A Super Man: New Christopher Reeve Doc Shows How He Grappled With the Aftermath of His Tragic Accident

There’s an iconic scene in 1978’s “Superman” of Clark Kent, played by Christopher Reeve, spying Lois Lane dangling from a helicopter. He locates a revolving door, emerges as the Man of Steel, and soars upward and catches a falling Lane.

“Easy, miss, I’ve got you,” says Superman. Lane is still panicking. “You’ve got me? Who’s got you?”

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Superman smiles, offers a casual goodbye and flies off into the night, his forelock perfect. It’s the image the world held of Reeve until 1995. And that’s where Ian Bonhote and Peter Ettedgui’s new documentary, “Super/Man,” picks up a very different version of the hero’s journey.

Reeve is now paralyzed from the neck down after a fall from his horse. He cannot move, he cannot soar. His wife, Dana, tends to him and then talks of seeking out towels fresh from the dryer so she can get some of the warmth that she no longer can receive from her husband. The couple’s young son, Will, celebrates his third birthday party at his father’s hospital.

Remarkably, less than a year later, Reeve is on stage at the Oscars receiving a standing ovation. He teaches Will how to ride his bike, moving along with him and offering encouragement from his motorized wheelchair. In a way, Reeve became a superhero again.

Bonhote and Ettedgui’s film, premiering at the Sundance Film Festival, makes it clear that Reeve’s comeback came at a tremendous price. “His morning routine from waking up to being able to roll out the door was about two hours,” says Will Reeve, speaking to Variety via Zoom with his siblings Matthew and Alexandra. “We’d all wake up every morning and think anything could happen. But he would wake up and then remember all over again that he couldn’t move.”

Before his accident, Reeve wasn’t unkind, but he did his own thing. (In the film, Matthew notes his dad left to ski in France the day after he was born.) The actor had a cold poet father who didn’t approve of his movies and — legend has it — bought him Champagne mistakenly thinking he had been cast not as the superhero but in George Bernard Shaw’s “Man and Superman.” Reeve showed his love for his kids by taking them skiing and schussing to the bottom ahead of them. That all changed after his accident.

“Our love language was activity before,” says Alexandra. “Suddenly, you’re spending time just hanging out in dad’s office looking each other in the eye and talking for two hours.”

Neither Reeve’s children nor the filmmakers shy away from the fact that Reeve’s accident made him a better man.

“I think he was very conscious of that irony and the legacy of ‘Superman’ when people viewed his story and thought about him after the accident,” says Alexandra. “He talked about redefining what it is to be a hero… it’s an everyday person who survives despite overwhelming obstacles.”

Reeve didn’t just thrive; he became a mensch. He created, with Dana, a foundation that has raised hundreds of millions for research. And it wasn’t done alone — the documentary makes it clear that Reeve had financial resources available that others do not, but stresses it was his blended family of Dana, his ex-partner Gae and his three children that made his post-accident life possible. (Dana died of cancer in 2006.)

“Things came easily to him early in his life,” says Bonhote. “Then, as Christopher said, ‘The one minority anyone can become part of in an instant, is disability.’ I think that there was a genuine opening to the world around him on a different level. It would be facile to say, ‘Oh, this is a triumph over adversity story,’ but it is turning adversity into opportunity.”

Bonhote and Ettedgui, who collaborated on the 2018 critically acclaimed “McQueen,” had become tuned into the world of the physically challenged while making “Rising Phoenix” about the Paralympics games. They wanted to make a film about the terrible roadblocks that even a well-funded American legend faces when they find themselves disabled.

“Christopher said the one minority anyone can become part of in an instant is disability,” says Bonhote. “We’re not trying to re-write Superman but telling a story on how to approach an issue that society has turned its back on.” A quarter century after Reeve’s fall, opportunities and acceptance for the disabled have increased exponentially. Still, there is much more to do. “I am optimistic, but there’s still a long, long way to go,” says Ettedgui.

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