Friday, May 13, 2011

Thoughts on Smallville and its place in the Superman mythos

Smallville wraps up an impressive ten-season run tonight, and I must admit that I’m writing this entry partly because I want to, but largely because I feel like it’s expected. Anyone who’s read this blog for any length of time is probably aware of the fact that I’m an unabashed Superman fan. The first Superman movie is one of my all-time favorite films. I’ve got a complete run of Superman comics going all the way back to the John Byrne reboot in 1986, and since the beginning of 1989, there has not been a new issue that I haven’t bought the week it came out.

It’s also pretty well known I worship at the altar of Joss Whedon, and thus, am something of a fanboy for that WB/CW-genre of show. So you’d think a show that basically announced itself as Superman-meets-Buffy would have been appointment TV for me from the get-go, right?

Tell ‘em, Lex.

When I was growing up, occasionally I’d see articles by comic writers and editors, talking about how the George Reeves Adventures of Superman was their definitive Superman, and how even Christopher Reeve’s strong performance couldn’t displace that. I couldn’t really relate to that. For me, Reeve WAS Superman. George Reeves was fine for his day, but definitive? I just couldn’t see it. And it’s completely alien to me to think that Dean Cain could be fixed in anyone’s mind as the “true” Superman.

So when Smallville came along, I was only too happy to let the next generation have it. As I’m reminded whenever I wander over to some of the fan boards, I’m really not the audience for this show. When you have a fan base that hates the idea that Clark ends up with Lois and actively doesn’t care if he puts the Super-suit on, you’ve pretty much lost the thread.

I actually made it a point NOT to watch the show during its first season. I just couldn’t take seeing the adventures of a young Clark Kent being reduced to little more than a kryptonite-freak of the week adventure series. The early press basically made sound like they took the Superboy trappings, removed the costume, and put it in a Buffy Season 1 paradigm, only replacing “Hellmouth” with “kryptonite.”

The one time I did tune in, the episode turned out to be little more than a ripoff of that Lois & Clark episode where everyone gets drugged and horny for each other, which in itself was a rip off of “The Naked Now” episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, which, of course, was little more than a rip-off of Original Trek’s “The Naked Time.” Smallville’s take wasn’t all that interesting, and at least the Lois & Clark episode had the virtue of Teri Hatcher in her prime doing the Dance of the Seven Veils.

(You really CAN find everything on YouTube)

But the following season, the Powers That Be did the one thing that would get me to sample the show again, they brought in Christopher Reeve for an episode that actually suggested the story might point more directly towards the Superman mythos.

I started re-sampling the show and found it had gotten better. My initial feeling that I had trouble embracing it due to it not being close to continuity was disproven when Allison Mack’s Chloe Sullivan (a character unique to this incarnation) was actually the first character I took a shine to.

So I started watching the series semi-regularly and eventually regularly. Like any series there were strong episodes and weak episodes. The production value was generally strong, and the episodes often were entertaining – though occasionally too reliant on “borrowing” from popular feature films like The Hangover.

Season Three was generally enjoyable, while Season Four was abysmal, owing largely to a terrible main storyline that attempted to weave 17th Century witches into the main storyline. The purpose of this was either (a) to justify a strong focus on the Lana character by tying her to the mythology or (b) to justify an episode where the three female leads spent an episode possessed and dressed in skimpy goth-like corsets.

Both of those spoke to Smallville’s two major flaws. First, they’d bend the storylines and the concepts to service the Lana character, possibly one of the most irritating and unlikable characters to grace the WB and CW networks. But I don’t want to turn this into a rant about how the guys running a Superman show seemed more interested in telling stories about their pink princess Lana, so I’ll leave it at that.

The second flaw was that there was no amount of fan service that they wouldn’t stoop too. Erica Durance’s Lois was basically a cosplay Barbie for the producers and after a while it got a little ridiculous. And yes, Teri Hatcher got the same stuff during her time on Lois & Clark (see the earlier clip), but it felt like an even bigger crutch here.

I think the other Achilles Heel of the series was that it just didn’t know how to get the characters from A to B in the uber arc of the series. Lex Luthor started off as a good guy, but his path to evil wasn’t a very well-built road. He basically became a villain because the mythology dictated he was supposed to be evil. Around season 4, characters would suddenly talk about Lex as if he couldn’t be trusted. It was all telling and no showing – one of the series recurrent flaws.

Clark’s path was also equally problematic, particularly as they brought in other heroes like Green Arrow and Supergirl. In the Smallville universe, not only was Green Arrow the first hero to operate in costume, but he’s the one who formed and led the Justice League. The writers had a real opportunity to show Clark stepping up and becoming proactive by being the one to gather and unite all the heroes he’d met over the first few seasons, but instead he ends up just one more recruit for Arrow’s team. The Supergirl storyline showed a similar lack of forethought, as she not only had powers Clark hadn’t yet learned to use, but this season she made her public debut ahead of Clark’s Superman debut. This is a little like having Batman trained by Robin.

But in cases like that, the actors often showed an impressive ability to rise above the writing. Justin Hartley and Laura Vandervoort each had enough charisma to make their respective Green Arrow and Supergirl characters fun to watch, and pretty much all of the main cast performed strongly enough that even if you hated the plots, the actors could keep you engaged. That goes for Michael Rosenbaum, Erica Durance, John Glover, Annette O’Toole, John Schneider, Cassidy Freeman, Aaron Ashmore, and Callum Blue as well. It's this cast that has kept the show going for ten years, and I can understand how this generation will see them as the definitive incarnations of those characters.

But the underlying problem was still the overriding sense that Clark Kent had to be dragged to his destiny kicking and screaming. Clark never felt pro-active on his journey to Superman. No matter what he did, there was always someone there to tell him it wasn’t enough. Not only that, but it seemed like every aspect of the familiar Kent/Superman dual identity that we came to know is more or less thrust upon Clark by someone else. In the comics, Clark decides to do good, puts on a costume and goes to work publicly. On this show, he shies away from the spotlight while for years, hearing people tell him what he should.

It’s hard not to see a parallel between Clark and the actor who plays him, Tom Welling. Welling has said since the early years of the series that he’d never put the costume on. The early motto of the show was “no tights, no fights.” I get an actor’s reluctance to step into an iconic role that can lead to typecasting for the rest of their career. On the other hand, I think once you’ve played “Clark Kent,” the damage is done. The fact that you don’t actually put the cape on probably isn’t going to save you when you’ve become an entire generation’s conception of the Man of Steel.

But Welling and the producers have held to the line that this is not a show about being Superman, it’s about the journey towards Superman. The problem is that as a show that was expected to run for five years has now run twice that long, The iconic Superman settings eventually had to be accommodated. At a certain point, for the sake of Clark not seeming entirely wishy-washy and ambivalent about what he does, the cape has to come on. Clark and Welling have run from their destiny long enough.

There's a lot of talk about the costume making an actor look silly, but it doesn't have to. Dean Cain was an unconvincing Superman because he always seemed to be apologizing and overcompensating for the outfit. He'd puff himself up and speak in a put-on authoritative voice as Superman. Reeve took the opposite tact - "I just let the costume do the work." He wore it as casually as an old pair of jeans and THAT is what made him a strong Superman. Brandon Routh seemed to take the same approach, and I hope that it's something Welling learned.

And as Tom accepts the cape, perhaps old fogies (note: I am actually a few years YOUNGER than Welling) like me can make peace with the idea that for an entire generation, Smallville will be “the way Superman is supposed to be.” Tonight I’ll watch the finale to see how it all ends, and hope we reach the destination in a way that validates the journey.

At the end of the day, Smallville brought a new slew of fans into the Superman tent, so I can’t begrudge them their successes. They’ve got a lot to be proud of, and hopefully the creators don’t take it personally when guys like me say, “This isn’t the Superman I grew up with!”


  1. A great piece here. Here's what's always stumped me about the show, all the way from episode one:

    The way it's been structured, wouldn't Lex Luthor automatically know who Superman is immediately, whenever Clark Kent decides to put on the costume?

    It seems like a pretty central flaw. It confuses me that Millar and Gough didn't think of this when they shot the pilot. ;)

  2. Frankly, I don't think they ever foresaw the show lasting long enough for that to be their problem to deal with, and thus, didn't care about that.

    But, yeah, that's been a major issue for me too... and they way they're belatedly dealing with the glasses disguise in the last third of this season doesn't really work for me, but I didn't want to get off on that tangent.

  3. I'm not a huge Superman fan. So what really drew me to this show was Kristin Kreuk, who I have a huge crush on.

    Even though I'm also a huge Buffy fan I didn't like the monster of the week aspect of the show. And I haven't liked anything they have done since Lana left. The only thing I liked about the show (other than Kreuk) was Clark's relationship with his dad. But I think they have put too much distance between that relationship and him becoming Superman. Plus that distance was filled with uninteresting stories.

    I'm in my late 20s. So while I'm very aware of the Christopher Reeve Superman and he is largely what I think of when I think of the character, I don't hold it at the same level a lot of people do. But Smallville was mediocre that it won't define the character for me either. So I'm still waiting on someone to give me a definitive take on the character like Nolan and Bale did for me with Batman.

  4. I watched from the beginning, and then it became obvious that they wouldn't take any risks. Every time you thought a character would bite it, they didn't. Every time you thought Clark would fail to save the day, there was that swoosh noise and there he was. Nobody was ever in any real danger.

    Buffy was great because you never knew when someone you loved would die - they established that pretty early with Jenny Calendar - so you felt genuine concern for everybody.

    After two seasons I stopped worrying about any of the characters on Smallville. Then Chloe got blown up, and I HATED Chloe. So I thought okay, cool, they finally killed off a main character - and my least favorite! Yay!

    But this show took no risks, so I waited. I said to myself, if Chloe turns out to be alive after all I'm done. And sure enough, she wasn't really dead. And I haven't watched an episode since.

  5. Emily - I have to agree with you about the difference between Smallville and Buffy, re: risks. Buffy also had the benefit of a more distinct creative voice and a willingness to embrace unexpected developments over the season. With Smallville, you could often feel a season going off track, only to be awkwardly righted by the "telling, not showing." I believe this is what lead to the fan created limbo known as "Offscreenville."

    ("Hey, when did Lex suddenly turn evil?" -"Offscreenville.")