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Mourning the Man of Steel

The best tribute we could pay to the late Christopher Reeve is to champion medical science.

Sandy Starr

Topics Science & Tech

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The death of Christopher Reeve – American actor and medical research campaigner – is a sad loss. But it is instructive to separate Reeve’s career and achievements from the reaction to his death.

Reeve was an accomplished stage actor, who achieved public prominence in the 1970s playing a shady character in the long-running soap opera Love of Life. He acquitted himself well in films ranging from the tangled murder mystery Deathtrap (1982), based on Ira Levin’s play (in which he shared an infamous onscreen kiss with Michael Caine) to the Merchant Ivory period drama The Remains of the Day (1993). But his only universally famous performance was in the lead role in Superman (1978), and its three progressively inferior sequels (1980, 1983 and 1987).

Reeve made the part of Superman his own, supplanting both the original comic book character and his near-namesake, the 1950s Superman actor George Reeves, in the public imagination. He was especially good at conveying Superman’s dual personality – on the one hand, Kal-El, the Man of Steel from the planet Krypton; and on the other hand, the superhero’s mild-mannered alter-ego, bumbling reporter Clark Kent. Comic book fans had long had to suspend their disbelief to accept that Superman could disguise his identity with just a pair of spectacles and a blue suit – but Reeve’s deft performance made this duality credible on the big screen.

Superman aside, Reeve’s film career was restricted to relatively low-profile roles. It’s especially poignant to see him in the horror movie remake Village of the Damned (1995) acting alongside Mark Hamill, who had similar difficulty capitalising on his blockbuster fame after he played Luke Skywalker in Star Wars. Had Reeve not been paralysed from the neck down in a horseriding accident in Virginia, in the same year as Village of the Damned was released, his obituaries would probably credit him as a minor actor with one significant role.

Reeve’s accident fractured the top two vertebrae in his neck and damaged his spinal cord, leaving him afflicted with quadriplegia for the remainder of his life – although defying expectation, he gradually regained some sensation and mobility in parts of his body. His injury revived the fame he had enjoyed during his heyday as Superman, but this time around he was famous for being a tragic figure. The cruel incongruity of a man best known for playing a superhuman being deprived of the basic human attribute of mobility captured the sympathy of a world which, during the 1990s, was increasingly enamoured of victim figures.

To his credit, Reeve resisted victimhood and was determined not to become an object of pity. While he admitted to contemplating suicide, he resolved to prevail over adversity. Establishing the Christopher Reeve Paralysis Foundation, he sought to fund treatments and cures for paralysis and to encourage disabled individuals who lacked his wealth and access to medical resources not to lapse into despair (1).

Equally to his credit, he became a public champion of embryonic stem cell research and therapy – the use of cells from human embryos to cultivate new cells, whose many potential uses include treating those with damage to their spinal cords – in a climate that was hostile to such scientific endeavour. Stem cell research remains subject to stifling regulation, and to spurious ethical objections revolving around fears of cloning.

In the USA, federal funding for stem cell research is restricted to existing stem cell lines, and is not available for the creation of new lines. This constitutes a de facto ban on significant progress in the field. In the UK, stem cell research is strictly regulated by the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority; scientists must apply for a license before conducting research and must guarantee to restrict their work to a laboratory setting (2).

But it’s difficult to argue with a severely handicapped celebrity, when he tells you bluntly that by restricting such research you are shutting off any possibility of alleviating his predicament.

While Reeve’s campaigning was laudable, as the breathless tributes to his activism flood in it is worth taking a more critical stance. It is a pretty sorry state of affairs when the plight of the handicapped has to be paraded so visibly before medical research can win public acceptance. This is also reflected in the work of organisations such as Seriously Ill for Medical Research (SIMR), which highlights the fact that restrictions upon animal research and genetic technology condemn chronically ill people to painful lives. SIMR’s founder Andrew Blake, for instance, died two years ago aged only 39, of the as yet incurable progressive genetic disorder Friedreich’s ataxia (3).

When medicine is impeded by emotive appeals to the welfare of animals and embryos, or by hostility to the idea of human intervention in the natural world, there emerges a tragic necessity to champion medicine in the same mawkish terms that are used to stifle it. The ordeal of individuals with severe disorders and disabilities is offered up as a riposte to prevailing concerns, as a competing claim on our emotional sympathies.

It is in this mawkish spirit that US president George W Bush has the gall to praise Reeve ‘for his dedicated advocacy for those with physical disabilities’, when it was Bush’s decision to restrict stem cell research in the USA to begin with (4).

The line about Reeve that is most often trotted out is that the man who once played Superman proved himself, in the face of tragedy, to be a real superhero. This makes for good copy on the occasion of Reeve’s death, but he himself had little time for this sentimental conceit. He once said: ‘It bothers me when people say, “you played Superman, now you are Superman”. They mean well, but they don’t know what I go through in the middle of the night.’ (5)

Reeve continued to act occasionally in wheelchair-bound roles, after his accident – for example in a remake of Alfred Hithcock’s Rear Window (1998), and memorably, as Clark Kent’s mentor Virgil Swann in two episodes of the Superman spin-off series Smallville (2003 and 2004). He also tried his hand at directing, and was directing a new film when he died (6). But we would do well to distinguish his respectable, though modest, achievements in film and TV from the misfortune that befell him in later life.

The best tribute we can pay to Reeve the actor is to enjoy his performances, in the Superman films and in his lesser-known efforts. The best tribute we can pay to Reeve the medical research campaigner is to remember the enormous number of debilitating medical conditions that lack a celebrity figurehead, and make the case for unimpeded medical research as an unqualified good.

Read on:

‘Animal research is the only hope for people like me’, by Brendan O’Neill

(1) See the Christopher Reeve Paralysis Foundation website

(2) See Embryonic stem cell research and therapy and Stop stemming the research, by Stuart Derbyshire; IVF babies: life chances, by John Gillott; Technologies for good and ills, by John Harris

(3) See Andrew Blake: a tribute, on the Seriously Ill for Medical Research website; ‘Animal research is the only hope for people like me’, by Brendan O’Neill

(4) Bush praises Superman star Reeve, BBC News, 12 October 2004

(5) Superman – and inspiring campaigner – dies, Oliver Burkeman, Tania Branigan and Sarah Boseley, Guardian, 12 October 2004

(6) See Animators seek director after Reeve death, Guardian, 12 October 2004

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Topics Science & Tech

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