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The Essential Geek #30: "Superman"

The Essential Geek #30: "Superman"

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For a Man of Steel, he's a pretty bendable guy.

As such, Superman can be tricky to put a finger on. Writers have grappled with creating his stories for decades, because unlike many other durable fictional characters, he's something of a blank slate. Is he an invulnerable mythic figure whose stories should span galaxies? Is he an extremely whitebread nerd who's constantly chasing whichever pretty girl is currently staffing the Daily Planet? Is he Clark Kent? Is he Kal El?

Who is this Son of Krypton, anyway?

Every fan has their own interpretation of what Superman means, and which Superman they love the best. That's the great gift of Superman in our culture; there are thousands of stories on the pages of comic books to go back and discover. In them, you'll discover countless interpretations of the charcter.

I love comics, and I enjoy Superman comics a lot, but for me and millions of others, Superman will always be Christopher Reeve, and the Superman I know and love will be the hero of the 1978 film.

Overall, it's not an easy pill to swallow, that blockbuster "Superman." There are whole sections of it that work, and irritating moments that grate. Gene Hackman could have been a legendary Lex Luthor...had he not been saddled with the buffoonery of Ned Beatty and the cliched ditziness of Valerie Perrine. Lois Lane's interior monologue during her nighttime flight with Superman is laughably bad; I'm always stunned each time I see it at just how terrible it still is. And the reverse-spin of the earth that allows Supes to save Lois by sending the planet back in time is just crazy enough to annoy. After all, if he can reverse time whenever he wants, WHY DOESN'T HE DO THAT EVERY TIME SOMETHING MAJOR HAPPENS AND HE CAN'T SAVE EVERYONE????

Tosh to all that. The beacon of greatness in "Superman" isn't Hackman, or hackneyed dialogue, or even the then-cutting-edge FX (which still holds up, by the way). It's all about the titular Superman, and thus, it's all about Reeve.

What's amazing about the performance is that it is bold, and yet it works because of its lack of boldness. Reeve didn't give us a Superman with a Christ complex, a god-like man among weak humans who constantly questions his place in the world. He didn't give us a senseless cartoon of Truth, Justice and the American Way. Reeve offered a simple Superman, a person super but still man, who learns quickly to deal with his powers and knows instinctively to use them for upholding the good.

His Clark Kent is a put-on, but then, so is his Superman; as Reeve brought him to life, the truth of the character rested somewhere between the two extremes. And yet, there's no conflict in Superman's mind, or Clark's mind. He never wonders if he really is Clark, or if he really is Superman. He's just both of them, and they're both him.

In the simplicity of Reeve's Superman, we could all somehow see ourselves in this hyperreal character. That's how it feels in my favorite scene from "Superman," the rooftop exchange between Superman and Lois. He's confident, but not cocky. Sexy, but not aggressive. He's honest, forthright, and manages to flirt up a storm.

It's always struck me that Reeve played the scene as though this guy is just so confident in himself and his powers that he can get away with anything...but he doesn't. It's an idea of what any one of us would like to think we'd do if graced with Superman's powers and put into the presence of a beautiful woman in lingerie. He's gracious, kind, polite...but there's sex in his mind. It's such a fun scene, a complex dance, and Reeve and co-star Margot Kidder make it look easy.

"You will believe a man can fly." That was the tagline from "Superman," and it's true; after watching it, we had full faith in Superman as a character. But it wasn't because of Superman. It was because of Reeve. We believed in the MAN, and thus we followed him wherever he went, whether it was the sky or the Daily Planet offices or a wheat field in Kansas. Reeve made us believe in him as Superman, and that's something that will never be forgotten, as long as there are movie fans and geeks to remember it.

Matt Springer has been writing professionally about genre entertainment for the past five years and has worked full-time for such publications as the Official Buffy the Vampire Slayer Magazine, Cinescape, and Total Movie. He co-edits the genre criticism website Entertainment Geekly (http://www.entertainment-geekly.com). His first novel, Unconventional, is the tale of three geeks who spend a life-altering weekend at a convention; buy it online at South Side Press (http://www.southsidepress.net). He's currently working to become a sitcom writer.

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