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Superman Grounded


Actor Christopher Reeve was a great Superman, which is why news that Mr. Reeve was seriously injured, and possibly paralyzed for life, in a horseback riding accident last week

comes as a bitter blow to his fans around the world.

I count myself among them. The Superman character, as portrayed on television and in the comic book series, was a formative influence on my childhood during the 1950s.

Like many actors who become famous for a single portrayal, Mr. Reeve often worried that he might become type-cast as the "Man of Steel." Yet he seemed so perfectly suited for the role, both physically and temperamentally, that inevitably the actor and the character came to seem virtually indivisible.

That apparent identity almost certainly made news of his devastating injury all the more shocking. One can carry any metaphor too far, of course, but for me, at least, Mr. Reeve's "Superman" image undoubtedly heightened the sense of unfairness and tragedy surrounding the accident.

I never met Mr. Reeve, but I nevertheless feel an odd indebtedness to the character he portrayed because of the role Superman played in empowering me during my early years. It's not too much of an exaggeration to say I might never have learned to read at all had I not become enthralled by the "Superman" comics at a tender age. A lifelong love of literature was born of a juvenile fascination with comic books.

Recently I tried to explain the influence "Superman" comics exerted on my childhood to a group of Baltimore elementary-school students. They listened politely but were mostly unmoved. The world I grew up in was too different from theirs, and the Superman myth doesn't resonate with today's youngsters as it did with my generation.

The Baby Boomers were the first generation raised on television, the first to grow up under the shadow of the bomb, the last to come of age in a nation divided by legally sanctioned racial segregation and an unquestioned ethos of white supremacy.

In retrospect, Superman now seems an emblem of pure transcendence, a concrete representation of the possibility of overcoming all the threats, barriers and temptations of a deeply troubled world whose menace our innocent childhood sensibilities could but dimly appreciate.

Every time Superman thwarted Lex Luthor's diabolical schemes, every time he saved the inhabitants of some distant planet from imminent destruction, every time he defended Lois Lane's honor without revealing either his identity or his love for her, it was for us a modern morality tale, an object lesson in the ultimate triumph of good over evil.

Of course Superman had his Achilles heel -- Kryptonite, an element produced in the explosion that destroyed Superman's native planet eons before the infant hero arrived on the farm of Ma and Pa Kent, his adoptive American parents.

Kryptonite was deadly to Superman, and the threat it represented formed the basis for many a tortured plot replete with criminal perfidy, betrayal and hairbreadth escape.

Only much later did we realize that Superman's invincibility was a metaphor for American economic and military might, that his curious relationship with Lois Lane evidenced a Puritanical sexual repression and that his unlucky vulnerability to Kryptonite was almost invariably a consequence of his own overreaching. It also became apparent that the all-white world Superman inhabited bore little resemblance to our own.

Still, the lessons we learn early stick with us. Years later, for example, I read that some psychiatrist claimed that men's fascination with flying stems from an unconscious, latent homosexuality. But it never affected my opinion of Superman -- or of Chuck Yeager for that matter.

Similarly, feminist deconstructionists today would skewer Superman's infantile attachments to women. But the same criticism could be applied to Dirty Harry or Davy Crockett. There's no such thing as a politically correct American hero.

Today's youngsters grow up with that awareness. Unfortunately, one consequence of their lack of innocence is too often a cynical rejection not only of the idea of heroism but of the values heroes are supposed to defend. They are prematurely jaded.

Mr. Reeve's genius as an actor was to make an admittedly childish but necessary ideal plausible once more. It was a task he accomplished with great good humor and panache. Despite the grim prognosis, I keep hoping he will somehow find a way to pick himself up and fly again.


Glenn McNatt writes editorials for The Baltimore Sun.

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