don't mean to overlook the amazing character portrayals by actors like Heath Ledger, Hugh Jackman and Tom Hiddleston.

Yet comparing their task with Reeve's has to take into consideration that this is an uneven playing field. While I know these more recent actors each did a fantastic job, they were playing characters that were, for lack of a better term, "juicy roles." Yes, the actors made those characters their own, but with villains and anti-heroes and other more modernized characters, the starting point already carries a high level of excitement.

 

Reeve was instead tasked with playing a hero that DC Comics has often struggled to make interesting, and he was doing it for a PG audience that had a much lower tolerance for norm-breaking. Donner's film still had Superman acting like a goody-two-shoes. Reeve's portrayal still respected everything about the character that some fans like to call "boring."  Yet Reeve not only made the character one that audiences found interesting enough to inspire three sequels, but he portrayed a Superman that was downright beloved in American culture. It's an achievement that stands above all others, and it's even more impressive because it came first.

I recently heard a movie actor confronted by a reporter who said he should fear being "typecast" because of a high-profile role. But the actor answered that if moviegoers could see him as nothing else except the character he portrayed in that blockbuster franchise, it's not necessarily a bad thing. It means the actor was doing his job.

In my opinion, in the case of Christopher Reeve as Superman, the actor was really doing his job. And he did it better than anybody before or since.

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