Monday, January 02, 2006

A Word of Warning for Brandon Routh

It’s a Bird, It’s a Plane… It’s the Great Pretender?

George Reeves was 45 years old in 1959 when he was found dead in his home from a single gun shot. There was a lot of talk of foul play at the time, though the death was officially labeled a suicide. Depression over his typecasting as the Man of Steel and failure to find other work was the likeliest target, and rumors even spread that, in a drunken (or pain-killer) induced state, Reeves had mistakenly assumed he could fly and leapt from a tall building in a single bound. But over the years, many startling facts about the case have surfaced. One, that no fingerprints were found on the gun that fired a bullet into Reeves' right temple. Two, that the discarded shell was found under Reeves' naked corpse, difficult to explain in a suicide. Three, that Reeves had recently been the victim of a months-long harassment from mobster Toni Mannix, whose wife Reeves had had an affair with. Four, that the suicide occurred at a party at Reeves house, and the guests had waiting thirty minutes before alerting the authorities. And finally, five, that Reeves depression had ended and he was, according to friends, in the highest spirit in ages about his upcoming marriage to Lenore Lemmon and the decision by the producers to film another season of The Adventures of Superman after a three year hiatus, and thus unlikely to commit suicide at this time. In the 1980s, both costars Noel Neill (Lois Lane) and Jack Larson (Jimmy Olsen) revived the case with their claim that the man in the tights had been a victim of foul play. But whatever the actual events of his death are, they’ll most likely remain a mystery for evermore.

Now, let’s allow a quick aside to establish that synchronicity is already at work here. Bump back up and notice the name of Reeves' intended. Lenore Lemmon. Notice the alliteration of the double Ls? Well, any aficionado of the Big Blue Schoolboy worth his salts knows that all the significant people in Kal-El’s life sport that double L: from his first Smallville puppy love Lana Lang, to the lesser known ill-fated Atlantean Lori Lamoris, to his long time paramour and eventual wife Lois Lane. And, let's not forget, (and I suppose there are Freudian implications here) his number one arch enemy Lex Luthor. Reeves attraction to a real-world lover with the same name alliteration may have been an identification with his alter ego on a subconscious level, or a tip of the hat to the casual observer that the Universe is up to its old tricks again.

The next man to put on the tights was Christopher Reeve, who brought Superman to the silver screen in four adventures, two of them excellent and two of them abominable. But whether the plots supported or undermined his efforts, Reeve’s acting magically captured Superman for millions of moviegoers worldwide. No one could deny that Reeve was the character, born to play him with a dignity and humanity and small town naiveté that still defines the Last Son of Krypton to this day.

But then in May of 1995 (and here please note that 95 is the reverse of 59), Reeve’s thoroughbred, Eastern Express, pitched him forward during a cross-country and jumping “eventing” in Culpeper, Virginia. Reeves fractured his uppermost vertebrae in his spine, and was instantly paralyzed. Now, this writer has absolutely no interest in demeaning the dignity nor importance of the life that the late Christopher Reeve lead in his final decade prior to his accident. His work with the Christopher Reeve Paralysis Foundation was a tireless crusade worthy of a real life superhero, and work perhaps more meaningful and laudable than his previous career as an actor. (In fairness, Reeve was a dedicated activist before his injury and remained a consummate actor after it). But it can’t be glossed over that it was this injury which began the idle speculation that something supernatural existed called the Superman Curse. Of course, for Lois and Clark star Dean Cane, the only injury done to him after donning the red cape was to his career. Though it is worth pointing out that Dean Cane’s inicials are D C, the name of the Warner Communications subsidiary that has reigned over Superman’s exploits since his debut in 1938. (There’s that synchronistic thing with initials again.)

But leaving Cane aside, there’s a third player that can legitimately be linked with Metropolis’ favorite son who shares some very peculiar similarities with his two big screen predecessors. What played first as subtext and metaphor in the initial film was front and center in The Matrix Reloaded. Keanu Reeves, as Neo, the martial arts superhero chosen to be “the One,” stops bullets, leaps buildings in a single bound, and flies. In The Matrix, Keanu even exits the unlikely prop of an old style phone booth (long a staple arena for Clark Kent’s costume changes) before taking off into the sky. In the second film, Nebuchadnezzar crewmember Link strips the veil of subtlety away, proclaiming when asked about Neo’s whereabouts, “He’s doing the Superman thing again.” Neo’s aerial rescuing of his own Lois Lane, the leather clad Trinity, as she is falling off a skyscraper in the film’s climax is straight out of the pages of a hundred Action comics.

What is so striking however is that, if we count this metaphoric Man of Steel as one of only three big screen appearances of Superman, than the synchronicity between all three actors becomes unbearably obvious. All have the same last name, minus the S on one of them (S for Superman?). Reeves. Reeve. Reeves.

Interestingly, a quick Internet search for the etymology of the name Reeves returns the information that it is derived from the word reeve, and means a bailiff, provost or steward. In his Christ-like assumption of responsibility for the whole of humanity, both Superman and his computer-counterpart Neo certainly shine as the greatest steward the Earth has yet produced. But let us not dally on these minor synchronicities, mere breadcrumbs to lure us deeper along the path that lies ahead.

Like the inverse of our next subject’s own career path, we’ll be jumping out of Hollywood and into politics (dare I mention that DC initial again?) to pull a strange analogy from the life of an American President – that of Ron Reagan, who sports the double initial alliteration, and whose apparent nemesis was also a bald supervillain. Gorbachev even sported a James Bond evil genius-style scar on his chrome dome. And if one manages to suffer through Superman IV: The Quest For Peace, it becomes painfully obvious how the Kryptonian’s heavy-handed dealing with the nuclear proliferation of the Arms Race and the film’s feel-good ending mirrored (and was directly inspired by) Reagan’s gradual about-face transition from viewing the USSR as the “evil empire” to advocating a cessation of the cold war. More of the Reagan / Superman connection was made in Frank Miller’s landmark graphic novel, The Dark Knight Returns, but we’re concerned here only with the assassination attempt by lone gunman John Hinkley Jr.

But before we get there we have to go back to 1840, and an Indian Curse leveled on President William Henry Harrison. The legend is a fairly well known one. How the brother of the slaughtered native American chieftain Tecumseh cursed Harrison for the death of his sibling, proclaiming that if when he became the “Great Chief” Harrison would die the following year. He went on to proclaim that every twenty years, each person elected to the Highest Seat in the land would suffer a similar fate. True or not, on April 4, 1841 Harrison passed away due to pneumonia, the first US President to die in office. The Curse resurfaced two decades later when President Abraham Lincoln, elected in 1860, was shot by John Wilkes Booth in 1856. It returned to claim President James Abram Garfield. Elected in 1880, he failed to prove “faster than a speeding bullet” when he was shot the following year by Charles Giteau. Elected to his second term in 1900, President McKinley was shot by an unnamed assailant in 1881. Warren Harding died of a heart attach two years into his term, after being elected in 1920. In 1945, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt died in office of a cerebral hemorrhage. Elected four times, his third term began in 1940. If you believe the Warren Commission, it was another Lone Gunman that took the life of President John F. Kennedy. Elected in 1960. Died 1963. But by the Gipper’s time the Curse must have diminished in power. Elected in 1980, Ronald Reagan was shot in 1981 getting into his car by John W. Hinckley Jr. with a bullet that borrowed to within one-fourth of an inch of his heart. As 2000 came and went uneventfully, we can infer that Ancient Indian Curses have a potency of exactly 140 years, after which time they fade.

But what of our Costumed Crusader and the Curse that is supposed to follow those with the hubris to assume the role of this god among men? George Reeves died in 1959 by a gunshot to the head. Christopher Reeve suffered paralysis from the neck down from a horse-back riding mishap in 1995. And unlikely Buddha-figure Keanu Reeves? In a puzzling situation for the star of an action movie to be in, Keanu Reeves was actually seriously injured when he committed to filming the first Matrix film. Similar to Christopher before him, Reeves had suffered an injury to his cervical spine requiring surgery prior to his four months of intensive kung fu training. Whatever critics have to say about the depth of his performance, no one can fault this actor’s dedication. The one-third of a year exhaustive work with fight choreographer Yuen Wo-ping, as well as the actual filming of the fight scenes itself, was a risk that could easily have landed Keanu with permanent and serious injuries to his spine. One could almost suppose that, like the dwindling pattern breakdown of the Indian Curse that began with Harrison and fizzled out with Reagan, the Superman Curse that killed George Reeves and left Christopher Reeve a paraplegic made its play for Keanu Reeves and was rebuffed. With Superman Returns due from Warner Bros. in 2006, time will shortly tell if the Curse has finally run its course. But looking back on the long, strange screen-life of the most famous of comicbook icons, one wonders what infernal forces could orchestrate such a Sea of Synchronicity. One could even go so far as to speculate that we must be living in some unimaginably complex, artificial, scripted reality. Dare we say it? A Matrix perhaps...


A.R.Yngve said...

See? Frederick Wertham was right. Comic-books ARE dangerous for your mental well-being...

Jokes aside... doesn't Brandon Routh look a bit too young (dare I say "immature") for the role as Defender of the Earth?

Patrick Nielsen Hayden said...

I once shared a joint with Kirk Alyn, but I'm damned if I can figure out how to work that into the finely-woven fabric of your synchronicity.

Lou Anders said...

Thanks! A thread that didn't quite fit and thus was left unwoven: If one takes the S (for Superman) out of CURSE you get CURE, the focus of Christopher Reeve's later work.

Tim Akers said...

That's...bizarre. Just bizarre.

A.R.Yngve said...

Here's a thought: are superheroes becoming less or more relevant in this century?

(Consider: Almost ALL well-known superhero characters were created during three time periods: the 1930s, the 1940s and the 1960s.)

What do superheroes "mean" to young people today? I'm asking because I don't know the answer.

Lou Anders said...

Superheroes were spawned in the 30s, and the most famous one of all was a very deliberate answer to the Nazi ideal of "the superman."

For a long time, I've thought that my own favorite - the Batman - was becoming increasingly dated even while his arch nemesis - the Joker - became increasingly timely. The idea that someone like Batman could remain hidden and function in a surveilance society such as we are becoming is unlikely, and I'd love to see his brand of superheroism addressed in this light.

Finally, Grant Morrison maintains that comic book heroes have been jumping mediums, from pulp into comics, then comics to films and videogames, and he predicts that, in the 21st century, when bioengineering makes it possible, they will jump one more time - into the real world!

Sometimes I think this is a very silly thought, if a nice metaphor. Other times I'm not so sure.

A.R.Yngve said...

I can imagine that at some point, Batman will simply have to shed his obsolete "secret" identity and be all-Batman, all the time.

How can you be a vigilante if everybody knows who you are? If you were BORN anonymous, it might work ("Bruce Wayne, raised by gypsies, saw his parents get killed by a mugger")... or if you chose to live outside society in a remote cave... sounds like some bearded guy I read about in the news... ;-)

In the graphic novel THE FILTH (written by Gracious Grant Morrison), a nerdy rich guy makes an almost-successful attempt to transform himself into a real-life superhero. His heroic failure is both tragic and comical... but maybe he just didn't use enough bio-engineering.

Actually, Morrison's suggestion isn't impossible. It also has satirical possibilities. In Howard Chaykin's 1990s graphic novel POWER & GLORY, the U.S. Government creates a super-powered hero, A-Pex, solely for the purpose of propaganda. (That A-Pex isn't the least bit heroic is irrelevant -- image is everything. His spin doctor does all the hard work.)

I wrote a pulpy SF novel five years ago, where the military creates a "superhero" soldier -- partly as a propaganda machine, partly to win an interplanetary war. (It doesn't work out as planned.)

I think the biggest problem of creating a "superhero" isn't technical, but legal. If he or she has an identity, he can be held responsible for his failures -- and failures are going to happen. ("Ooops! I punched the giant robot and it fell on an orphanage!") The thing about comic-book heroes is that they can escape any legal trouble.