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DC/DOX Review: “Super/Man: The Christopher Reeve Story”

Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | June 15th, 2024

Christopher Reeve in SUPERMAN @Warner Bros.

Super/Man: The Christopher Reeve Story (Ian Bonhôte/Peter Ettedgui, 2024) 5 out of 5 stars

To those of us who grew up in the 1970s and 1980s, actor Christopher Reeve will forever be our Man of Steel. Born in 1952, he was but 26 when the first major studio film with a superhero at its center—the 1978 Superman, directed by Richard Donner—came out, with him in the lead. It instantly made him a movie star, a status he would hold until his death in 2004 at the age of 52. 9 years earlier, a horse-riding accident had left him with a paralyzing spinal-cord injury, unable to move any part of his body below the neck. He may now be 20 years gone, but he is far from forgotten, despite the other iterations of the big-screen Kryptonian since then.

In Super/Man: The Christopher Reeve Story, directors Ian Bonhôte and Peter Ettedgui (Rising Phoenix) dive deeply into Reeve’s life and career, both before and after the tragedy that changed everything. In addition to the copious archival treasures given to them by the late actor’s family, they use an equally vast amount of material from the many films in which he starred, including but not limited to his role as Superman. The recurring motion graphics of a twisted body floating through the cosmos as green Kryptonite-like forms envelop it are also effective. They also bring in Reeve’s own voice, courtesy of the two autobiographical audiobooks he recorded—the 1998 Still Me and the 2002 Nothing Is Impossible—to provide perspective on how he himself felt about everything that had happened to him, good and bad.

Opening night at DC/DOX 2024 at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. The costume on the right is the one Christopher Reeve wore for SUPERMAN IV” THE QUEST FOR PEACE ©Christopher Llewellyn Reed

The result is an intimate and engrossing journey through the humanity of a singular individual, and also a testament to the exemplary people who helped him after 1995, foremost among them his wife, Dana. Jumping around in time, the documentary starts with a New Year’s celebration on December 31, 1994, then to the accident, and then back to 1973, with young Reeve finishing Cornell and enrolling at Juilliard. From there, we follow his professional ups and downs, his romance and children with British modeling executive Gae Exton, his complicated relationship to his divorced parents, his longtime close friendship with fellow actor (and Juilliard roommate) Robin Williams, his eventual meeting with Dana and eventual marriage, and the birth of their son.

Sadly, Dana herself passed away long ago, in 2006, of lung cancer (though she had never smoked), just 18 months after Reeve died. But she is very much front and center here, as are all three of Reeve’s children: the eldest, Matthew, and middle child, Alexandra—both with Exton—and then Will, the youngest. Their testimonies to the joys and heartbreak of seeing their father and stepmother/mother work so hard to help not only themselves, but others, while also creating a loving and welcoming home, make of this movie a true emotional roller coaster, in the best possible sense of the world. It’s a cathartic cry, interspersed with equal amounts of joy at what life can offer even in the midst of hardship.

Alexandra Reeve Givens, daughter of Christopher Reeve, at DC/DOX 2024 Opening Night ©Christopher Llewellyn Reed

I was particularly affected by the moments featuring the children. Reeve was not the most attentive father to Matt and Alex in the 1980s, but his marriage to Dana began a change that would further develop after his paralysis. Will barely remembers the pre-accident dad, though he speaks with much love about the family he lost so young (twice orphaned by his early teens!). The Reeves spent a lot of time and energy advocating not only for themselves, but for others, courtesy of the Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation (originally with only his name in the title, but later amended to reflect Dana’s contributions), with which the kids have been involved ever since, pushing for more research into how to help those with spinal-cord injuries.

Reeve was a complex person and by no means a saint, nor does this film paint him out to be. What it does, instead, is deliver a portrait of resilient courage of the best kind, showing how we all have the capacity to becoming better versions of ourselves even when circumstances seem bleakest. The best kind of superhero is one who leans into frailty and fear and still manages to be brave. In the lovely, poignant Super/Man: The Christopher Reeve Story, we meet many such heroes, none of whom are invincible, but all of them valiant.

l-r: journalist/moderator Audie Cornish, Alexandra Reeve Givens, and SUPER/MA producers Robert Ford and Lizzie Gillett, at DC/DOX 2024 Opening Night ©Christopher Llewellyn Reed

Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator, as well as Film Festival Today's Editor. A member of both the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA), and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, Chris is, in addition, lead film critic at Hammer to Nail and the author of Film Editing: Theory and Practice.

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